HR Managers Rethink Their Role During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Nicole Lewis April 22, 2020
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​The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted organizations and caused human resources managers to think differently about their role as they adjust to social distancing practices and a new work environment that they may ntake the pollever have imagined.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, companies have switched to a remote work model at a rate and scale they've never experienced. As face-to-face collaboration is replaced with e-mail and videoconferencing, HR managers have to do difficult work under difficult circumstances. 

Not only are HR professionals concerned about employees' health and well-being during the pandemic, they are also under the strain of processing the paperwork and providing solace to the millions of workers who have been laid off or furloughed. For employees still on the job, HR managers are trying to keep their workers productive, motivated, engaged and connected—all factors that are moving targets in the new normal.

Activision Blizzard, a video game company based in Santa Monica, Calif., has moved 99 percent of its 10,000 employees (except janitorial, security and other essential staff) to remote work.

"We had a remote-work policy, but, as you can imagine, it was not designed to handle a situation where everybody would work remotely while experiencing the crisis we are in right now," said Claudine Naughton, chief people officer at Activision Blizzard. "Our remote policy could not have anticipated that hospitals and health care would be difficult to access as schools and other supporting services have closed. Our policy was not structured to support working from home while employees would be dealing with health-related challenges or caring for their kids or other dependents."

The company swiftly implemented updates to its remote-work policy to offer different work hours and provide a kind of flexibility that the company had never proposed to its workers before.

"Our technology teams worked quickly to create solutions, buy equipment and provide access to our systems remotely," Naughton said. "These arrangements provide temporary solutions for teams of employees that normally need to work together in producing a game, such as animators, developers, sound technicians. The company also empowered managers with the autonomy to work with direct reports to create schedules that best accompanied their work-from-home lives."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Employees, and the CEO specifically, also wanted to rethink the company's approach to employees' health care. That resulted in the company investing in approaches that are more forward-thinking than the standard duty of care, Naughton said.

"The first thing we did was we said we've got to look at everything through the employees' lens, and first and foremost is the health and well-being of the employees and their families," she said.

The company contracted with physicians in cities where workers are based to ensure that a doctor is quickly available to provide care, as well as to advocate for them if they become ill and need to visit a hospital. The company covers any testing and treatment costs associated with COVID-19 for employees and their families.

Activision Blizzard also established online resources and telehealth services.

"Our internal benefits team has begun a 'white glove' service for employees, should they need it, to help connect them with any of our resources so they get assistance quickly. We also provide manager resources for leaders to help keep their teams focused and connected and have encouraged daily touch point meetings, virtual coffee breaks and more frequent organizational meetings," Naughton said. 

The company has also revised its contingency plans to include scenarios such as the possibility that workers with specific capabilities and skills may be absent.

"This is very different than the normal HR hiring issues where you know what your attrition or your absentee rate might be like based on previous historical trends," Naughton said. "In this crisis we are forced to ask the question: Should we start to hire over capacity for some of those critical capabilities to guarantee that we have the skillsets on hand?"  

Remote Work May Become Permanent

Even before the coronavirus pushed remote work to its limits, virtual work was on the rise. The number of people telecommuting in the U.S. increased 159 percent between 2005 and 2017, according to data from Flexjobs. The data also shows that 4.7 million people in the U.S. currently telecommute, up from 3.9 million in 2015.

Already there are studies that reveal that organizations want more of their onsite employees to continue to work remotely after the pandemic passes. This shift will come with its own HR challenges.

"We will see more people working remotely after the coronavirus ends," said Erin Makarius, associate professor of management at the University of Akron in Ohio. "Therefore, the skills that are utilized during this time will likely continue to be built and developed. One of the strengths of the [HR professional] is building relationships, and I think the challenge is how to continue to build those relationships as the nature of work changes and as the nature of the HR role changes."

Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston, said that HR should remember that the current increase in remote work shouldn't be considered normal; usually, parents don't have to care for children while working from home.

"Right now, we are going through essentially a societal crisis, and HR managers should be mindful that this is not remote work as usual," Larson said. 

Usually companies train workers on how to be productive while working from home, and employees opt in to that kind of work. "None of that has happened here."

Companies that can't manage a smooth transition to remote work may pay a price, said Megan Buttita, research director, emerging trends in talent acquisition at Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC.

"This new situation is going to really shake out those companies that are micromanaging work and people in this new virtual environment. It will play a part in attracting and retaining talent down the road."

Buttita added that depending on how HR managers handle the crisis, workers are going to publicize companies' actions and reactions on Glassdoor and other open forums. They'll talk about whether "they felt trusted, supported and had the right technology to do their jobs. Companies that did not have the things to support their workers will have negative reviews written about them, and they will struggle to survive and attract talent moving forward."

Lisa Rowan, research vice president for HR, talent, and learning strategies at IDC, said the most successful companies will use technologies, whether text messages, video conferencing or e-mails, to communicate with remote employees. Convey messages that show empathy, build trust and relate to workers who are now in a different work setting.

"HR managers have to let employees know that they know they are at home with their family, that they are stressed because the kids are trying to get their attention while they are working, and that the company is there for them. HR managers' number one job right now is to keep people up-to-date, be reassuring and build trust," Rowan said.

While previous tactics and strategies will continue to be a part of HR managers' toolkit to efficiently manage employees, Activision Blizzard's Naughton sees a bigger shift taking place in the wake of the coronavirus that will fundamentally change the role of HR professionals.  

"What has changed the most for HR professionals and the role that they will play moving forward is that, in our world, the focus tended to be on pay. Now I believe health and wellness benefits are going to be a game changer," she said. "Our entire health care system, particularly in the U.S., is going to evolve with the private-sector and the public-sector communities working to fix what seems to be a relatively broken system. That's going to change the role of HR professionals in the foreseeable future."


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