Since the start of the pandemic, working in HR has been a wild ride for many professionals. From switching to remote work and having to lay off or furlough employees, to figuring out how to engage and care for overworked staff, to safely navigating in-person operations and a return to the workplace, HR has had its hands full.
And while vaccinations offer hope for a return to pre-pandemic activities, HR continues to face a range of issues related and unrelated to COVID-19. Here are some of those top concerns, according to HR professionals from across the country, as well as how they plan to take them on.
Employee Mental Health
Sabrina Beaumont is the HR director at Passion Plans in Raleigh, N.C., a 30-person company that helps people build their own homes. She says what's keeping her up at night is her employees' mental health.
"The biggest issue I'm struggling with is trying to foster and nurture mental health among our employees," she said. "There are some who have gone through very mentally taxing experiences over the past year, including several who have lost family members to COVID-19."
Before the pandemic, she said, "we had a very strong, supportive family culture at the company, then everyone was forced to work from home. Now, I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through or how they must feel."
In response, Beaumont and her company have developed a plan: They're giving every employee an hour of paid time off each week to focus on mental health activities that are important to them.
"Whether it's spending time with family or volunteering, we've committed an hour per week of paid time to employees to do what they want," Beaumont said . "We don't want to tell them what they should be doing, but would rather leave it up to them to decide" what will benefit them the most, she said.
Hiring the Right Candidate
Pandemic or not, one of the toughest calls for an HR professional is recruiting and hiring the best job applicants. "Sourcing the right and well-deserved candidate for the company is crucial," said Veronica Fernandes, HR manager at Creative Media Technology, a digital marketing agency with 30 employees in Jamaica, N.Y. "For an HR manager, hiring is a task that comes with great responsibility. Choose the wrong candidate, and you'll end up facing numerous issues."
To ensure solid hiring matches in the current environment, Fernandes said she looks for employees who have proved they can telecommute effectively. "Hiring new candidates during these times has made us realize we need to hire people who are good at working remotely, so we check for a certain skill set that is most beneficial in remote work."
Fernandes said she has targeted candidates with a track record of solid communication, good time management and strong listening skills, a combination that has worked well so far.
Finding qualified talent has also been a challenge for Jim Hefti, HR vice president at Advanced Technology Services in Peoria, Ill. With 3,100 employees, his company specializes in outsourced industrial maintenance services.
"The issues keeping me up at night these days are the same issues that have caused many sleepless nights for the past several years: the shortage of skilled workers," Hefti said. "Maintenance technicians comprise nearly 80 percent of our total employee population, and they are getting harder to find every year."
To identify strong candidates for his positions, Hefti is looking first at his current talent pool. "We are investing in developing our maintenance technicians internally," he said. "There are a lot of people who have a mechanical and electrical aptitude, but just haven't been developed. Our goal is to hire individuals who have the right culture fit and then help them develop their skills through the 70/20/10 development model (70 percent on-the-job training, 20 percent mentoring, 10 percent classroom training)."
Acclimating New Team Members
Transitioning to remote work may have gone smoothly for veteran employees, but it can pose challenges for many new hires, said Sharon Rosen, human resources director at Antenna Group in New York City. She said one of her challenges is "how to best support employees who are just joining the workforce or who only worked in [the] office for a short period of time before moving to remote work."
An integrated PR and marketing agency with 80 employees, Antenna Group is launching a mentorship program to connect new and recent hires with senior leaders. "The goal of this program is to provide mentorship, advice and encouragement to growth-stage staff and guide them on soft skills, such as interpersonal skills, communication, time management, listening and accepting feedback," Rosen said.
The firm also is creating a kickstart program, which is a monthly open forum for all employees to hear from leadership team members on a rotating basis. "This will include an opportunity for new and existing staff to submit anonymous questions and converse candidly with the leadership team," Rosen said.
Returning to the Workplace
Now that vaccine distribution is widespread, "the idea of returning to the office is becoming more real. But based on what I'm hearing from friends, family, on social media and in online networking groups, there's going to be pushback," said Katrinka Duckworth, Torrance, Calif.-based HR manager at Ogletree Deakins, a labor and employment law firm with more than 2,000 employees. Duckworth said she is worried because there have already been some mistakes at her firm and others as they try to navigate the hybrid work environment. In addition, she said some teams are not working as efficiently as they were before the pandemic.
"When deciding how to move forward, we have to ask, 'Are we truly serving our clients to the best of our ability in a fully remote environment?' " she said. " 'Would a partially remote workplace work better? Do we offer rotational schedules? Are there positions that must be performed in the office?' "
To address these concerns, Duckworth has implemented several steps that she said are giving her more confidence moving forward and may be useful to other HR professionals.
"If you haven't developed a plan with a few scenarios already, now is the time to get started," she advised. "The first step is to make an assessment of the workplace needs. Once you make a decision on how to move forward, communicate that decision to your employees as soon as practicable so they can make plans to adjust to the change. Be sure to share some of the reasoning behind the decision to give them some understanding. And be sure to share what the new normal will look like."
Difficulties with New Managers
Managers who were promoted during the pandemic from being individual contributors deserve a special focus, said Alison Pearson, head of HR at Hal Waldman & Associates in Pittsburgh, a personal injury law firm. She said what she's struggling with most is the attitude of newly promoted managers.
"They are not exercising the skill of emotional intelligence [EQ] when leading their teams, which in turn is creating conflict within their teams," she said. "A manager with low EQ may not realize that they are displacing frustrations onto their employees because they are not communicating their frustrations effectively, therefore causing conflict with their employees."
To help resolve these issues, Pearson is offering training for managers on what EQ is and how to develop and implement high EQ when addressing opportunities for improvement with employees. "I think that once they understand they need to work on managing their emotions within the workplace, this will in turn promote a culture of respect and transparency whenever stress increases," she said.
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.