Viewpoint: Managing HR in a Socially Distant World

By Secret Holland July 16, 2020
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Viewpoint: Managing HR in a Socially Distant World

​Leading the human resources team for a large company always presents unique challenges, so it's easy for longtime veterans of the industry like me to feel like we've seen it all. One of the most sobering aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is understanding that while we have experienced some temporary disruptions in the past due to health crises, the current crisis is truly unprecedented and requires a level of care and attention to detail that far surpasses any other obstacle HR professionals have had to face in modern U.S. history.

One of the key takeaways I learned from managing employees during pandemics of the past is that the speed with which information travels is faster than ever, so it's up to HR teams to have plans and responses ready to ease employees' concerns. For example, during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, I was receiving constant questions from employees who were following the news cycle and instantly trying to translate how that news would directly affect them; they had a clear and understandable focus on protecting themselves and their families. While the impact of H1N1 never reached the levels of the current COVID‑19 pandemic on our society, it certainly prepared us for the types of questions employees would ask in the face of the next pandemic.

Based on the early information and data we saw about the extremely contagious nature of COVID‑19, the primary questions we anticipated surrounding the emerging pandemic were about workplace safety. According to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), two-thirds of employers had an emergency preparedness plan, but less than half of those plans addressed communicable diseases. To ensure our team was prepared for what became an inevitable work-from-home directive, we held a mandatory remote workday on March 11 to test our operations and identify any weaknesses that needed to be addressed in the event we had to shift to a full-scale teleworking scenario—which ultimately became the new normal just one week later. Our proactive approach paid off, as we had zero COVID-19 cases among our roughly 230 employees.

As we work diligently to strategize ways to safely bring our workforce back to the office, it's also important that we, as HR professionals, look at new data and make informed recommendations. The natural instinct for most companies right now is to try and get everyone back to normal, but what if this pandemic has changed what normal should be for some organizations?

After conducting a pulse survey, we were struck by the number of employees who expressed that the primary shortcoming in their work-from-home setting was the lack of a second computer monitor. This problem was easily solved by ordering an additional monitor for roughly 80 employees and having the monitors delivered directly to their homes, a short-term expenditure that paid dividends in productivity and employee satisfaction.

As simple as this was to execute, it stemmed from a critical step HR leaders have to keep top of mind during both normal and abnormal times: Ask your employees what they want and need to be successful.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

When it comes to efficiency, our work-from-home operation has yielded some surprising results, especially for our customer care team. While there was initially some concern that customer care would suffer disruptions from having only a "virtual" call center, the opposite has been true. In fact, a member of our leadership team said that in over 30 years of running customer service operations, April marked the first month in his career that he didn't have to address with a single employee disciplinary issues due to attendance.

Given this revelation, should we permanently move our customer care representatives to teleworking? We certainly don't have enough data yet to come to that conclusion, but again, these are ideas we should be open to as we chart the best path forward for our employees and organizations.

Most of us pursued careers in HR because we value human connections and recognize the importance of building relationships to establish successful teams. While we have all learned to adapt to video calls and other digital touch points, it's inevitable that something is lost. It's admittedly harder to build new relationships remotely, and we likely lose 10 percent to 15 percent of the spontaneous collaborations that occur when employees are in the same space. After all, a team of 230 individuals largely working physically together is different from 230 people working toward the same goal from 230 different places.

"In particular, maintaining accessible, accurate and useful information along with emphasizing the 'human' needs in human resources are crucial to providing effective employee support," said William Smith, HR generalist for ExecuSource, a finance, accounting and IT staffing firm.

Smith noted that "our evolving understanding of the virus, new laws and the need to socially distance ourselves have forced employers to find new ways to deliver these services. Flexibility, creativity, compassion, soliciting employee input, identifying authoritative yet accessible information sources, and the ability to proof-of-concept test new processes will be vital tools in our ability to support employees," he said.

Deciding how we manage our human capital in a socially distant world—where information is changing rapidly—is admittedly a significant challenge for HR professionals at any organization. That is why it's more critical now than ever to put people first, wherever that leads us. 

Secret Holland is Gas South's vice president of human resources and community affairs and a member of SHRM.

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