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The Pandemic Has Expanded the Role of HR

The coronavirus pandemic not only expanded HR's corporate influence, but also led to a renewed focus on employees.

​If HR didn’t already have influence in the C-suite before the pandemic, it does now.

Above: Naveen Bhateja, Chief people officer and executive vice president, Medidata Solutions, New York City, 3,000 employees

“The week that trillions of dollars of market value came out of the global economy because people could not work and consume and live normally—that really ended any debate over the value of HR to the enterprise,” says John M. Bremen, managing director of human capital and benefits at Willis Towers Watson. “HR’s seat at the table was solidified permanently.”

The COVID-19 pandemic threw employers and employees into chaos and uncertainty, with no clear end in sight. HR operated in crisis mode for much of 2020 and the first half of 2021, figuring out how employees could work from home, trying to provide extra mental and physical health support, and working more than ever on C-level strategies for keeping their organizations functioning. As the dust continues to settle and companies adjust to a new normal, the role of HR has fundamentally changed. 

Naveen Bhateja, chief people officer and executive vice president of Medidata Solutions, believes that HR’s elevated status is here to stay. “HR has cemented its position as the right hand of the CEO, helping navigate complex people-centric challenges,” he says.

Putting the ‘Human’ Back in HR

In many ways, the pandemic renewed the emphasis on the people part of HR’s job. 

“One of the lessons of the pandemic is that we have to put the ‘human’ back into human resources,” says Brian Kropp, group vice president and chief of research in the HR practice at Gartner. HR needs to “understand the life experiences employees are going through, to support them not just in their experience as workers but in their lives,” he explains. 

Although the HR department is still responsible for the performance, productivity and efficiency of the workforce, Kropp says, “our bigger job is to understand the challenges our employees face, what they are struggling with inside and outside of work.”

When employees sense that support, they report a positive impact on their well-being. Specifically, they are more likely than employees at other companies to say their employer has had a positive impact on their mental health (a 23-percentage-point difference), sleep (23-point difference), physical health (17-point difference) and financial wellness (4-point difference), according to Gartner research. And happier, healthier employees are good for business, Kropp notes. 

Globality, a company based in Menlo Park, Calif., that sells artificial intelligence software for sourcing services, has seen this type of positive change occur. The pandemic prompted the 270-employee firm to shift its HR focus from technology, policies and procedures to people, says CHRO Sonia Mathai. It now focuses more on maximizing each employee’s individual strengths rather than addressing shortcomings. Consequently, “we saw productivity shoot through the roof,” Mathai says. The engineering department, for example, doubled the number of software releases last year, she notes. 

The increased focus on employees as multidimensional people often comes from the top, according to Kropp. “Senior executives are realizing it’s incredibly important to get a holistic view of employees in order to support them effectively,” he says. Leaders are working with HR to do so.

“I didn’t need COVID to appreciate the importance of the HR professional,” says Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer Inc. “HR is one of the most critical functions in a corporation, and I’ve always believed that. It’s a function I get personally involved in.

“HR has always been important,” he continues, “but in this new world of flexible work and with new opportunities and challenges, there is an opening in front of us where, professionally, [HR] has to define and develop new skills and processes to optimize what is expected of them—and that’s to make sure the human capital of a corporation is seriously engaged and inspired and believing. It’s productive to feel joy. We need to find ways to make sure that is happening.” 

Prism Hotels' Utility Players Step Up 

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Prism Hotels & Resorts faced a dire situation. The hospitality business plummeted overnight. The Dallas-based company, which manages dozens of hotels, had to lay off 45 percent of the roughly 4,500 workers at its properties. And yet Prism needed to keep as many hotels open as possible, especially the “select service” hotels with limited amenities (like continental breakfast rather than room service or a full-service restaurant), where business was holding up better than at the high-end hotels. 

As the pandemic continued, Prism’s portfolio grew by 18 more hotels. Banks were foreclosing on hotel owners and coming to Prism for help to keep those hotels running.

“Beginning in [summer 2020], we started getting calls from these lenders,” says Mitra Van, managing director at Prism, who has been with the company since 2003 in a variety of senior roles, including in HR, payroll administration, compliance, operations and business development. “So we had to try to recruit more [hotel workers].” That proved difficult. The stimulus payment from the federal government and beefed-up unemployment support discouraged hourly workers from returning to the workforce, she says.

So the company created a new role: utility player. Prism’s organizational structure was always nonhierarchical, but this flattened it even more. Employees were expected to be ready to perform any duties, wherever needed. And that extended to everyone—from the C-suite down.

“This was the only way we could keep the hotels open and stop the bleeding from our owners’ pockets,” Van says.

In March 2021, it was all-hands-on-deck when a hotel hosting an influx of guests was left shorthanded after temporary workers failed to show up. “We had 180 arrivals,” Van says. “Everyone from our corporate office was there cleaning rooms, changing sheets, vacuuming.”

The business travel market is expected to return slowly, so Van expects the need for staff flexibility will continue. “Until the market returns,” she says, “we’re going to continue to field our utility players.” —T.H.

Increased Support

The events of the past 18 months have led companies to focus on employee health and well-being on many levels—how workers feel, where they sit and whether they are vaccinated, among other things.

HR professionals have long tended to employees’ physical and mental health, but now they’re being more proactive about it, says Bryan Hancock, a partner and the global leader of McKinsey & Co.’s talent management practice. That means noting how employees feel as well as developing skills to detect problems early and to help. 

Doing so requires HR to demonstrate more emotional intelligence, notes Holly Maurer-Klein, SHRM-SCP, a vice president at HR/Advantage Advisory in Pittsburgh. “I think it’s going to change what companies look for in HR professionals,” she says.

It also requires renewed attention on the employee experience, which remote work has changed dramatically. Hancock advises HR to concentrate on particularly important inflection points, which he calls “moments that matter.” 

For example, employees hired in the past year may have never come into the office or met their boss and co-workers in person. Maurer-Klein notes this reality is calling out for new kinds of mentorship programs, like matching new hires with an established employee they can talk with every day to become better acclimated to the company’s culture. 

Another important employee experience that has become more complicated is having “tough conversations,” Hancock says. Before the pandemic, a manager who needed to discuss a problem or deliver bad news might have had a private, one-on-one conversation with an employee in the office. That may no longer be possible in a remote- or hybrid-work environment, and video calls leave something to be desired, with intimacy lacking and body language hard to detect. HR will need to figure out how to handle such situations and train managers on new models. 

Employees’ mental health has also been top of mind for employers lately. The HR team at Sedgwick, a global provider of tech-enabled risk, benefits and business solutions based in Memphis, Tenn., instituted several new practices as a result, according to Michelle Hay, global chief people officer at the company, which employs 27,000 people. For example, managers were trained to check in frequently with workers about their health and well-being. And to alleviate stress for staff members handling claims for clients’ employees who contracted COVID-19, Sedgwick’s chief medical officer held special sessions for these workers. The sessions gave people a chance to talk about their anxiety and provided tips for easing it.

Employers began paying more attention to employees’ lives outside of work as well. For example, at Medidata, which is a New York City-based company with 3,500 employees that provides a cloud-based platform for clinical medical trials, Bhateja encouraged his staff “to think about a day in the life of an employee,” from the moment they awoke to the time they went to bed, as a guide to determine what help the company could provide. One initiative to come out of this experience was the decision to provide employees free access to an app called Task Human that offers resources such as life coaches, yoga instructors and nutritionists. Employees can book free one-on-one appointments at their convenience.

 “We realized that everybody’s situation was so unique and different, and it was impossible for [HR staff] to be available to every single employee for every single personal conversation,” Bhateja says.

Companies also increased their focus on racial and social inequities that events of the last year brought to light, Hay says. At Sedgwick, HR professionals talked with employees about how they felt and developed training to help identify and eliminate bias.

HR has also become responsible for where people work as well as how they do that work, especially at home, Kropp says. This includes coaching them on how to minimize distractions and work more effectively. It also could include providing guidance on how to set boundaries so employees don’t end up working too much, which could lead to mental and physical problems. These kinds of issues not only are bad for the employee but also could have legal ramifications for the employer. If someone develops back problems from sitting too long without taking a break, “is that because [the employer] created an unsafe workplace for them?” Kropp asks. “We’re going to find out at some point.” 

In addition, HR has had to keep up with fast-changing health guidance and requirements. During the pandemic, HR professionals had to quickly learn how to follow and implement official guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on sanitization and social distancing. In 2021, their focus turned to vaccinations.

That is yet another sign of HR’s rising importance, Bremen notes. “HR is now in charge of vaccine strategy,” he says. “That’s critical and central to business strategy.”

Destigmatizing Mental Health Issues

Even before the events of the last year, workplace mental health had become an important topic in the U.S., according to Kelly Greenwood, founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focused on destigmatizing mental health in the workplace and providing businesses with training and strategic advice on how to do so. “Up to 80 percent of Americans will have a diagnosable mental health condition like depression or anxiety at some point in their lives, whether they realize it or not,” she says. “And this has unfortunately gone up in the last year as a result of the pandemic, the divisiveness of the U.S. election, civil unrest and climate change.” 

All that sparked more interest in Mind Share’s services and urgency from potential clients. When the pandemic hit, the attitude went from “we’ll think about it for six months” to “we need this yesterday,” Greenwood says. 

Lots of companies rushed to increase mental health benefits, but the ones that were most serious about addressing the issue also examined their cultures and attitudes. “While important, mental health benefits are table stakes,” she explains. “If the culture isn’t there, if it isn’t supportive of mental health, folks won’t take advantage of those benefits because of stigma.” 

She offers leaders and managers three tips for fostering a culture that is supportive of employees’ mental health:

Be vulnerable and authentic. That may mean sharing your own personal experience with mental health issues. Even telling people you’re having a bad day because your kid threw a tantrum that morning shows your humanity and encourages others to be more open.

Model mentally healthy behavior. Demonstrate healthy work/life boundaries by telling employees you won’t respond to e-mail after a certain hour, for example. “It’s one thing to say that’s important, but if a manager or leader isn’t actually doing that, employees are not going to feel free to log off,” Greenwood says.

Be curious about your employees, but don’t assume anything. While managers should be proactive about checking in with employees, they should be careful about jumping to conclusions. If someone’s tired, it could be a sign of depression—or a consequence of binge-watching Netflix. Be careful not to pry, Greenwood says. Rather, “just name what you’re seeing and ask open-ended questions. You don’t want people to feel like they’re being forced to disclose something they don’t want to.” —T.H.

New Ways of Working

HR is a key participant in figuring out how people can function best in their new post-pandemic environment, be it onsite, hybrid or 100 percent remote. That requires flexibility, adaptability and creativity—for HR professionals as well as employees.

“It used to be you’d have a couple of months to write a policy, then you’d have to get it vetted through three layers,” Maurer-Klein says. “With COVID-19, you needed to come up with a policy and get it approved in three days.”

That pace and need for innovation will continue even as companies settle into a new work environment. “It’s not just a return to work,” Hancock says. “There are whole new ways of working with speed and agility.”

HR can play a central role in determining what worked well during the crisis and building on that to create competitive advantages. For example, a company might downsize headquarters and create regional hubs that can tap fresh sources of talent, Hancock says. In that scenario, HR has to figure out how the hubs will work with headquarters, how the work is coordinated and so on. An important consideration, according to Hancock, is what kinds of systems and processes you need to have in place to ensure smooth workflows and communications.

It’s critical to understand how the company wants to function, both culturally and operationally, moving forward, Bremen says. For instance, how do you balance lower real estate costs with the time, effort and cost required to enable remote work? And does HR train managers to supervise remote workers effectively? 

“That’s more than a staffing function,” Bremen says. “That’s a complex, multilayered operational challenge.”

It’s also one that falls squarely on HR. “With flexible work and this new world of opportunities and challenges opening in front of us, HR needs to find and develop employees with new skills and find and develop new processes to optimize what is expected from them,” Pfizer’s Bourla says.

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Kathleen M. Sullivan, SHRM-SCP, CHRO of the law firm Clark Hill, is in the midst of dealing with such challenges. The firm has 1,200 employees in 25 offices across the U.S., plus offices in Dublin and Mexico City. Clark Hill had been thinking about updating its processes to improve workflows before the pandemic hit, and the public health crisis helped the firm learn what worked and what didn’t. Traditionally, legal administrative assistants sat outside attorneys’ offices and handled client interactions, scheduling and document creation. When everyone went remote, that support structure didn’t work.

As it prepares to bring workers back to the office, the law firm is implementing a new workflow solution, Sullivan says. “COVID served to fast-forward our design of the workplace of the future,” she says. “Being forced into remote work created more flexibility and is helping us drive forward some change management that will help our organization in the long run.” Meanwhile, expiring leases in San Francisco and Los Angeles created a chance for the firm to reduce office space (and costs) and try a hybrid model. 

Sedgwick is rethinking the purpose of the office as well, Hay says. The kind of space workers return to will have a big impact on the employee experience, she says, adding, “I believe we’ll see a transition into more of a hospitality focus in offices.” That means not only collaboration spaces but also coffee shops and tech bars, which Hay believes will lure workers back onsite. 

Intelligent Fiber Network, a business telecommunications provider based in Indianapolis, had already purchased a new building in 2019, and the pandemic provided insights that guided the building’s renovation, says Susan Hofer, SHRM-SCP, former vice president of HR and communications at the company, which has 85 employees. Although company leaders had already planned to have integrated conference rooms and the ability to quickly connect laptops to the network, such features became “need to have” rather than “nice to have,” she notes. 

Last year, Bhateja created a new position at Medidata: a vice president responsible for the future of work. Her job is to scale up what the company needs post-pandemic, including the physical environment, technology and workforce skills, Bhateja says. 

How companies enable and adapt to the new work environment is key to their gaining a competitive advantage and to their ability to attract and retain the right talent, Bremen says. “The companies that do this well will likely have more access to talent than those that don’t,” he says. “It’s a multivariant calculus that is very different from anything HR has tackled in the past.”  

  Get tips on improving the employee experience at

Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Photographs by Adam Lerner (Naveen Bahteja), Chandler Crowell (Kathleen M. Sullivan) and courtesy of Prism Hotels and Resorts.