Health, safety and ethics are the new trifecta of HR’s mandate, says HR thought leader John Sumser. But, unlike many other aspects of the HR role—in which leaders are encouraged to take quick and decisive action—these are issues that can’t be rushed.
As workplaces around the world are in varying stages of reopening, and many are turning to long-term remote work, safety should remain a top priority, says Sumser, founder and principal analyst of HRExaminer.com. But, it’s important to take a holistic view of safety—one that encompasses physical, as well as mental, emotional and financial, as well as machine safety, or the impact of intelligent tools on the employee and organization.
That’s a tall order, especially given the still-unfolding pandemic. Sumser points to recent research that COVID-19 can set off conditions like diabetes in formerly healthy patients.
“We are going to be sifting through a whole generation of disability types and ideas in the wake of the pandemic,” he says. “We really don’t understand the consequences just yet.”
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As the pandemic’s impact on the workplace continues to evolve, technology will undoubtedly play a role. New technology to address the health and safety impacts of COVID-19 is already exploding, and Sumser predicts it will come in waves: physical health monitoring and screening, office traffic and control mechanisms, safety forecasting and, finally, workforce health assessment and monitoring.
“ERP systems, which are mostly a shell for an organization’s data, will falter as point solutions prevail,” he adds.
To make ethical and forward-thinking decisions about the tools in that increasingly crowded marketplace, Sumser advises HR leaders to follow five principles:
- Take your time. “Do not hurry,” he says. “Do not be bullied into hurrying.” Have an ethics review for reopening plans, and don’t demand employees take unnecessary risk—otherwise, you risk class-action litigation.
- Understand the bare-minimum requirement. Know what is expected at the moment and use that as your guide.
- Take a systems view. Never buy HR tech unless you understand the specific problem it solves—and what it doesn’t.
- Have perspective. Always ask yourself, Sumser says, if your technology decision-making is recreating the past or advancing the organization into the future.
- Know your back-up plan. Have a clear picture of what it will take to discontinue usage if you’ve made a mistake.
Navigating this evolving market will require HR leaders to lean on a slightly different set of skills than is traditionally expected. HR should get used to moving “slowly but surely” and continuously question assumptions. It’s also important to recognize that, in the new world of work, what might at first look like a problem could actually just be a new approach.
And, he adds, “when you take a risk, make sure that the risk falls on you before it falls on others.”
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