Dear HR: Insights from Business Leaders During COVID-19

Dear Human Resources Manager, the pandemic has been a big overwhelming experience, hasn’t it? When most people first heard about COVID-19, it seemed like it couldn’t possibly make it to American soil and impact our organizations the way it has done so swiftly. What a dreadful surprise to many when it started affecting the lives of our employees, our customers, and our communities. 

How are you holding up? Having to adjust to the “new norm” of each week’s challenges has to be stressful indeed, and from the outside it looks as if you are maintaining things. But maybe on the inside you are ready to boil over from having to answer one more question about an employee’s unemployment claim or having to find a reliable remote contractor to take on a temporary role until all this blows over. Even worse, planning for all the changes that will take place as employees come back to jobs in-house. 

In this letter to you, we want you to know that we see you. We also have some ideas about what work life will be like in a post-pandemic world. This experience has forever changed and shaped the corporate world. There’s no doubt some good has come out of it even during the hardest times. There have been triumphs and people have overcome some pretty insane circumstances. There have been deep losses. But in the aftermath, we have a chance to rebuild the workplace into what we envision it can be. 

With this in mind, we talked with leaders across various markets — to gain their insight from that high level perspective of business. 

HR is Appreciated 

One of the recurring comments we heard from leaders around the country was that the entire human resources community is appreciated. From putting their own personal lives on the backburner to making sure continuity happened, perhaps no one summed it up better than Joseph Dicianno, Ph.D., MBA, Manager of Talent Management and Organizational Development at world-renowned health care provider and insurer, UPMC, and author of the upcoming book The Busy Leader’s Guide to Caring Leadership said, “HR has had to play many roles throughout this pandemic.  First, they have had to handle their own personal response to the events happening over the past few months.  Like everyone else, they may have had to deal with uncertainty or job loss because their industry came to a screaming halt. They had to adjust to their new workplace guidance whether it be transitioning to remote work or reporting to work as “essential employees” to support an industry that was essential.” 

The ability to be flexible and responsive in the face of a crisis is a recurring reason so many leaders appreciate human resources even more now. Lori Smith, VP of Team and Talent Development at hc1 a leading cloud-based high-value care platform for healthcare organizations looking to personalize care and reduce waste, told us,”throughout the pandemic, HR has had to act accountable, collaborative and agile, making swift transitions from working together in an office one day to 100% remote almost overnight. HR teams have had to consider the impact that maintaining a sense of routine would have on the success of businesses, so rather than pausing engagement and performance initiatives, it was important to acknowledge the impact HR has on teams and the increased support that would be needed to provide.”

HR Rose to the Challenge

The business challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic were often felt by human resources professionals who were dealing with things coming at them from all directions. Once again, however, HR faced this bravely and used their talents to help guide their organizations through to the other side. 

One of the bigger challenges that HR has had to navigate was the constantly changing guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, The White House, and each state’s recommendations. Robert Basso, CEO, Associated Human Capital Management shared that for his business, “How to keep people safe and not lose your company as well as clients at the same time has been one of the biggest challenges. Cleanliness, following new distancing and mask protocol are paramount. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the new American workplace.”

Dicianno also shared from the health care organizational side, “There were a lot of unique challenges for medical personnel.” He told us that hospital personnel fell into two groups – those essential employees working to save lives, and non-clinical employees quarantined and working from home. “The initial response seemed to be handled pretty well by HR in making quick decisions.” Factors like having enough PPE for clinic employees to protect their health and then deciding where they would stay so they did not spread the virus to their families. For home-based workers, having the support systems in place so they could perform their jobs. 

And of course, the mental health of the workforce took front and center. 

Smith shared, “Right now, mental health is just as, if not more, important than providing the right resources. With a new work environment, social structure, and performance expectations it is critical that we check in with employees to see how they are handling current changes.” She added, “Each employee has their own unique challenges from going 100% remote – whether it is burnout, lack of childcare, isolation, etc., so it’s important to understand each person’s new reality and determine how to bridge any inconsistencies.” 

What Leaders Need from HR Going Forward

As things get back to business as usual, what are leaders expecting from human resource professionals? Are these expectations realistic given the changes made in many workforces? 

Many leaders view HR as being a consistent source of support and data-driven decision making in times of turmoil. Think of this as the foundation that fosters business longevity. 

Basso advised, “Stability is what leaders need to see from HR now and for the future. Having a constant and reassuring presence that supports their human needs as well as their analytical data is and will continue to be essential.” 

Leaders are also expecting HR to take the lead in terms of setting the human capital metrics bar high. These metrics must align well with the organizational objectives, even if things seem a little unknown currently. This should all be backed by real data. 

Along with data, leaders are continuing to view human resource pros as business partners, not just “keepers of people information”.  Smith told us, “When HR takes the lead, we [leaders] are able to navigate the disruptions happening in both the workforce and the business.” She adds, “Leaders and employees need an HR team built on adaptability, innovation and data. To achieve long term success, HR should be embedded within the business, advising and innovating along with business leaders.” 

Leaders have been transformed and need to be reminded that empathy for employees makes for a better workplace. 

Dicianno mentions an increased emphasis on focusing on employees as whole individuals, with many life facets that can be impacted. He says, “ I think there’s an opportunity to keep that mentality beyond this pandemic and spend more time working with leaders on what it means to have empathy and turn that into compassion through caring.” 

In the future, “HR has the opportunity to build on the fact that many leaders have been more caring throughout this pandemic and it will be lost without constant continued support of this behavior.  This level of caring can enhance employee experiences and organizational cultures for the long term.” 

As organizations work towards rebuilding, leaders will continue to rely on human resource professionals to give them a sense of stability, reliable information, and empathy. 

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