Gone are the days when Human Resources just meant happy hours, policy violations, employee relations, benefits, and recruiting. With COVID-19 came a wave of change that many are still trying to wrap their heads around, but no one is feeling the weight of that change more than HR managers.
With workplaces and offices across the United States reopening their doors, HR managers have emerged as another frontline in the fight against COVID-19. Normal responsibilities such as workplace strategy, employee engagement, and talent development are being pushed aside for hand sanitizers, masks, COVID payroll policies, and ensuring a safe work environment.
The role of HR now includes acting as a diplomat, nurse, regulatory expert, HIPAA watchdog, and tech liaison.
During this time of major upheaval and uncertainty, HR managers and leaders have become one of the loudest and most important voices in the coronavirus Zoom room. They are the ones having daily, if not hourly, conversations with leadership along with several experts and vendors on how best to navigate a situation that none could have fathomed. They’re the ones helping to keep anxiety-ridden employees informed about what’s happening with the company and up-to-date on the resources—that will help to keep employees at ease, safe, and productive.
In my role as an HR tech executive, here are my three top findings and thoughts on how COVID-19 has turned things upside down.
Communication and compliance
The success of reopening workplaces is contingent upon employee trust. Employees need to trust that their workplace has devised a sufficient strategy in order to maximize participation in safety protocols. What’s more, there are a number of stringent regulations that must be followed. For instance, in New York State, offices are currently set at a maximum occupancy of 50% of employees, and employees must also remain socially distanced within the office. To abide by these regulations, HR professionals have had to create staggered work schedules and in some larger organizations, relocate certain employees to offices located closer to their own place of residence. With the climate constantly shifting, however, many of these guidelines are subject to change at any given moment if there is a resurgence of the virus.
As a result, HR leaders have not only been tasked with ongoing communication of evolving policies, but ensuring that they understand the rapidly changing environment so that their procedures are in compliance. This is especially important for organizations that are implementing testing. Recent surveys revealed 84% of Americans fear that data collection efforts aimed at containing the coronavirus cost too much in the way of privacy. While such a statistic should come with little surprise as Americans have grown more dubious about the use of their personal data, this puts a tremendous burden on HR to ensure that businesses not only get the information they need to make informed decisions but that every employee’s rights to privacy are protected.
While abiding by numerous regulations is nothing new to the HR manager, what makes this different is that employees are relying on their HR departments to deliver the most accurate and up-to-date information, which is made even more difficult when guidelines are changing by the day, adding yet another ball for the HR managers to juggle. For example, the Centers for Disease Control recently stated that asymptomatic people are not required to get tested even if they had been exposed to the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) rebuked it almost immediately due to the importance of identifying infections in the small window immediately before the onset of symptoms when many individuals appear to be most contagious—creating contradiction and confusion and leaving the onus on the HR manager to determine, which guidelines to follow in order to keep employees safe.
Please wear your mask
Perhaps the most unique role for HR professionals today is the role of the diplomat. While many companies are still scrambling to secure adequate testing capacity and ramp up reopening, employers have implemented mask mandates, often in accordance with local law. Occasionally, however, issues do arise in which employees outright refuse or complain about having to wear a mask. Because one of the many facets of HR is employee relations, the task of having to deal with those not abiding by the mask mandates falls upon the shoulders of the HR professional. The unfortunate politicization of mask-wearing has left many HR professionals with the task of negotiating with employees for the sake of maintaining the safety and decorum of the organization.
While the workplace, and especially the HR department, is expected to remain objective and apolitical, this has set a new precedent as these professionals now must enforce rules that some employees may believe do not align with their own personal beliefs. In some instances the government allows for exceptions and in others, the government allows the employer to set the mandates. Either way, HR managers are shouldering enormous pressure to get it right.
Hi, it’s HR, you’ve reached IT
With the subsequent proliferation of a remote workforce and the need to communicate and collect sensitive health data, many in HR are now finding their current HR and workforce software can’t deliver on the privacy and security they need during the pandemic. What was once an office working from the same corporate network is now a dispersed group of employees with some in the office or facility, some working remotl;y and some doing a little of both. This inevitably creates vulnerabilities for businesses as hackers innovate on tactics, extending the challenges of ensuring privacy and security beyond the reporting of employees’ health data. In fact, according to a recent survey of 200 companies by cybersecurity company Malwarebytes, 20% of the respondents said that they faced a security breach because of a remote worker.
Not only must HR leaders create and communicate clear safety regulations on an ongoing basis, but they are also responsible for procuring tech systems and tools that allow a workforce to operate with bolstered security for employee safety and health data along with intellectual property.
Big data and artificial intelligence have helped facilitate COVID-19 preparedness and the tracking of people and the spread of infection in several countries—this thinking and in some cases this kind of tech is being brought into the workplace. From contact tracing to checkpoints to immunity passports to data dashboards, COVID-19 has fueled the innovation of several new platforms and solutions for HR departments to consider and include in their reopening strategy. That coupled with the fact that consumers are warier of who and where they share sensitive data creates a tall task for HR managers—striking the elusive balance of respecting people’s data privacy while safely reopening and operating during the pandemic.
As a former HR executive, I went through disaster and emergency planning for oil spills, food contamination, and earthquakes but never contemplated the type of ongoing pandemic scenario the profession is experiencing now with COVID-19. HR leaders have had the arduous task of devising reopening plans that both retain viability for the business and meet employees’ expectations of having a clear and safe path to return. With the road ahead still fraught with uncertainty, we can almost certainly expect the evolution of HR to continue.