insight magazine

How COVID-19 Pushed HR Into the Future

In a remote work environment, we must bring the human element of human resources to the forefront. By Annie Mueller | Spring 2021

Remote work was always going to become much more common—it was just a question of when. Between 2005 and 2017, remote work in the United States increased by 159 percent, according to U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In 2019, a Buffer report proclaimed, “Remote work is here to stay.” The growing trend was widely perceived as positive: Remote work productivity was up and remote worker satisfaction correspondingly high. Still, even with steadily increasing numbers, less than 4 percent of the U.S. workforce worked from home prior to 2020. Then COVID-19 struck, and few organizations were prepared for the urgent, global adoption of remote work.

A May 2020 survey conducted by LinkedIn found that more than 75 percent of the financial sector believed remote work could succeed in their industry. However, confidence was much lower in industries like retail and healthcare, where the very nature of the work depends in large part on actual human presence. That human presence factor is the same foundational challenge facing HR in the new normal.

It’s easier—though not seamless—to work remotely when dealing with things that can be calculated and conveyed digitally. The accounting and finance industry in particular seems to be well-positioned for the shift into a fully digital, fully remote workforce, with more than 75 percent of financial industry activities classified as feasible for remote work. But even in the most digitalized organizations, humans fill the ranks—humans full of emotional and social needs. It’s one thing to make evidence-based strategic decisions in the midst of change and uncertainty, and it’s quite another to navigate the ongoing emotional and social repercussions of those strategic decisions. And that’s where HR often lands: Their tasks belong to the messy middle, in transitions and changes and gray areas, in the most significantly human, subjective, and stress-filled situations that work creates.

Stressed for Socialization

Of course, the challenges HR has faced over the past year aren’t simply the challenges of remote work. Change of any kind is stressful for humans—who do not like uncertainty. In fact, research shows that uncertainty causes more stress than a predictable negative experience. Life has seemed very unpredictable since March 2020, while at the same time humans have been asked to eliminate, or severely limit, the reassuring, anxiety-relieving balm of human connection, creating a perfect storm for stress.

“When you’re always by yourself, it can really make you feel isolated; you may feel like no one else is really working on this, or no one’s joining together,” says Carrie Steiner, a clinical psychologist, founder of First Responders Wellness Center, and a former crisis intervention team officer for the Chicago Police Department. “The more you can encourage socialization, do, especially live video chats.”

The face-to-face calls are worth the effort despite collective Zoom fatigue because humans depend on non-verbal cues. “Anytime the body senses something that is different, it gets alerted to that difference, which causes some anxiety and stress. When you can’t read those non-verbal signs, you don’t know if somebody is smiling or not smiling,” Steiner explains. Short, matter-of-fact emails or chat messages can end up sounding curt because they’re divorced from these cues—even if it’s the exact same answer you’d have given in person.

2020 research from Buffer found that collaboration, communication, and loneliness are the three biggest challenges facing remote workers today. HR’s task is to establish practices that keep workers connected and equip leaders to help team members stay engaged. “Overall, as people are working from everywhere, there has to be more communication,” says Carol Semrad, an HR consultant and current board member and past president of Chicago SHRM, an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management. “I’ve seen the most successful remote work outcomes in organizations that made investments in training their leaders and managers to give performance feedback and to have ongoing iterative conversations.”

Connecting With Care

Conversational cues aren’t the only signs that get lost in remote communication: So are the cues that a team member is struggling to stay focused and productive. Leaders must be proactive in two ways: to identify which employees are struggling, then connect those employees with HR for the necessary help and resources. “Recognize that some people are not going to do quite as well in a remote environment, and some people are going to do as well or better,” Steiner says. “We need to understand that everybody has their own situation.”

Leaders must have ongoing and honest conversations with each remote worker to understand the challenges they may be facing. These conversations are important, though they may not be focused on productivity or work at all. The point is connection. “Maybe you have a virtual ‘wine meeting,’ just like you would go out to the bar after work,” Semrad suggests. “If you’re a strong supervisor, you’re checking in with your folks frequently, which puts you in a more informed position.” As leaders become aware of the challenges their team members face, HR should be a trusted partner in offering the necessary resources and policies to help both the individual and the organization succeed. “The result is being able to have these mature conversations with people and allowing people to have some agency in choosing their own path, without forgetting that the company has to accomplish certain things to succeed,” Semrad says.

Remote communication often requires more directness than in-person social courtesies dictate, and when face-to-face interaction is limited, directness can be a welcome relief from the tension of uncertainty. “Have everybody try to connect with their team to discuss what’s working and what isn’t. Try to find out where flexibility is needed, even if it’s a temporary solution,” Steiner advises.

Maximizing Mental Health

The silver lining of a forced shift to remote work is the corresponding swing to an emphasis on, and more resources for, mental health and wellness. “If you as a leader are noticing that someone is not getting things done on time like they used to, or they’re making mistakes, or they’re not following up on things, those are all signs that things are not going well for them,” Steiner says. “You can reach out and ask, ‘Is there any way that we can help you? Are there ways that we can support you on this?’” At that point, the partnership between leaders and HR becomes pivotal. With issues related to mental health or any other medical condition, “confidentiality is really important,” says Lori Goldstein, an award-winning employment lawyer. “Leaders need to know when to send the employee to HR. Information pertaining to mental health and medical issues should only be discussed on a need-to-know basis.”

HR departments can help support mental health and wellness by making mental health resources available and accessible to everyone in the organization. “HR can send out weekly or monthly messages to build a culture that supports mental health,” Steiner says. “Give those reminders to make sure the information is easily accessible. Give them the answers before they have to ask.”

For organizations without an HR department or dedicated HR employee, a consultant can fill the gap. “External partners become really valuable because they don't have to be there all the time,” Semrad says. “You’re dialing into them for what your needs are.”

Onboarding Online

In a remote landscape, some of HR’s most foundational tasks have greatly changed, including how they find and train new employees. “People interviewing remotely has become the norm,” says Mike Younie, senior manager of Michael Page’s accounting and finance recruitment team across Chicago and the Midwest region. An initial remote interview used to lead to an on-site hiring process, but pandemic protocol has changed the standard, and the entire process is now remote. “We certainly learned a few key lessons,” Younie says. “It’s much harder to give the candidate an accurate representation of the company and a true feel for the culture and values.” For Younie’s clients, three strategies eased the remote hiring and onboarding process: communicating with clarity, involving more people, and partnering with HR.

Clarity is essential for communicating to potential recruits what the company is all about. “You have to sell the business and the opportunity to the candidate even more now,” Younie says. “Your message needs to be clean and clear in terms of what makes the company stand out.” Since in-office visits are limited or not possible, getting more people involved in the hiring process helps establish a sense of company culture and role expectations. Try a team video call, or brief introductions to team members, he suggests: “It puts the candidate at ease when multiple people are echoing the same message.”

The third component is ongoing partnership and communication between HR and any job candidates or new team members. “HR plays a really key role,” Younie says. “They support the process by explaining what the policy for working from home looks like, what they’ve implemented, and how it works culturally to dive in remotely. When you get a blend from the direct hiring managers and the HR rep, that’s when you get the most engagement.”

Post-Pandemic Protocols

Even as organizations implement long-term remote systems and strategies, the question beneath the surface is, “How long-term does this really have to be?” For some organizations, remote work may be the new, full-time norm. For others, the hope is to return to in-office work either fully or partially. The transition requires flexibility, care, and, above all, clear policies. “The best thing for an employer would be to have a policy that explains how they’re handling vaccines and accommodations and exemptions,” Goldstein says. It’s easier, she says, for employers to suggest and encourage rather than mandate what their employees do in order to balance the different concerns and life situations each employee has. Clear policies from HR help maintain the balance: All employees need to know what is required for a return to the office and what their options are if they feel they can’t safely return. “Maybe you don’t have a specific deadline,” Goldstein suggests. “You could say, we’re going to transition back. If you’re interested and you want to, you can take the first step.”

Whether remaining remote or transitioning back to in-office work, HR will remain an important partner for both employers and employees navigating the challenges and unceasing changes of our working world—even after remote work becomes voluntary again.

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