MailGuard 09 April 2020 15:18:27 AEST 10 MIN READ

“I do my best work in the bedroom” – The trials and tribulations of HR during a pandemic

In every company, the HR function plays a critical strategic role in coping with disruption – but what happens when disruption suddenly becomes the norm?  

Weeks in, the COVID-19 outbreak has had profound implications for companies worldwide, disrupting business operations and procedures, forcing a re-think of company goals, and making communication and management expertise more important than ever. The changes are also having an impact on the professional and personal well-being of employees who have had to suddenly adjust to new ways of working while most are isolated in their homes. 

Are HR departments ready to take on the myriad of challenges that accompany disruption at such an unprecedented scale? What are the new tools, behaviours and practises that HR leaders need to add to their repertoire to keep their businesses on track and to support their workforce?  

With the COVID-19 crisis still evolving every day, it isn’t possible yet to see what the next stage entails, or to accurately predict how long the disruptions will last. Nonetheless, it is possible to reflect on what we’ve learned, and to prepare for what lies ahead. 

Maintaining (remote) employee engagement  

Gartner survey of 800 global HR executives on March 17th found that 88% of organisations have encouraged or required employees to work from home, regardless of whether or not they showed coronavirus-related symptoms. Nearly all organisations (97%) have cancelled work-related travel, more than an 80% increase since March 3rd. By now, that number must be edging closer to 100% as border and travel restrictions are in place for most non-essential workers.  

These figures represent a huge shift in conventional ways of working, with huge implications for HR. With everyone working remotely, how can companies prevent employee isolation and overworking, foster effective communication, track project delivery & coordinate teams across time zones?  

We asked our People & Culture Leader, Marina Perri, about her experience supporting the MailGuard team in the first weeks of the crisis.

“With all of the uncertainty, it was important to clearly communicate to the team from the outset. We started by sharing a policy to let people know how our business would support them, and to establish guidelines for working remotely, including how we would engage with our partners and customers. It was vital at that time to also make sure that lines of communication were wide open and that the management team were available for any questions. We weren’t all in the same physical location so that meant a combination of phone calls, face-to-face meetings and conference calls.

We were one of the first businesses to move to working from home across the entire business, so it was all new to most of us. Shortly after we had started, we followed up with each employee to see how they were coping with the situation. A key concern that surfaced was the problem of balancing personal and professional responsibilities at home, with children, family and pets competing for attention. The conversations were around staff well-being and mental health, but also about ergonomics and their physical environment. That means getting people set up with appropriate chairs, desks, keyboards and anything else that helps them to work effectively, and in a safe environment. Unfortunately, this could last quite some time, so we need to make sure our people are set up for it.”    

Perri also warned of the impact of isolation on employees’ mental health and soft skills. 

“These are still early days, but I am concerned about the long-term impact of remote working and isolation. There are obvious productivity concerns about people losing momentum, or find it hard to stay motivated, but they can also be signs that people are finding the circumstances overwhelming, and that they need more emotional support. As humans we are social animals and the isolation will impact individuals differently, as will the constant stream of negativity on the nightly news and social media. We also need to consider the impact on working relationships, the social side and interactions. We’re relying heavily on Microsoft Teams which has been great, and we’re encouraging the use of video wherever possible to maintain that connection. That’s even for larger team meetings, and so far it seems to be working. We also add a bit of colour, like at our last town hall meeting where we had a theme and staff were encouraged to dress up. It was a good opportunity to have a laugh together,” she says. 

Empowering employees with relevant skills & knowledge 

Implementing a remote working policy is a struggle if your employees aren’t familiar with the tools & technologies that allow them to work remotely. 

An accelerated digital transformation is now underway in most companies, with an increasing number relying on remote apps like Microsoft Teams and Zoom to foster communication. But this increasing reliance poses a truckload of questions and means a steep learning curve for many.

To help with this, the services of support and tech teams become vital, especially when assisting with technological faults and training.

Perri says, “Our tech and support guys have been enormously helpful. As our team have been getting settled in, they’ve made sure that everyone has all of the right hardware and software, plus they’ve been helping people out where they’re unfamiliar with tools like video conferencing, so there’s been a lot of training and hand holding to get the team up to speed. Fortunately, for most of us we have been working remotely before the pandemic, so the transition hasn’t been so hard, but some functions tend to be more office-bound historically so the change has been a cultural shift for them.”

It is heartening to see companies like Microsoft releasing comprehensive guides for employees working from home, such as tips for moving to remote work with Microsoft Teams. These resources go a long way in helping employees set up and get started, but they can’t beat periodic check-ins and scheduled training from employees’ own companies and managers who can provide more relevant advice for their employees.  HR practitioners need be prepared for questions about expect behaviours and conduct, like how to dress appropriately on a video call, and taking calls in bedrooms and bathrooms.

Sometimes, these conversations may take a bit of an awkward (and often, hilarious) turn. Here are some actual statements HR managers have heard from their employees that would have possibly caused them to do a double take:

I do my best work in the bedroom
“Drink water, get sunlight. I basically feel like a house plant with more complicated emotions"
“I love working from home – I don’t have to wear pants!”

It’s during conversations like these when HR leaders need to strike the right balance between ensuring employees feel safe, comfortable and supported as they work remotely, and reminding them of the need to maintain a sense of professionalism in their tasks.

Recruitment and onboarding 

The Gartner survey revealed that in order to deal with the economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis, organisations are employing several cost-cutting measures. Nearly half of companies plan to freeze new hiring, while a greater percentage of organisations plan to reduce work for external partners rather than employees. Additionally, one-fifth of organisations plan to stop or limit consultant spend and/or reduce the number of contract workers.  

To minimise the impact of these cost-cutting measures on company productivity, revenue and targets, HR leaders need to explore if existing employees have enough resources and the right training & skills to keep the momentum going. Budgets for new hires and new projects may come into question, so consider how this might affect employee motivation and productivity levels. 

And for those companies who do plan on hiring new talent, how are they modifying their recruiting practises? How are they planning on onboarding new hires and building relationships and connections with a largely remote workforce? 

“Fortunately, at MailGuard, our plans haven’t changed, so we have new starters joining while our remote working policy is in place. It’s certainly different, but we’ve managed fine. Pre-boarding and initiation were conducted online, and introductions to the entire company have relied on email and a Microsoft Teams video conference during our company meeting. Before starting, a dedicated support team was allocated that aided in setting them up and any remote connections and devices. A series of video calls were also set up with key people in the business for the induction, to help gain a better understanding of how the role fits into the wider business strategy. I like to think about it as you would for someone joining an off-shore office. They still need to be introduced to the rest of the business. 

Adaption is key. Frequent check-ins via audio and video calls and welcome emails can help new recruits build stronger relationships within the company, even while working remotely,” Perri explains.

Compensation, benefits & morale 

Should companies pay employees during absences related to the coronavirus? Should they offer more sick leave days? What type of leave should be granted to those employees who are caring for their children whose schools are closed?  

The unique nature of the situation is giving rise to several complex and nuanced questions about how to manage leaves of absence & entitlements triggered by COVID-19. Employers should formulate policies around these based on evolving regulations and their own compensation structures. 

Different companies are handling these issues in their own way. Target, Walmart, Apple, McDonald’s, Starbucks and others have implemented emergency paid leave, “quarantine pay” or “catastrophe pay,” guaranteeing continued income to those who contract the virus, are required to quarantine due to exposure or, in some cases, are simply most susceptible to succumbing to it. It has been reported that other employers, like Yum! Brands, parent company of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, have pledged to pay workers for their regularly scheduled hours at company-owned stores that get closed due to the virus.  

“Morale is always key. I’ve seen businesses treating their virtual workforce in much the same way as they did before the crisis, hiring yoga instructors and other specialists to conduct group sessions at dedicated times of day with video conferencing to maintain connection and fun in the workplace, albeit remote. There are also those that are careful with language and have adopted phrases like “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” to emphasise that our remote locations don’t need to shut-down social interaction. Taking that a step forward, I even know of informal work social groups meeting for online drinks and poker and seeking out opportunities to stay in touch and have a laugh,” says Perri.

Whether it is properly managing leave, sick pay or keeping employee safety and morale as high as possible in these trying times, it’s clear that HR leaders have many difficult decisions to make. But no matter how complex, it remains key for employers to act swiftly and modify their existing practices to combat the challenges. If left unattended, these issues will impact employees’ productivity and engagement, leading to poor work quality and a disconnected workforce, ultimately hampering an organisation’s ability to succeed in these tough times, and importantly to come out even stronger and healthier on the other side.

HR has always been essential, but in times like these, their actions are vital. Let’s continue to adapt and collaborate to keep our employees safe and supported.  

Share your experience in the comments below.