Article originally published in Toolbox | HR, original article available here.
COVID-19 has changed the way HR operates. The challenges aren’t over yet. To get ahead, HR needs to take the return-to-work planning lead. In the long run, HR needs to invest in non-traditional technology, operationalizing crisis management best practices for the myriad disruptions coming its way. In this article, James Boddam-Whetham, CEO of Noggin, discusses HR leaders’ need to consider in their business continuity and crisis management plans for 2021 – especially in a lifetime where pandemics are here to stay.
So much about the pandemic has transformed the way the HR function operates. Most noticeable has been the spectacular take off in remote work.
In the U.S., the average number of workdays that telecommuters are working from home more than doubled from fall 2019 to fall 2020. At points during the crisis, increases were even higher. Gartner HR findings from March 2020 revealed that a staggering 88% of Australian businesses had encouraged or required employees to work from home due to the pandemic. And as challenging as it’s been for HR to get these remote working arrangements right for existing employees, the function has also had to bring many of the same digital technologies to bear on other core duties like recruitment, hiring, and onboarding.
With a vaccine now in the offing, HR leaders might be tempted to think that things will return to normal. The data says otherwise. For one, the remote work genie seems entirely out of the bottle – some estimates point to 25–30% of the workforce working at home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
More importantly, the crisis conditions that created the need for a sudden spike in remote work haven’t gone anywhere. Without mentioning the challenges of vaccinating entire working-age populations, major disruptions are here to stay.
The smart money is, therefore, on crisis management and business continuity planning continuing to be key to the HR role. The question is, what exactly can the HR function contribute to corporate crisis management and business continuity planning going into 2021? Here are some tips.
Get HR Representation in Return-To-Work Planning
Of course, the biggest task staring down HR departments, especially in jurisdictions currently experiencing lockdowns, will be the return to work. For that effort to be successful, HR has to be represented on planning teams, where it can weigh in on important objectives such as maintaining a healthy work environment, which other teams might have neglected.
Why’s the perspective important? HR has long played a key role in maintaining employer duty of care. But nowadays, most businesses are operating under new (and often changing) safe work regulations set by health authorities. The result is that it will be HR’s responsibility to ensure that companies continue to comply, by providing a workplace free of hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
When it comes to return-to-work planning, HR will have to work in tandem with Facilities to enhance cleaning, disinfection, and ventilation (in compliance with the law) before employees return to work – similar measures should also be considered for other disaster scenarios.
Engagement should continue when workers return as well. Then, HR must be ready for the eventuality that positive cases will trigger more office shutdowns, which might legally precipitate a new round of enhanced cleaning and disinfection.
In consultation with the C-suite and department heads, HR should also play a key role in determining who comes back to work when. It might be ill-advised (or impossible due to social distancing requirements) to bring the entire workforce (or entire functions) back to work all at once. In addition, workers with elevated health risks might prefer to continue to work from home. A more gradual return will also allow more employees to get tested or fill out assessments about whether they are suffering any virus symptoms. However, it’s important to ensure that these measures don’t violate existing privacy or discrimination laws.
Devising culturally appropriate employee communications is HR‘s responsibility as well. After all, employee fear and anxiety about returning to the office will be high. Rumour and misinformation will be, as well.
As such, HR should deliver regular employee communications, starting well before the return-to-office date. Initial communications will convey that the decision has been taken, highlight decision-making processes, and outline measures to ensure a safe workplace. It might also help disseminate materials covering pandemic safety fundamentals for personal and family protection or link to official sources.
What to do once workers are back
For HR, the bulk of return-to-work planning will likely consist of devising then implementing measures to protect workers once they have come back. For one, HR will probably be responsible for educating employees, perhaps through an in-office poster campaign encouraging appropriate hand hygiene, social distancing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and so on.
State and local health authorities might also have put out a set of recommended procedures. HR will have to interpret that guidance and apply it to the workplace. Companies might also consider handing out personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees if they mandate on-premise masking. In that case, HR will have to monitor PPE stocks.
What’s more, the likelihood that a worker will test positive remains high until bulk immunity is achieved. To ensure continued productivity, HR needs to develop affected worker case management protocols, centralize staff details for welfare tracking to adopt simple worker contact tracing, and develop individual, post-infection return to work plans.
Besides positive diagnoses, workers might also be absent because they are caregivers, either for COVID-19 positive or immuno-compromised family members, or remote-schooled children. HR should anticipate spikes in absenteeism. To be proactive, HR can:
- Institute more flexible workplace and leave policies
- Cross-train employees to perform essential functions if key employees are absent
- Implement worker health surveillance protocols, like on-site temperature readings
- Track screening results over time
- Provide guidelines for positive worker tests
Invest in Non-Traditional HR Technologies
Centralizing staff details for welfare tracking and simple worker contact tracing poses a stark challenge. Even before the pandemic, many HR offices were simply unable to reach their workforces outside of the office. Why? The business lacked up-to-date employee contact information and the requisite technology to enable two-way emergency communications with staff – not just a business continuity challenge relevant to COVID-19, either.
To this end, investing in non-traditional HR technology areas is recommended to operationalize best-practice return-to-work and affected worker case management, as well as communicate with workers in real-time. Digitally transforming and enabling the HR function is crucial for business continuity and resilience in the long term.
For one, operationalizing existing best-practice crisis content (often outside of the traditional HR capability set) is a lot easier than one might think. Crisis and business continuity management software platforms have digitized those plans, guidelines, and checklists already – and not just return-to-work from the pandemic but all other likely crisis and business interruption scenarios requiring HR intervention, e.g., active shooter, bomb threat, data breach, emergency evacuation, severe weather, etc. Beyond that, the platforms also digitize strategies, communications, collaboration, roles, and responsibilities, including those to help HR ensure employee wellbeing during a major crisis.
Finally, 2021 promises no respite for HR on the crisis front. However, the function can get ahead of major crises and shorter-term business interruptions alike by investing in digital crisis and business continuity management platforms that help protect workers, operations, and communities and ensure safety compliance and continued productivity.