Human resources has traditionally been focused on administrative tasks related to hiring and firing and administering business policies and procedures, activities necessary for company growth and legal compliance. Modern human resources has evolved into a more agile, consultative role because of the trend toward employee experience and advances in technology. But COVID-19 has changed HR’s top priorities in 2020. Those priorities are now crisis response, employee concerns and agility.
According to talent management expert Josh Bersin, the COVID-19 pandemic has made crisis response the top priority for HR. With many businesses having to transition workforces to remote work almost overnight and implement and maintain new safety protocols, communication is closely tied to effective crisis response. Confident and knowledgeable communications from leadership and business units about all aspects of business during COVID-19 are a crucial focus for business operations and workforce stability and productivity.
Bersin’s COVID HR-Pulse survey of employers’ thoughts on top HR issues in 2020 shows four areas of focus. Health and wellbeing of employees at the top of the list at 41 percent. Managing remote work, jobs and continuity, and helping employees with mental health and uncertainty following closely. A focus on job movement and job protection became a reality when businesses were shut down in the initial quarantine and companies started thinking about new roles.
A very big focus for HR in 2020, due to COVID-19, is employee concerns. The COVID HR-Pulse survey found that job security is the number one issue employees are worried about, most likely due to the unprecedented numbers of unemployed because of the pandemic. Financial security was the top concern for 81% of companies' employees, followed by health and well-being, family, and productivity and work. Issues that were of concern before the pandemic are now urgent, including social isolation, personal finance, mental health and stress, and employers are responding to safeguarding their workforces with strategies like online counseling and coaching.
A Gartner HR Survey shows that remote work is now a top priority for business and HR leaders that has resulted in cost cutting measures including using technology and hiring freezes. Gartner recommends employers keep open and regular communications with employees to provide direction and instill confidence during uncertainty. Also recommended is providing trusted and accurate coronavirus information from expert sources such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, and present it in a context that relates to the organization as much as possible.
Because HR is normally designed to provide service delivery rather than agility and rapid response, COVID-19 has presented a challenge to HR professionals and teams in this area. Industries from hospitality to retail to banking have had to quickly strategize and respond to the changing workplace issues presented by the pandemic. The COVID HR-Pulse survey shows that companies say HR has had difficulties coordinating local and global responses, two-way communication hasn’t been as effective as needed, and dealing with customers through the pandemic has been problematic and sales forces haven’t been able to switch easily from normal business operations to customer-centric connections. Overall the need for a change to agile operations from traditional business operations has shown companies that re-prioritizing company goals, cutting through obstacles for quick approvals, and getting alignment from top down are not easy to accomplish in crisis mode.
Talent industry analyst Josh Bersin says “Agile [use to be] a theoretical concept; now, we have to be agile.” Pepsico Global Talent Management Director Sachin Jain notes how his organization created a comprehensive strategy in prioritize employee health and safety in less than a week, and is now focusing on how to embed agility long-term. Wincome Hospitality CEO Paul Sanford noted that the pandemic has turned his industry upside-down and presents new people challenges daily, requiring Wincome to be “nimble, fluid, and creative” in pandemic-related decision-making.
The pandemic has changed the rules and roles in HR to a shift in focus to crisis response, employee concerns, and agility. The COVID HR-Pulse survey shows that companies are focusing on their people, have cross-organizational response teams, have had to relax rules for compensation and benefits, and have had to quickly assess their workforces and how they get the work done. Employee experience has changed from a focus on productivity and engagement to a focus on diagnosis and response since COVID-19.