When HR Staff Becomes Essential

William J. Wiggins Change Management, Communication, Contingent Workforce, Corporate Social Responsiblity, COVID-19, Good HR, Telecommuting

Essential employee: An employee that has been designated as critical because their responsibilities include non-deferrable services that must be performed despite a catastrophic event, a weather emergency, or a public health crisis. An essential employee is one who is vital to meeting operational requirements of the business.

Could this be? Human Resources “vital to meeting operational requirements of the business” ? And all it took was a pandemic for the acknowledgement.

We may not be on the front lines battling this beast of pandemic alongside our doctors, nurses, first responders, and service workers, but this event (that shall remain nameless for fear of subject overload) has definitely positioned HR as the most immediate back-up resource for those fighting the good fight, and as an organization’s most critical resource in supporting them in responding to this crisis.

The Challenges
Not only has this crisis forced HR to develop new ways of doing business while managing a work culture that is changing by the hour; but our organizations have been forced to improve and in many case adapt remote workplace policies, look closely at employee benefit plan designs, PTO and sick time policies, staffing, compliance, and leave and pay practices all while struggling to keep employees safe and informed. In a very short period of time, our teams were charged with coordination of moving en masse departments to remote working arrangements, analyzing the potential financial impact to the business and staffing; and creating a strategy to guide our leaders and employees through some of the most significant organizational change that most of them have faced in their careers.

True to form, HR teams everywhere kicked into gear, strategizing with Finance, IT, Corporate Communications, Supply Chain, Security, etc. to understand what should be considered in building this new world:

• How can HR support managers in translating existing work rules, meeting schedules and communications strategies to the new reality?
• What are the financial, cultural, and emotional considerations of a new working and staffing model, (any good HR team know that you must consider all three)?
• What HR functions must adapt? – Talent Acquisition, discipline, benefits and compensation all presented new challenges in this new environment.

Our role in HR monitoring and maintaining of morale became even more crucial as we realized that staff working from home for the first time were feeling isolated, and needed to feel connected to their colleagues during this crisis. So we got busy to create a formal process to ensure novice remote employees were they staying in touch with their colleagues and manager, and they had what they needed to stay productive. We worked with our benefits teams to make available emotional health and child care resources for employees in need.

Keeping Talent Acquisitions Relevant
Though it may not be visible, there is light at the end of the tunnel. HR teams supported mass furloughs, FTE reductions, and reassignments of roles and responsibilities. If you were forced to curtail your hiring and recruiting practices in an effort to staff to demand, be sure to keep your talent pipeline full and maintain contact with prospective rehires and new hires. With the ongoing economic devastation of this pandemic not slowing, our organizations may find themselves relying on temporary or interim support arrangements as we all struggle to recover.

Accommodation and Compliance Factors to Consider
With the number of people working remotely rising rapidly, we are faced new policy and issues to consider that include:

• Permitted employer actions under the ADA, FMLA, Title VII and other federal and state statutes and regulations.
• The use of accrued PTO, vacation, or sick time to supplement reduced schedules
• Leave polices and pandemic specific accommodation requirements.
• Acceptable remote arrangements to protect employees.

Words of wisdom
An organization’s culture is most vulnerable in times of crisis particularly when decisions are being made on the fly in the midst of constant change; and financial survival becomes the primary focus. Transparency and commitment to your employees by leadership become especially critical when they are working remotely under uncertain conditions.

It is hard for the best of organizations to put culture and engagement a priority particularly during a pandemic. However, at the end of a crisis, it’s how your employees are treated in the midst of the turmoil that will determine how well your organization will recover in the long-term.

In conclusion
Taking effective action requires leaders to conduct advanced planning and make strategic management decisions, all of which will rely heavily on the advice and insight only HR can provide, which is what makes your HR team “Essential” in the best AND worst of times.