In my 30 years on this planet, I’ve never experienced anything like this. Neither have you.

Same goes for my mom, my dad, and my grandma, who are a combined 231 years old (I’d break it down for you, but that wouldn’t end well for me). This is a pandemic the likes of which haven’t been seen since the flu outbreak in 1918, before coworking spaces and international travel on low-cost airlines.

While the solution may, in part, be the same as the 1918 pandemic—stay at home, folks!—the scale of the problem we’re facing has radically changed.

Like it or not, we’re part of a fully-distributed workforce now. This quick pivot is largely thanks to adept HR folks who know their people and processes well enough to, often within the span of a weekend, figure out how to send everyone to their home offices—or couches—and stay productive.

In this weird and scary time, HR has the power to support employees both on professional and personal levels. Let’s go into:

  • The changing role of HR
  • HR’s role in organizational change
  • How HR can support employees in personal transition

What was once “pay and party…”

is now critical to organizational functioning.

We’re seeing now that, in times of crisis, employees at all levels are relying on HR for the most basic, and complicated, needs.

  • Empathy. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t limited to employees’ physical health. COVID-19 patients are at increased risk of developing PTSD; caretakers of COVID-positive loved ones are vulnerable to burnout and depression; and, even for healthy folks, the pandemic has introduced fear, worry, and concern into our daily lives. HR’s role is to strengthen the role of empathy in company culture: to keep an open-door policy for struggling employees (and maintain confidentiality!), make sure managers know how to identify warning signs for at-risk teammates, and implement organization-wide processes that relieve some stress, whether that be the occasional half-day, gifts sent home, or even just encouraging messages.
  • Communication. The transition from location-based teams to a fully-distributed model highlights communication problems within and between teams. HR’s role is to help managers and employees learn best practices for remote communication, including how to take advantage of existing tech tools.
  • Awareness. Especially in larger companies, the C-suite may have limited interaction with employees. HR’s role is to continuously advocate for employee rights and needs and to be the voice of those who can’t speak for themselves. 
  • Information. HR should be an organization’s single source of truth for organizational and government policy at this time. In order to feel secure, employees need to know that they can trust HR to explain procedures for shelter-in-place, furlough, and other unique-to-COVID needs.

Only HR can answer these questions and fulfill these needs. Only HR can provide a bridge between employees and executives.

How HR is simplifying WFH

Without HR piloting the change, how could an entire company pivot to WFH? Quickly, slowly…this kind of change takes more than time. It takes ability.

Change has to start from above but make sense on the micro-level. As stated in The Economist, “The COVID-19 pandemic presents a different challenge—and highlights the role of another corporate function, often unfairly dismissed as soft. Never before have more firms needed a hard-headed HR boss.”

So when it comes to implementing remote processes, there’s no one better equipped than HR—both for the small tasks and the big ones.

These are two common examples:

  • Facilitating work-from-home office setup is an organizational struggle demanding careful coordination and expert communication. While some organizations have offered financial incentives to employees for adjusting to WFH, such as an internet or supply stipend, many can’t afford to do so in these lean times. Instead, HR can coordinate the pickup of office supplies.
  • The responsibility of management training falls upon HR’s shoulders at this time. Teaching managers how to identify at-risk employees, conduct remote performance reviews, and communicate organizational changes like salary cuts and furloughs isn’t part of the standard management playbook, but are skills that managers need to learn during this pandemic.

HR thought leader Josh Bersin expanded on HR’s role in setting the unspoken rules, writing “Remote work is more than getting a license to Zoom or setting up an open workspace. We need to build a set of rules, practices, and cultural norms that let people work remotely. When people are interrupted at home can they skip a meeting? When are cameras on and when are they off? What should people wear?”

By establishing codes of conduct for WFH, from defining what remote management entails to pre-empting any dress code faux pas, HR will save the day for all WFHers.

Putting the “human” back into HR

Alongside all of the technical details of WFH, there’s a big bucket of personal needs: dealing with sick loved ones, being furloughed, or just feeling burned out by the endless bad news. 

By maintaining an open-door policy for employees, you can help struggling teammates share their emotions and work through these hard times. Because HR is less partial (or “scary”) than management, a confidential discussion can feel much more freeing to an employee than going straight to their manager.

For furloughed employees, HR is a valuable resource during a painful transition. Being open and honest with—and most importantly, available to—impacted employees will leave employees with a not-terrible taste in their mouths after a difficult event.

This is HR’s time to shine

Now is the perfect opportunity for HR to prove their worth. By connecting with all different parts of the organization at every level and on every team, HR can prove that in times of crisis they’re invaluable, and in times of plenty they know how to maximize success.

Shayna Hodkin

From Shayna Hodkin

Shayna lives in south Tel Aviv with two dogs and a lot of plants. She writes poems and reads tarot.