It’s been over six months since the whisperings about COVID-19 began, and what may have been up for debate then is now widely accepted: COVID-19 is here to stay, and so is the “new normal” it’s enforced upon the workplace. Many companies have announced plans to keep their workforce remote through 2021, and employees who are returning to the office are finding a very different environment than the one they left. 

This reality will impact employees’ motivation, emotional wellbeing, and productivity, if it hasn’t already. Companies need to respond, and HR leaders stand at the forefront of these strategic and critical decisions. 

To get a sense of what companies are doing to help their communities stay productive and sane in our new reality, we spoke with CHROs from our global network, who shared useful insights from their own experiences.

1. Adjust expectations

People are going through a lot right now. Whether it’s caring for a sick relative, homeschooling kids, or just dealing with boredom and monotony, very few of us are at the top of our game. With that in mind, HR leaders should base any decisions or strategies on meeting employees where they are. As one CHRO said, “if I had to give a slogan to these times, it would be ‘flexibility and sensitivity’.” 

Practically speaking, this means taking into account the various contribution levels that different people are capable of right now. It means thinking long-term, and realizing that while people may not be performing at their best in this moment, that is not an indication of what they can contribute over time.

The CHROs we spoke with are using this attitude to inform how they assess employee performance. While many are foregoing performance reviews altogether, one VP HR is conducting them at the end of the month, but with a focus on employee efforts rather than results. For new hires who joined at the beginning of quarantine and never had the chance to be properly onboarded, companies are adjusting how they assess the end of their probation period: 

“Normally when assessing someone’s probation, you ask whether they have met all the criteria that allows them to move into being a full-time employee. In this period we’ve flipped the question to “is there any reason why you wouldn’t want them to pass probation?” If we find a genuine reason why the probation couldn’t be completed, then we extend it. But that isn’t the default. By default, if there is no reason for them not to pass, they pass.”

2. Leave assumptions at the (home office) door

In uncertain times we often lean on assumptions to help make sense of our own, and others’ behavior, and to create a semblance of control where we actually have very little. But this reality is new to all of us, and we all react to it in unexpected ways. So we shouldn’t assume that we know how our teammates or employees will handle the times.

“You think certain people will have no issue coming back to the office, and then you find out that they have parents at risk, a pregnant partner, or they are just afraid to take the bus,” shared on CHRO. Rather than assuming, she suggests creating a dialogue with employees based on mutual trust and care for their safety.

3. Stand up to intolerance, even if you’re apolitical

As many people struggle with emotional and mental health during this time, discussions about well-being, resilience, sleep, and mindfulness appear as agenda items in more and more companies’ town halls. But some employees need more. The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States shed light on CHROs’ responsibility to create space for conversations on these charged topics at work, even if their company doesn’t take an official stance. Even companies who consider themselves apolitical see the need to stand up to racism and intolerance unequivocally and explicitly.

“As an organization that embraces diversity, whatever that diversity might be—gender, sexual orientation, color, age—we don’t tolerate discrimination in any form. When we see something as sad as we did with George Floyd, our hearts go out to his family and community. If somebody in our company wants to talk about it, we’re happy to have a conversation, but we don’t take an outward position apart from the position that we embrace diversity. That we don’t tolerate anybody who doesn’t embrace diversity. They don’t belong in our community or in our company.”

4. Where possible, keep business as usual

Yes, there is a global pandemic. But as HR leaders, we are still accountable to our teams and responsible for keeping the business going. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in the new normal, according to one CHRO. While it’s important to understand our people’s limitations right now (see tip #1), within those limitations leaders can still push their teams to meet realistic targets.

“When something significant happens, there’s this huge surge of activity at the start. Everybody’s focused and energized. Then we get to week five, six, seven, and people start to lose that impetus and appetite. From an HR perspective and from a leadership perspective, it is important to try and keep that rhythm and focus going.”

HR leaders can ensure that even remote teams stick to a regular rhythm, whether that means holding town halls, one-on-ones, or social activities to structure the day. One CHRO reminded us this also means finishing work with enough time to decompress before the next day, a significant challenge with blurred lines between work and home.

5. Connect your team creatively

After nearly four months in quarantine, employees are losing steam and motivation. The CHROs we spoke with have implemented new and creative communication tools to keep their teams engaged and their company spirit alive.

“We’ve created new and different communication tools. In a Nutshell is a weekly update from a different department each week, to keep everyone aware of what is going on in the company. To engage employees, we created Spotlight, which gives one employee each month a chance to share a bit about why they chose to join the company, what makes them unique, etc. Get To Know is a platform that  empowers employees to learn more about themselves, their vision, their dreams, their personal life, and more.”

No matter what creative idea you decide to try, make sure you communicate often, and consistently. The last thing any HR leader wants is for an already dispersed team to receive mixed or confusing messages.

6. Plan for return to the office, but leave it optional

Companies need to consider a variety of factors when planning to bring employees back to the office. There’s the transportation challenge. In Los Angeles everyone drives to work, but in London the majority of people use public transportation, so companies need to make sure people feel safe getting to work that way (one CHRO shared that his company’s cycle-to-work scheme is booming). Space also poses a challenge. If an office can typically accommodate 50 workstations, social distancing requirements reduce that number to 13. 

The return is complex, so planning is critical. That said, multiple CHROs stressed not to require employees to return, but rather to give people options so they can decide what they’re most comfortable with. And for the many employees who report feeling safe and productive at home, there’s no need to rush them back to crowded subways and tall buildings.

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.