COVID-19: Changing reality and the role of HR

The COVID-19 outbreak has hit the global economy rather hard. The world has witnessed a tectonic shift in all aspects of human life - business or personal. The streets are deserted, the corporate hallways are empty, and life as we knew it has come to a standstill. Since the beginning of the year, the pandemic is on the rise in India and has forced a lockdown of all its economic activities. This has resulted in employees working from home to protect themselves from the infection. Students are also homebound with their working parents dealing with work and home responsibilities all at once.

The role of HR in the new world order

The Coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the work dynamics, and organizations need to be savvy enough to adapt to it. The human resource function plays a big role in leading this change. There are several challenges where HR would need to bring in a fresh set of perspectives. In the post-COVID-19 world, employees are working in a non-office environment and are physically away from their teams. This could lead to some concerns regarding employee engagement and productivity. They can be mentally exhausted with extended work hours and little social interaction.

Add to this the drama of living in a virus-infested world. HR led activities such as employee engagement, learning and development, performance review, etc still need to be performed albeit remotely. Then there are the challenges related to the safety of the employees. Let us explore the different areas where HR can contribute in order to prepare for the new reality -

Driving engagement in a distributed workforce

With most employees working from home in the near future, HR will have to carry out the monumental task of driving engagement for a physically distant workforce or one that is coming to work riddled with anxiety due to the pandemic. Active measures to offer empathetic support to the employees are crucial here.

Mining company Vedanta ensured that its employees had access to psychological counseling helpline to tackle any anxiety or stress. They also had their managers conduct regular virtual team ‘huddles’ to build team engagement. According to Rajkamal Vempati, executive vice president and HR head of Axis bank, the company encouraged its managers to be in touch with all team members and motivate them.

HR can thus set a culture of empathy and support within the organization through different activities. For example, set up an online helpdesk for employees for assistance in clearing medical expenses and insurance claims. They can also provide them with a doctor-on-call facility to consult with a physician in case of any urgent medical issue. In this way, organizations can offer those resources to employees that enable them to stay motivated and focused while working away from the office.

Adopting changes in infrastructure

With Coronavirus impacting several employees across organizations, the first responsibility of HR is to make sure that there are measures in place to help employees stay focused and productive. To do so, there is a need for infrastructure that monitors and supports a work-from-home culture. For example, building a system to efficiently monitor employee attendance. Also, there will be a need to make policies regarding elements such as usage of work-related hardware and equipment at home. HR will have to assess the potential security hazards of the same. Thus, HR managers and organizations will have to alter workplace rules and regulations according to the new work-from-home dynamics. For example, as work-from-home blurs boundaries and extend the daily work hours for employees, companies will have to set rules regarding calling or texting employees beyond their working hours to curb employee burnout.

Nurturing organizational culture

An organization’s culture is at the heart of its performance. A clearly articulated organizational culture leads to its success as it gives the employees a sense of purpose and direction. While all work processes can be automated, it is not possible to automate an organization’s culture. In such a scenario, HR needs to open all channels of communication for its employees. For example, e-commerce giant Flipkart is organizing virtual chai break sessions with its employees. It is an informal opportunity for the company to instill an organizational culture and connect with the employees.  

Talent acquisition and retention during a difficult phase

As companies recover from the lockdown phase, many of them will have to review their hiring strategies. There are organizations that laid-off employees or froze hiring during the lockdown. This may have adversely impacted the brand imagery of those organizations among prospective candidates. Now that the lockdown period is over, many of the organizations would be relying on outsourcing some of the work to contractual agencies or even start hiring for some crucial roles. For example, Wakefit’s co-founder Chaitanya Ramalingegowda says that they will bring a change in the mix of talent in their organization. In case of Wakefit, they want to increase the hiring for technical or research roles as they believe that it would be more impactful for their business. Similarly, other organizations would also be looking to hire according to their unique needs at this time.

As organizations try to bounce back in these uncertain times, they would have to look for candidates with a hunger to learn new things. HR managers will have to create a hiring plan in sync with the company’s needs. They will have to create a talent pipeline that is ready for future uncertainties.

Resetting performance with strong metrics and transparency

Companies cannot rely on their legacy processes to ensure high performance in a new work-from-home structure. In the post COVID-19 world, an organization’s workforce is distributed, stressed, and disjointed. They need deeper insights and strong metrics to measure their performance and be productive.

WakeFits’s Chaitanya Ramalingegowda opines that companies need to have strong metrics and transparency to operate in the post COVID-19 world. To build strong metrics for workforce performance, HR managers need to analyze the operational gaps in the current scenario. This will help their companies’ workforce to enhance their skills and be industry ready.

According to Suvodeep Das, VP Sales and Marketing at Sodexo Benefits and Rewards India, amidst lack of social interaction and fear of job cuts, it is also important for companies to maintain transparency with employees. They need to communicate clearly with them on their steps to mitigate the crisis at hand, as well as their plans regarding the future of the employees.

Creation of safer workspaces

There are several industries where a large chunk of the workforce has to be physically present to perform their duties. For those working from the office, companies will be liable to make the workspace extra clean and safe for everyone. HR will have to facilitate the process of maintaining social distancing and cleanliness at workspaces. This could be done through well-designed work areas, shift-based/ roster-based attendance, frequent sanitation, availability of sanitizers, and exemptions for at-risk employee groups. For instance, Bank of Baroda has exempted all employees over 55 years of age or those suffering from ailments, from coming to work.

Taking a cue from Vodafone India, which is providing a temporary living arrangement on campus to its employees, other organizations can also do the same. HR managers will have to help transition their organizations towards a safer work environment.

The COVID-19 landscape, although threatening, also offers a platform for faster digital transformation, adaptation to productive technology, and improved work-life balance for the employees. HR would do well to recognize these opportunities and act on them. For this to work, they need to continually connect with employees and ensure that employees feel engaged with their managers and teams. Keeping a close watch on how the COVID-19 crisis unfolds will also be necessary to stay ahead of any issues. The task at hand is significant and with the right approach, HR can truly turn this into a game-changer.


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