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Pandemics & HR in 2020: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Workforce

Posted by Neha De

September 17, 2020    |     9-minute read (1724 words)

Over the course of just a few short months, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of people around the world and has changed the face of the workforce. In the U.S., the economic impact of the virus has led to a large-scale move toward remote work, new categorizations of essential workers and unprecedented unemployment that is expected to continue increasing. According to Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, the coronavirus-induced global recession is expected to last for the entirety of this year and the next.

Amid stay-at-home orders across the country, office workers have abandoned their daily commutes to work, and are now working from their couches, dining room tables and even beds. In fact, many have found themselves in this situation for the long term, as companies struggle to find a path forward while restrictions lift slowly.

Millions of permanent employees have been furloughed or laid off in the U.S., bringing unemployment rates across the country into the mid-teens. On the other hand, thousands of people have been hired by big companies such as Amazon, Walmart, Target, Domino’s Pizza and FedEx as temporary and part-time workers due to increased demand as consumers have shifted largely to ordering food at home and shopping online.

While such temporary jobs rarely offer stability and benefits, they are expected to become more common even after the worst of the pandemic is over. According to a study by Gartner Inc., 32 percent of businesses will rely on a contingent workforce of temporary and contract workers following the pandemic. This will increase workforce flexibility — temporary and contract workers are a scalable resource that can be reduced or expanded according to business needs. Especially in uncertain times, it makes sense to have a flexible workforce, both to respond with swiftness to changes in the business environment and to control costs.

According to Goldman Sachs, the U.S. economy will contract by an annualized 34 percent in the second quarter, with unemployment rising to 15 percent, before a rebound can be expected.

COVID-19, a Technological Equalizer of Sorts

While the pandemic has led to a working culture that allows or encourages flexible work arrangements, it has also provided businesses with the unexpected opportunity to reevaluate their current organizational systems and procedures, and eliminate redundant steps so they can adopt a more technologically-forward approach.

The coronavirus pandemic has also forced organizations to accelerate their transformations to be all-digital on a global level. Employees across the board are now required to have access to the same information to do their jobs properly. This has put an end to the lengthy (and sometimes boring) presentations covering repetitive information, enabling staff members to focus on resolving important issues in shorter, online meetings.

In effect, the pandemic has made virtual meetings more popular than ever — a trend that’s expected to become the new normal. Video conferences have been found to be much faster and more efficient when it comes to meetings as well as team-building exercises, and services such as Google Meet, Skype and Zoom have seen massive upticks in popularity.

COVID-19 has also reduced business travel significantly. Not having to travel long distances for in-person meetings saves businesses money, and also makes business leaders much more efficient, while reducing the stress of travel.

In addition, many organizations have made efforts to become more environmentally conscious and have embraced technological advancements and increased their overall efficiency. This has led to many examples of innovation, higher levels of creativity and increased communication between employers and employees.

Focus on Employee Health and Well-Being

Employee wellness is now one of the top priorities for both employees and businesses. Companies are working on making sure their team members are doing well mentally and physically by initiating team activities on a regular basis.

Companies that are expecting employees to physically return to the workplace in the near future are stepping up their cleaning and sterilization efforts. Many have implemented mandatory on-the-job screenings. Some of the biggest U.S. employers including Amazon and Walmart are getting ready to take the temperature of all employees when they report to work, while others such as Home Depot are giving their team members thermometers and asking them to check for a fever at home before coming into work.

There have also been discussions about making face masks mandatory for all employees, to be worn around the office, at many companies. Additionally, efforts are ongoing on providing support to staff members regarding their mental health, regardless of whether they work remotely or come into an office.

The Typical Nine-Hour Workday No Longer Exists

Until now, many companies have been reluctant about the idea of working remotely. However, the pandemic has forced them to adapt to the circumstances and consider remote work as the new normal and possibly the only option going forward.

One of the biggest positives that can be seen in this situation is that the transition to remote working has resulted in working parents, especially fathers, being able to spend more time with their children than they were previously able to do. And, with the entire household having to adapt to a new normal, the flexibility of the online environment has provided working parents with the opportunity to participate in domestic care and home-schooling sessions. Until now, in the traditional work environment, working parents were constrained by regular hours and often long commuting times.

COVID-19 Brings About a Major Change in HR Priorities

A survey by Gartner Inc. found that 52 percent of HR leaders reported their companies’ business operations to be continuing at a reduced level due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mark Whittle, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice, said, “Many organizations have entered the recovery phase and are focused on stabilizing the business and restarting activity. HR leaders will play a critical role during this period. However, they continue to face uncertainty around several key issues, including equipping leaders to manage remote teams over the long haul, preserving company culture with a more remote workforce, and engaging workers in a cost-constrained environment.” To address these issues and best support the businesses, HR leaders are adjusting their priorities for the remainder of 2020.

Here are some ways HR leaders can lead and drive to get the best at their organizations:

  • In order to survive, companies need to adapt to the future of work, and the capability to move quickly is critical for the HR department. HR can offer a systemic viewpoint to ensure communication, coordination and collaboration across business groups and functional units, so that businesses can adapt to changing markets and customer demands in response to the crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Company culture is also a critical contribution area for HR. A positive culture — be it in corporate headquarters or home offices — can boost employee morale by making the workdays enjoyable, which leads to higher productivity and lower employee attrition.
  • HR plays an important role in developing leaders, holding them accountable and ensuring they are successful. Since remote work is probably here to stay, leaders need to equip themselves with skills in managing from a distance, aligning work among employees, motivating team members toward a vision in the midst of confusion, providing calm and clarity in thought and action, and building community.
  • An organization’s success depends on having the right staff members in the right roles at the right times, and HR is crucial to this process. A recent study found that talent-optimized companies enjoy 34 percent higher employee performance.
  • HR’s role in building social capital among employees cannot be overstated. Developing teams, ensuring thorough onboarding and establishing mentorship programs and affiliation groups are a few ways HR can make a difference in this regard.
  • Engaging employees is tough when they are working from their homes. HR can establish best practices for employee engagement through different types of creative approaches. HR leaders can engage staff members through quick surveys and by creating feedback loops to help business leaders motivate and keep staff members on board.
  • The pandemic has adversely affected diverse populations, and HR can play a crucial role here as well. The HR team can educate the company, understand the realities of diverse experiences and take proactive steps to equalize the playing field.
  • Millions of employees are suffering from mental health issues due to the pandemic, and HR can offer them support in terms of employee assistance programs and platforms for exercise, mindfulness, nutrition and financial counseling. Such initiatives are not only good for the employees, but they are also great for businesses because employees with a greater sense of holistic well-being tend to be more productive and can contribute more fully to their work.
  • HR is responsible for employment, pay and benefits systems. In difficult and uncertain times, HR can ensure empathy and unbiased processes when layoffs are unavoidable. Also, the HR department can implement plans to offer increased flexibility, giving employees the chance to change their work status (for example, full-time to part-time) or modify retirement plans.
  • Typically, the HR department draws up a couple of policies every year; however, COVID-19 has made it necessary to modify regulations based on federal or state mandates, with input from various stakeholders.

Ultimately, HR is expected to play a fundamental role in ensuring the success of businesses through and beyond the pandemic. And taking charge in reimagining the organization, administering HR systems, developing talent strategies, addressing the well-being and work-life balance of the employees and facilitating their reentry to the office are all essential contributions that the HR department can make.

However, if hiring a full-time HR team that could offer this kind of support isn’t an affordable option for you, you can partner with a professional employer organization (PEO) for your payroll, human resource and other services. This way you’ll find yourself working with a team of experts who can help you ride out the storm. According to The National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO), small businesses that use PEOs grow seven to nine percent faster, have 10 to 14 percent lower employee turnover and are 50 percent less likely to go out of business.

Also, since PEOs are experts at what they do, outsourcing such functions removes potential risks of non-compliance with the changing legislation, statutory requirements and resulting penalties that can come with it.

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