The Way We Do Our Jobs and Interact in the Workplace Will Never Be the Same After the COVID-19 Outbreak… and HR College Students are Getting a Crash Course In What to Expect

COVID-19 has put enormous pressure on human resources teams around the world over the past few months, and that pressure is only likely to build over the course of the year, and end up concentrating in the U.S. where the highest number of cases are now being reported. The impact of social distancing mandates, business downturns, health concerns, and general uncertainty about the future take a high toll on the workforce… the ones lucky enough to still have jobs. It all comes down to HR teams to manage those pressures and keep worker morale up so that businesses continue to function.

As a student heading for a career in HR, you’re spared from dealing with the worst of the mess, for now. You have your own concerns, of course; schools shutting down, your own health and that of your family, the anxiety over graduating into a disrupted job market.

The fear and the anxiety are very real, of course, but it’s also worth stepping back for a moment and taking stock: all crises create opportunities. As disturbing and awful as the present is, it’s both more productive and affirming to look to the future instead… both to improve your sense of security and to prepare yourself for some of the long-term effects that the pandemic could have on how human resource work is done.

In the course of your career, you’ll be asked to adapt to a lot of changes in the business world. You might as well consider the COVID-19 outbreak your first real-world lesson in that reality.



The Immediate Response Paints a Picture of What Lies Ahead for HR Teams

Some of the ways HR teams are scrambling to help out workforces right now are shedding light on what the standard protocols may be for HR departments by the time you graduate. Things that no one had a plan for have become business as usual at companies worldwide:

  • Sourcing and delivering personal protective equipment for staff
  • Developing work-from-home reporting systems and guidance for managers and workers
  • Dealing with emergency healthcare needs for large portions of the workforce
  • Developing and offering on-demand counseling sessions for stressed employees
  • Balancing retention and recruitment efforts against workforce rightsizing in a downgraded business environment

And all of it is happening at an unheard of scale.

Your tenure in HR will not, we hope, regularly feature pandemic responses on the scale of COVID-19. But the ways that companies are leaning on HR now are creating areas of responsibility that are likely to remain in place. Those may include:

  • Increased reliance for physical and mental health monitoring
  • Enhanced support for remote workers
  • Rapid training and retraining initiatives

These probably weren’t parts of the curriculum that were being stressed when you started the school year. But you might want to think hard about these things now since they’re likely to be critical parts of the job from now on.

New Roles for Corporate HR Departments in the Post-Pandemic World

Having seen what HR is capable of as transitions were made at break-neck speeds in response to the outbreak, companies are probably going to start relying on those same skills a lot more. You can expect your HR role to include more responsibilities in areas like:

Rapid Remote Training

Shifting large workforces to remote positions in a matter of weeks has put HR teams in a position of having to work up quick and effective training systems for employees who are… well, can we say, technologically challenged.

But the success they are having is giving business executives some bright ideas: if HR can quickly develop and deploy effective off-site training for one thing… then why not everything?

The days where HR trainers were given six months to come up with a team training plan may be over—business agility is better served by getting knowledge and tools out to employees quickly. Having demonstrated that it’s possible to quickly take in-person training completely online and eliminate a lot of inefficiencies inherent in having large groups gather in one place, HR is going to be expected to do it more and more.

Remote Workforce Support

The same thing may be true about remote workers in general. Corporate executives have for years resisted the idea of allowing widespread remote work, concerned about productivity, security, and oversight.

Faced with no viable alternatives during the coronavirus outbreak, they are going to be forced to see what study after study has already found: remote workers aren’t slacking off when the boss isn’t looking, they’re actually consistently more productive than the office-based workforce.

Workforce Wellness Initiatives

Healthcare and employee plans are another area that executives, politicians, and employees are being forced to think about during the crisis. Workers in critical industries like healthcare and grocery stores feel they are being put at risk just by showing up to work every day. Add to that minimal protections and poor healthcare coverage, and it’s a perfect storm for morale problems even if everyone stays healthy, and real human costs if someone contracts the virus.

With mass layoffs occurring in just about every industry other than those deemed essential, the sudden loss of insurance or difficulties in extending coverage through COBRA is something every working person in America is thinking about.

HR teams will have to handle implementation of both government and corporate policy changes likely to result in the coming years, but on top of that, they’ll likely be asked to put even more effort into various workforce and workplace wellness initiatives. This could take many forms:

  • Psychological and counseling support for remote workers
  • Developing and enforcing workplace cleanliness and safety standards
  • Cross-training and disaster response planning

Re-Skilling the Workforce

Adaptability is the watchword of the day amid the response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Companies that can retrain and refocus their workforce have incredible advantages over those that can’t see their way out of the restrictions and business impacts happening right now.

That will mean a fresh emphasis for HR in the future on viewing human assets as capable, adaptable elements in the overall business plan, and putting retention and retraining over recruitment and turnover. Whether that comes through in-house retraining efforts or partnerships with outside firms, you’ll probably have to develop high-level skills related to assessing individuals for different roles and working to develop their skillsets to meet the changing needs of the business.

Transitioning to Online-Only Courses in Your HR Degree Program is Exactly the Primer You Need

Like millions of other college students in the United States right now, you probably had to pack your bags and head home a little bit early this school year with no real idea when you might return. Human resource management programs across the country are falling prey to campus closures as a result of the social distancing measures being taken to halt the spread of COVID-19.

But that doesn’t mean programs are shutting down. Most schools are determined to fight through the challenge by transitioning into entirely online learning environments for the duration of the outbreak, exactly the same way corporations are embracing the work-from-home model for employees.

Even after the virus is brought under control and a vaccine is developed, the workplace that you enter after graduation will be profoundly changed from the one you thought you would be stepping into when you started your degree program. Part of adjusting your education in the coming months will no doubt include major changes in how HR teams operate in a world reshaped by social distancing and the trend toward working remotely.

Your problems are relatively small in a world that is suddenly filled with a lot of big ones. But they are still a very real challenge for you, and they’re being piled on top of all the stress and social isolation you’re already experiencing right now.

You were probably well aware that many HR degrees are already offered online when you signed up for your program. So we’re guessing that you picked the traditional, on-campus route for a reason… maybe you like the campus experience, maybe you learn more effectively in-person, maybe you’re just such a people person that it only made sense for you to earn your degree shoulder to shoulder with a group of likeminded peers.

Though this might make the current situation an extra headache for you, those same characteristics are what make you perfectly cut out for a job in HR.

The point is, though, that online HR classes are not exactly a moon shot. This has all been done before. The technology exists, the curriculums have been developed, the connections have all been made. There are patterns to follow to roll these things out effectively and deliver the same comprehensive education you would have received in the classroom.

You just have to get up to speed with them so you can start picking up what your instructors will be laying down.

Learning Management Systems Do the Heavy Lifting in Online Learning

Many schools have well-established online classes already up and running. For the most part, these are run inside web-based platforms called Learning Management Systems (LMS).

These platforms have been specially developed to offer the services that college students and instructors need:

  • Real-time chat and video streaming systems
  • Class-based forums
  • Homework assignment systems
  • Quiz and testing capabilities

Just about every LMS can be accessed by any old web browser, like Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. Increasingly, many of them also let you download dedicated apps to your mobile devices for even easier access.

There are dozens of popular LMS systems in use. Developed by third party companies with years of experience in online learning, it’s entirely possible that when online corporate employee training becomes standard in the years ahead, it will be these very same platforms are used to deliver it:

Most of them are super easy to use; you’ll need to get a login and password from your school IT department. In fact, you probably already have one; it’s typically the same as your existing school mail account.

How Online Classes Work

There are two major formats that most online classes adopt:

  • Asynchronous Asynchronous coursework is the hallmark of convenience and flexibility in online learning since it doesn’t require you to attend class or access course material at a scheduled time. The instructor assigns reading or video materials for your review along with accompanying homework assignments; you then cover the material and complete the assignment in your own time before the deadline. In between, you can ask questions or discuss the assignment in an online forum or via email.
  • Synchronous – Synchronous courses are more like what you’re used to in a conventional classroom. They are delivered in real-time, typically through video or audio streaming, with everyone in the class watching the instructor at the same time, and participating through chat or video interaction. If conducted through an LMS, you will probably have access to a whiteboard and other materials at the same time, which everyone can see. Presentations are often recorded so you can go back and review them later.

The sophistication of LMS platforms means that in-class environments can be replicated pretty effectively. Don’t think you’re getting out of group assignments or in-class presentations… you will be tightly networked with your classmates and expected to participate just like you would on campus.

What Kind of Software Will You Need for Online HR Classes?

As a future HR professional, you had better get used to Microsoft Office, because you are going to be writing memos and building spreadsheets in it for most of your career. It’s a good bet you already have it, but if you don’t, you’re probably going to need it.

Apart from that, however, you’ll be happy to learn that most LMS systems pretty much deliver all the software functionality you need. Got an assignment to turn in? It’s built in. Take a quiz? All right there.

Some of the videoconferencing software you might already use daily outside of school may come with capabilities beyond those offered by the base LMS, however. You might find one of these to be a better option for online study groups and partner projects you work on outside of the LMS:

You’ll find that other software is valuable for just helping you with your concentration and study habits while you are separated from the normal support system of the classroom. Note-taking and mindmapping software can give your brain functions a boost:

And while the internet is a modern miracle that is allowing you to complete your degree even while in isolation, it’s also a terrible distraction that seems to compete for your attention at exactly the wrong moments. Luckily, there’s an entire class of apps designed to turn off the endless stream of cat videos and COVID-19 memes so you get some real work done:

Accessing Other School Services During a Campus Shutdown

As an on-campus student, you probably were relying on a lot more than just classes to help you through your program. You may have gotten used to using other resources, such as:

  • Libraries
  • Clinics
  • Social services
  • Tutoring or writing centers
  • Career services and counseling offices

All that got shuttered at the same time, leaving you on your own at a particularly bad time.

But don’t despair… schools are working overtime to fill in the gaps in all of these areas. Many counseling, support, and tutoring services are quickly being moved into the same collaborative LMS platforms that classes are being conducted through. Electronic library services allow access to digital archives and current publications.

Check your school’s online resource center, and be patient! Ask for help if you need it, but be aware it takes time for everyone to adapt.

Online Tools Will Be an Even Bigger Part of Work-life When the Dust Finally Settles

If all the scrambling to get your brain wrapped around these new tools and requirements seems pointless and temporary right now, think again. Many of these same kinds of tools are only going to become more and more important in the working world in almost every industry post-pandemic.

For years, HR departments have struggled with corporate execs rejecting the idea of a remote workforce, and have faced real challenges handling traditional HR functions online. But as the COVID-19 lockdown is proving, everything from employee evaluations and team-building to onboarding and productivity analysis can be done remotely.

The current situation is forcing a resolution to those issues. With no choice but to support remote workforces, it’s becoming clear that remote work is an entirely practical option… and will continue to be even after social-distancing restrictions are lifted.

That’s likely to lead to a profound change in HR service delivery, one that you will be part of as a new graduate in the field. The tools you’re having to get handy with just to finish your education now are quite possibly going to be the same ones you will end up working with for the better part of your career.

How to Cope with a Sudden Absence of Human Contact in a Human-Centric Field

In some ways, this is a test of your chops as a future human resources staffer. Think of it as practice. Hopefully this is the last pandemic you ever have to deal with in your career as an HR professional, but it won’t be the last disaster. And workforces have already begun to move into remote positions even during the normal course of business.

So your ability to build out systems to get yourself through this is a great way to see if you have what it takes to help a corporate workforce during some future calamity.

Take Advantage of Assistance from Your School

Colleges are not just throwing students off into the deep end with online classes; they are putting together resource guides, assistance programs, and even support groups for other students in the same boat. Although everyone is under a lot of pressure, people are working overtime to get you help.

Dont Be Afraid to Deal with Personal Issues First

School is just school at the end of the day. Your personal safety and the health and well-being of your family have to come first. So if classes are stressing you out, look at options for delaying your education or reducing your course load for a semester or two. You’ll probably find instructors and administrators are particularly sympathetic right now, so don’t be afraid to ask for accommodations even when policy seems to be against you.

Find a Break with Free and Ready Access to Fun and Friends Online

Although it’s the source of most of your bad news right now, the internet can be a real advantage to keeping you sane amidst the chaos. Although it’s important to keep your focus when it’s time to do schoolwork, you should build some breaks into your day to browse Pinterest, scroll mindlessly through Instagram, or play a round of Words With Friends with some, well, friends.

It’s going to be a rocky few months as you get your bearings in your suddenly-online-HR-program, but you will get through it! And when you come out the other side, you’ll have some new experiences on your CV that will make you a better and more effective HR professional in the long term.

Stay Ahead of the Curve – Prepare Now for the Changes that are Just Around the Corner

Fortunately, a lot of what you can do to prepare for a post-COVID-19 workplace in HR isn’t all that different from what you might have done anyway. If nothing else, it seems likely to accelerate trends that were already becoming important for human resources professionals.

Build Your Technology Skills

The days of shuffling paper records were already long-gone in corporate HR, so technical skills are part of your education today no matter what. But with strong odds that more and more of the workforce—maybe including you—will be working remotely in the not-too-distant future means you should double down on this, acquiring more digital skills and focusing on internet-based HR platforms and tools.

Hone Assertiveness and Self-Discipline

With remote work comes a need to stay focused and on task. You’ll be responsible for finding ways to keep the workforce you serve motivated in these areas, so it only makes sense to start by developing iron willpower and determination in yourself first.

And with distance comes detachment, so you’ll want to figure out how to project yourself assertively into decision-making and conversations that are no longer happening in a conference room, but instead through e-mail and virtual presentations.

Prepare to Care for Workers

This may come as a shock to you, but employees in some organizations don’t always see HR as the good guy. But that could shift in a post-COVID-19 world. With pandemics on the brain, you’ll probably be asked to spend more of your time dealing with employee health and wellness issues… not just as it pertains to this outbreak, but with an overall focus on workplace hygiene and disease prevention.

HR will have to be proactive and aggressive in supporting employees in the future, through more generous sick leave policies, mental health support, and, in many industries and workplace settings, ensuring the availability and use of basic personal protective equipment. Societal attitudes toward masks and gloves are likely to change, and customer-facing staff may need or want that protection… or customers may demand they wear it! HR will be in the hot seat to get it done, so you will have to be thinking about the best ways to keep your workers safe and healthy.

As someone who is going to be responsible for hiring and firing people, though, you of all people will recognize that adaptability is key. Read the predictions, lay the groundwork for big changes… but be ready to jump in any direction when the time comes.

It may seem like a long path right now to a new world after COVID-19, but that day will come soon. We’re all struggling with a sense of powerlessness in the meantime, but as an HR student you can make the most of this very difficult situation to be better prepared for the career ahead of you.


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