Under the COVID-19 Paradigm, HR Pros are Feeling the Pressure of Change and Working Harder than Ever

Nobody in any HR department in America is going to be able to slack off ever again, or at least that’s how it feels right now… Okay, let’s be fair; maybe slacking off is not the right choice of words for teams with a reputation for always being on-task and always stepping up to do the heavy lifting.

But ask yourself: did human resources ever get as much done in as short a period of time as it is now during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Human resources staff have been adapting corporate operations and policies at a breakneck pace to handle the sudden shutdowns and forced closures. Among other things, HR staff have found themselves:

  • Drafting and implementing remote work policies from scratch
  • Putting together health and wellness updates for staff
  • Mothballing in-office operations
  • Managing the transition of in-person HR processes to online services
  • Updating and putting into practice continuity of business strategies
  • Providing staff with mental health and wellness support and resources

And all of that has happened in a matter of weeks!

Was any HR policy or practice in history ever put together that fast?

That speed is causing some executives and even other HR professionals to ask the inevitable question: what exactly was the holdup with this stuff before?

No One Ever Lets You Stop At Just One Miracle

Let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there who don’t really appreciate the time and effort HR staff put into the job. You do a lot of things behind the scenes that helps the rest of the organization succeed. Behind the scenes is not a role that gets a lot of credit, however.

But some of the frustration that people feel with human resources lands pretty close to the mark. Let’s not kid ourselves: HR is paid to be conservative, and that means dotting I’s and crossing T’s, sometimes to a fault. Some of those remote worker policies have been decorating desktops in the HR department for months, held up while HR managers fretted over productivity measures and supervisory challenges. Those days are gone. The future of HR is going to be about expediency and decisive action.

It’s enough of a thing that, as far back as 2018, big research companies like Gartner were citing HR departments for standing in the way of adopting more efficient, agile workplace practices… the same sort of thing that many companies have now managed to accomplish overnight.

So now that you have implemented all of this in the blink of an eye—literally overnight in some cases—you are going to be under some real pressure the next time you try to put the brakes on, no matter how prudent it might be to proceed slowly.

Major Accomplishments May Become Standard Expectations for HR Departments

On a long list of changes that could be coming to the HR profession after COVID-19 subsides, new expectations for quick turn-arounds on HR projects may not be at the top of your list of concerns. But one thing is for sure, now that HR departments have proven they can adapt and accomplish goals at lightning speed, any task that comes down the pike  from here on out is going to have to happen at break-neck speeds too:

Hiring Will Have to Kick in Quickly…

One place where this might come out fairly soon is in hiring.

Although economic forecasts are all across the board, 17 million people have been laid off in slightly less than a month according to unemployment numbers posted by the Brookings Institute. That reflects a combination of cratering business demand and lockdown orders in various states. While business may not immediately jump in every industry as soon as the lock down orders are rolled back, in many cases a pent-up demand could result in a surge of customers.

That means some businesses that just finished a round of layoffs will find themselves dramatically understaffed. HR will be under pressure to ramp up hiring just as fast as they were letting people go only weeks ago.

and Repeatedly

Worse, this may only be the first of many cycles. Many experts predict a future over the next two years with the potential for repeated regional quarantines to squash localized outbreaks that will inevitably pop up until a vaccine is found. Businesses could find themselves in repeated and rapid cycles of headcount growth and decline.

Most HR professionals view onboarding as a process that takes about three months. But if an entire hiring and firing cycle needs to take place in that period in the event that short-duration lock-down orders prove to be necessary, our traditional idea of what it takes to hire and train a new employee simply won’t work. Similarly, the traditional annual performance appraisal may soon look outdated. HR will have to find better methods and metrics, and do it fast.

Major Workforce Adjustments Could Radically Change Workforce Management Practices

Shifting some jobs over to temporary employment contracts through temp agencies is one of the obvious solutions companies are looking at, which is something that’s pretty familiar to HR already. Another likely solution, switching over to gig workers, is a much larger adjustment since there isn’t always a pool of workers with the necessary skills you can just dip into as is typically the case when you ring up the local temp agency.

Whatever the solution, you can expect a very limited window to make it work. And you might be the one that has to make the decision about the trade-offs yourself. No one is going to wait while you go through a six-month exploratory committee phase before making a move.

A Rapid Realignment with New Company Strategies Will Shift Your View of What Is Possible

All this may require significantly adjusting your perspective and throwing away some of what you’ve learned about HR in school and training. Don’t get us wrong, we know there are valid reasons behind the old way of doing things. For instance, a lengthy on-boarding process has been shown to increase employee retention rates, which is a key consideration when acquisition costs are high.

But with mass unemployment, some of the assumptions behind needing to entice new hires to stay with the company go out the window. Your focus might have to shift away from increasing retention if an employee’s future with the company now depends more on outside factors; things like the possibility of new shut-down orders in the year ahead to deal with COVID-19 flare-ups, the overall health of the economy, and whether the company can afford to keep them on the payroll. In a world where rolling stay-at-home orders and intermittent business shut-downs may be the new normal for a while, your focus may be more on reducing the cost associated with short-cycle employment and more frequent on-boarding as a result of necessary layoffs and employee furloughs.

You’ll probably also have to come up with more solid justifications for decisions that slow down projects. Conventional wisdom won’t cut it anymore; COVID-19 has done nothing if it hasn’t thrown convention out the window. That means you need to be prepared to clearly demonstrate the real dollars and cents impact of the decisions being made in your HR department, especially those that could be perceived as slowing the wheels of progress. If you feel something requires an additional step, you’ll need to be able to show how skipping that step would end up costing the company more money later on down the road.

You may also simply have to go with the flow. The current HR responses to COVID-19 all happened without any foot-dragging. Instead, HR teams pitched in quickly to get vital business projects done as fast and effectively as possible. That’s exactly the kind of teamwork that corporate executives want to see. And having seen that it is possible, they’re going to expect to see more of it in the future.


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