When economic downturns, natural disasters, company reorganizations, and other challenges arise, companies depend on HR leaders to set policies, initiate support, and assist employees. During the COVID-19 pandemic, HR departments have been actively involved in their companies’ decisions (such as slowing businesses, canceling conferences, and implementing new work arrangements) to slow the spread of the disease and to adjust to statewide and local social-distancing directives. By maintaining several key focus points, HR staff can more effectively lead their companies through this crisis.
Like everyone else in a company, the members of the HR department are also employees who are affected by the pandemic. But because of its training and purview, HR is in a unique position to support organizations during a crisis. Therefore it’s critical that HR staff refrain from panicking and instead find ways to remain calm (self-hypnosis, meditation, and exercise are some useful strategies), help set the tone for the rest of the company, and get the information they need to help the organization get through this difficult time.
Create talking points for managers
Employees are looking to their leaders to provide them with reassurance and answers during this crisis. HR staff can share only what they know, however, and it’s important that managers and HR are on the same page with regards to what and how to communicate to the rest of the workforce. By creating talking points for managers to use, HR can help make sure that the company’s messaging is both accurate and timely.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, one important topic that organizations need to address with their employees is how to cover employee absences in cases that do not qualify as sick days (such as having to self-quarantine) when those employees are unable to work from home. For example, several companies (including Warby Parker, REI, Columbia Sportswear, and Patagonia) have issued public statements announcing that their stores and offices will be closed and that their employees will continue to be paid during those closures. These and similar announcements are key vectors for delivering two vital reassurances to employees: that their safety is important to the company, and that their financial security is important to the company.
Compile and distribute a list of support services useful during a crisis
In addition to the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) hotline, this list should include contact information for local organizations that offer support for health services, childcare, and coping with emotional or financial stress. If business closures are taking place, the document could also include a list of open local stores that carry necessities (e.g., food, medications, cleaning supplies, toilet paper) and information about those stores’ hours and whether they offer pickup or delivery options. (On a related note, giving employees time off to do necessary shopping is a small but meaningful way companies can support their teams, especially when local stores have limited hours and inventories.)
As the entire nation struggles through this public health crisis, this is the time when it’s especially important for HR to step up and connect with employees. By offering an ear or a shoulder when needed and showing emotion and compassion, HR can play a vital role in helping everyone manage this challenging period together. Instead of requiring staff to come to work in unsafe conditions and continue face-to-face interactions with customers and applicants, HR and company leaders need to show their humanity and demonstrate more patience and empathy than ever before.
The hope is that most communities won’t be subjected to mandated or long-term quarantines. But many parts of the country will be, and HR needs to be able to support the employees are who affected by such orders. For example, HR can proactively prepare for local school closures by developing ready-to-implement flexible schedules or work-from-home arrangements for employees who are parents of young children. Similarly, HR can create response plans for if a quarantine goes into effect or if an employee is exposed to the coronavirus or has a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19.
The pandemic situation is rapidly evolving, and it’s impossible to predict exactly how things will be a few months or even a few weeks out. In the face of so many unknowns, it’s perfectly reasonable for company leadership to say “We don’t know” as long as that’s followed by “but we’re working on a solution as fast we can.” Now and during any crisis, it’s critical to maintain high levels of communication and transparency, both of which are key to maintaining the trust of employees and helping everyone stay calm (and not panicked). One of HR’s core responsibilities is to make sure that employees know that companies value them ahead of everything else.
Jessica Miller-Merrell is a workplace change agent focused on human resources and talent acquisition. She's also the founder of Workology (formerly Blogging4Jobs) and can be contacted on Twitter at @jmillermerrell.