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HR response to COVID-19 can lower or boost employee experience

As HR leaders are being tasked with difficult decisions amid the coronavirus pandemic, the employee experience depends on those decisions. Here's how to get them right.

As an HR leader, you've likely been proclaiming your commitment to employee experience the last few years. Your handling of the coronavirus outbreak will show to your workers whether you meant it.

At this unprecedented time in history, HR's response to COVID-19 needs to be empathetic and results-focused.

COVID-19 tests HR, business leaders' empathy, communication

As the number of confirmed cases rise at an exponential rate in several countries, workers' fears soar too. Concerns run the gamut from fear of job loss, and illness or death, to anxiety over personal finances as conferences are canceled and restaurants and other businesses are forced to shut down. A lot of traditional offices have quickly moved to remote work, and that sparks its own fears and uncertainties for those who aren't used to it. How employers handle employee fears and other issues will permanently affect employee relationships and retention rates.

"Moments that matter in the employee experience context are points in time when an employee feels strong or meaningful emotions, either positive or negative, that they will easily remember," said David Johnson, principal analyst in employee experience at Forrester Research.

Moments that matter cause workers to think and behave differently in important ways. These moments affect employees' willingness to fully engage in their work, collaborate with others effectively, communicate with others honestly or commit to stay at their company for the future, he said.

Why HR's response to COVID-19 is so critical

The coronavirus outbreak is singularly unique in that it is the largest public health threat today's workers have personally encountered. Even baby boomers, most at the edge of retirement, are too young to have witnessed comparable public health crises such as the global Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. There have been disease outbreaks since but not at the scale of occurrence on par with the current coronavirus pandemic. Examples of those include the polio outbreak in the early 1950s and the more recent SARS in 2003, MERS in 2012 and Ebola in 2014.

The massive scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the lack of both employee experience and institutional knowledge in the face of near-certain global economic crisis, creates a lasting impression throughout the organization.

"It is a moment that matters on multiple fronts: For employees it's about how their employers not only treat their individual situations -- as parents, caregivers, patients or family providers -- but also how it treats co-workers, clients and partners," said Amy Loomis, research director of Future of Work at IDC.

Just as happened after the 9/11 event, the nature of work is likely to permanently change as a result of the upheaval from this pandemic.

"It's also a moment that matters because it is historical -- in terms of the actions taken now having the potential to shift the cultural and business future of companies themselves," Loomis said. "It is a pivotal brand moment for companies to represent their values and actions at a critical time in history."

The future of work, HR rests on coronavirus handling

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn't just affect employees' feelings. Numerous practical matters are of prime consideration too.

Workplaces that were reliable foundations in workers' daily routines are now in flux. Part of the turmoil for traditional office workers comes not only from replacing on-site work environments with at-home remote offices, but also from evolving changes in regulations, office rules and work routines and processes.

Meanwhile, HR has to cope with managing this moment that matters for employees, and must incorporate change in its own routines. For example, The U.S. Department of Labor issued new guidance and resources ranging from OSHA Guidance on preparing workplaces and protecting employees, and effects on wages and hours worked under the Fair Labor Standards Act, to new flexibilities in unemployment insurance for those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

"It won't be enough to just say that work has changed, but to lead the implementation and encourage continuous refinement. The most important leadership trait will be practicing what they preach. If HR doesn't adopt the practices themselves, then they will have failed to transform the moment into a lasting redefinition of work and work relationships," said Daniel Rasmus, founder and principal analyst of Serious Insights, an industry analyst firm.

Beyond setting a good example, HR must take decisiveness steps to ensure they manage this moment correctly, which is to say that they build and maintain trust with employees.

"The three most important things for leaders to exhibit in times like these are transparency since the human brain craves information in times of uncertainty, empathy and vulnerability," said Courtney Harrison, chief HR officer at OneLogin, a cloud-based identity and access management provider. Harrison was slated to speak at SXSW again this year before the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Big moments like these matter as they are such emotional and tenuous times and leaders either make the fear and anxiety worse or help ease it to the best of their ability so that employees can work through these times in more rational and logical ways," Harrison said.

That in turn sets the tone in adoption of work changes that are likely to prove more permanent than temporary.

"This could become the transformational moment that will lead to a permanent change in the relationship between work and place. If the virus runs in cycles, and those cycles are tight, then people may be working remotely for a long period of time," Ramus said.

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