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HR's role in juggling COVID-19's effects

Corporate HR leaders and their teams have some of the most important roles in dealing with the pandemic's effects on the business. Here's an in-depth look.

Nobody yet knows the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but its initial effects on the economy, employment rates and the way people work are profound. The world of work will not return to how it was before the pandemic and HR teams are critical in the "new normal."

How the HR role has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

Against a backdrop of massive disruptions, HR leaders and their teams have been under significant pressure to manage the many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many companies, HR has taken the lead on communicating information about COVID-19 and its effects on the workforce in a way that mitigates that information's potential damage to morale. HR professionals have also had to manage and execute a multitude of business decisions that affect the workforce -- such as mandatory vacations, furloughs, layoffs and workforce reductions, sick pay policies, travel restrictions and work-from-home processes -- as well as implement federal government and state decisions, such as programs and policies set forth in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), business closure regulations and public safety stay-at-home orders.

In addition to these "enforced" changes to business operations, HR leaders must also uphold corporate policies and procedures that support employees in remaining safe and healthy -- including social distancing measures -- while also trying to keep the business running as normally as possible.

HR teams must also ensure that the human resource information systems and other HR systems uphold changes amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Legal changes to time, vacation and pay mean making technical changes in the appropriate systems, which requires testing before these changes can be pushed into production. Given how often employees enter time and are paid -- not to mention the possibility of having to take vacation or sick pay -- HR teams must be agile and quick.

In many companies, HR has taken the lead on communicating information about COVID-19 and its effects on the workforce in a way that mitigates that information's potential damage to morale.

HR leaders, working with their CFOs, have put many implementation and transformation projects on hold as they try to figure out when business -- and revenue -- can return closer to pre-pandemic levels. The lack of clarity makes business planning difficult and business leaders are erring on the side of caution when it comes to capital expenditure on IT projects, even when an ROI is almost certain.

HR must continue ensuring that workforce health and travel information is collected, processed and stored legally. HIPAA and GDPR in the European Union contain provisions that define the legality around this data collection process, while there are various laws country-by-country that define local data collection, processing and storage.

HR's role navigating a COVID-19 world

Even as governments and companies' top leadership take tentative steps to return to some version of "business as usual," HR leaders have an important role. They need to continue to monitor, study and implement national and local regulations, particularly if the current economic situation continues on its current trajectory or governments enact additional regulations or programs.

HR can work with business leaders to find alternatives to layoffs, should the economic situation require additional methods of reducing workforce costs. These alternatives can include reducing the work week hours, and offering voluntary unpaid leaves of absences, flexible working arrangements, partial salary postponement and salary reductions. Hiring freezes are also effective at reducing workforce costs but may not represent a significant reduction to rule out other practices.

How software vendors and partners are helping

Many HR vendors have been providing software or services for free, either ongoing on a limited-time basis. Here is a summary of what some of the larger vendors are doing.

  • SAP
    • SAP SuccessFactors has postponed its H1 2020 release by five weeks to give customers more breathing room to review and test the release in their test system. They have also provided a regularly updated list of legal changes for their Employee Central Payroll system, as well as a list of partner resources.
    • SAP Concur TripIt and SAP Concur Duty of Care are available for all customers to use for free during the pandemic.
    • Qualtrics has released a set of free tools to customers for listening to health, travel and work-from-home feedback from the workforce.
  • Oracle is providing free access to its Workforce Health and Safety software to their HCM customers during the pandemic.
  • ServiceNow has made four community apps available to customers for no charge to assist customers with staff and resource optimization, information distribution, employee safety, and location tracking and self-reporting.
  • Benefitfocus is offering its customers a resource center covering updates and the impacts on benefits and related HR operations.

SAP, ServiceNow and Workday have also joined forces along with 23 other companies to make donations to various charities and institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area to help support local communities in the fight against COVID-19.

As the pandemic slows down or comes to end, hiring -- even mass hiring -- may become a pressing need in certain sectors. HR leaders will need to make sure that recruiting teams and systems are ready. That requires getting proactive about identifying skills and other requirements. For example, HR can research virtual interviewing methods, which may also become more important in a post-COVID-19 hiring market.

For companies that have rolled out work-from-home policies, business and HR leaders must face challenges such as keeping employees engaged and maintaining ongoing listening to feedback; these are critical to ensuring that productivity levels are retained. Employees who face challenges with working from home might also need ongoing support. They may face feelings of isolation and experience video call fatigue. HR leaders must also work with business leaders to determine how the current practices might evolve to more permanent practices and policies once the pandemic comes to an end.

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