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5 Important HR Considerations in the Time of COVID-19

Kelly O'Connell
Kelly O'Connell

COVID-19 has forced many companies to rapidly change their approach to work, raising crucial HR concerns. Here are some practical insights on five key policy areas.

The global economic impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is significant. The increase in government-directed "lockdown" regulations since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic has companies scrambling to respond strategically to the threat. Many organizations are relying on their human resources teams to help them navigate the changes – and companies without internal HR departments still face critical and potentially costly HR policy decisions. 

Responding to unplanned workforce management changes

This is a highly complex, unprecedented situation, so there is no clear, universal action template for organizations to adopt. Even federal, state and local government responses to the virus have conflicted as all entities do their best to address the immediate concerns of their respective audiences with the best information available to them in real time.

This isn't an isolated situation. Companies of all sizes and across industries are being impacted by this pandemic. Global companies have been impacted by supply chain shortages, declining consumer demand and market insecurity. In the United States, small and local businesses are already feeling the effects of community policies encouraging social distancing to reduce the spread of the disease. 

Now more than ever, it is critical for our executive leadership teams and HR professionals to collaborate on SMART, people-first policies that will ensure their companies can quickly rebound when we collectively contain the immediate threat from the coronavirus.

Here are five key employee-related policies your team should be discussing.

1. Remote work

Given the forced office closures and community quarantine guidance, COVID-19 has brought remote work to the forefront of HR policy conversations. Many organizational design professionals believe that this period of rapidly forced working from home will change the workplace landscape indefinitely. Recognizing that many companies are currently unprepared for a long-term shift to remote work and that not all functional roles are designed for success in a virtual work environment, it is important to define now how your company will address a workplace shift toward remote work and determine program success factors to evaluate trial work-from-home policies. [Read related article: Preparing Your Business for Remote Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic]

As a longtime advocate for the strategic adoption of remote work policies, I published an employer guide and developed an accompanying leadership training program for enterprise clients last year. 

2. Leave policy

In the U.S., there is no federal policy that requires private employers to provide employees with sick leave benefits. State and municipal policies on sick time vary widely across markets. Despite the lack of federal mandate, many private employers choose to offer sick leave, vacation time or a combined PTO (paid time off) policy as part of a competitive hiring package. Given the largely voluntary nature of leave coverage, different organizations could give very different guidance to their employees. This variance can result in a lot of confusion for employees. Additionally, data has shown that lower-income and hourly wage earners – i.e., those most likely to be financially impacted by local business closures – are least likely to have paid sick time.  

In times like what we are currently experiencing, employees seek guidance from their social peers regarding what is "normal" in terms of employer leave coverage. Given the ease of digital dialogue on social platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook, there is high potential for policy confusion and coverage gaps to create employee concerns about employer generosity. Perceived company culture, employee satisfaction and employer reputation are key market differentiators in a competitive environment. Any employee concerns around coverage for forced leave could significantly add to the impact on your company's financial well-being. 

For this reason, I believe that employers should closely examine the leave policies of their key market peers to determine the best coverage choice for this situation. Even if your organization's standard policy is for an employee to exhaust paid sick and vacation time before they can access long-term leave, this unique situation may justify, if not require, a modified policy. 

3. Benefits

Like leave coverage, employee benefits vary widely by company. For organizations that do not offer a health benefits program, keep in mind that the current global emphasis on health concerns may increase the importance of health coverage in employees' eyes as a key benefit in a company. 

Beyond the obvious concerns related to healthcare coverage, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised several other benefits-related issues: 

  • Many employees in the American workforce will have been impacted by school closures and concerns for elder care, so they may need flex schedule or family coverage benefits.

  • People may have increased interest in coverage for telehealth or virtual healthcare.

  • There may be higher demand for mental health support in the wake of social distance policies and increased social concerns.

  • Employees who have lost wages and are financially distressed may seek financial counseling.

  • Team members may feel increased desire to support charity or give back to community organizations that have been impacted by the pandemic.

This pandemic may impact our workforce in countless ways. It is important for you, as an employer, to consider how these changes will affect employee motivation and needs. Although your organization may not be able to change healthcare coverage options until an open enrollment window, it could be wise to send out a proactive employee survey asking about their desired benefits. This would help you understand your team and demonstrate your compassion for the employee experience.  

4. Objectives and key results (OKRs)

2020 was the start of a new decade. Whether for-profit or nonprofit, large or small, most companies set a revised strategy for the decade that included short- and long-term business objectives. Many organizations began this year with individual and team goals tied to employee performance and success targets. For many members of the American workforce, those OKRs tie directly back to their individual employee compensation. There is little doubt that, for most organizations, this quarter will vary widely from the goals set at the conclusion of 2019. That means many individuals in our workforce will miss their performance targets and suffer personal financial impact from this crisis. 

This issue is particularly important for executives and HR professionals to consider, because employees who are personally financially impacted by this crisis are more likely to leave an employer for a new opportunity. Employee turnover is a costly concern for all employers and could be especially detrimental to businesses that have already experienced financial distress due to the market downturn and quarantine restrictions. It is highly advisable that you take this time to review and revise your OKRs to realistic targets based on the current economic environment and company projections. 

5. Talent acquisition

It may seem counterintuitive to focus on hiring when many businesses are slowing down, but I believe that this situation presents a unique opportunity for strategic employers to revise their 2020 hiring roadmaps, refine their employer brand identity, and source, interview and fill key roles within their organizations. 

There are several reasons for you to focus on hiring during this window:

  • While proactive companies will empower employees during this difficult time and successfully retain internal talent, there will be higher access than usual to employed market talent.

  • The availability of internal and external team resources to support your hiring process is high right now. 

  • If you embrace video conferencing technology to facilitate interviews, you will have an easy, lower-cost interview process. 

  • Filling key gaps on your team during a downturn instills confidence in your current employees and lets them know that you will continue to provide them the resources they need to succeed.

  • A strategic hiring roadmap and process will help your organization innovate faster than competitors.

Talent scarcity has been a key talking point in HR for the last several years. Countless articles have discussed the need for employers to develop internal talent and inclusively recruit top talent in order to successfully achieve key business goals. Shelley Iocona, founder of ON ITS AXIS, has pioneered the connection between "product and people" and was an early thought leader on this idea. She shares several key tips you can easily execute now in her article "Why Your Talent Acquisition Strategy Rules Your Growth Strategy."

[Looking for more business advice on surviving the pandemic? Browse our roundup of COVID-19 business resources.]

Image Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images
Kelly O'Connell
Kelly O'Connell,
business.com Writer
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Kelly O’Connell is an Executive Coach, Innovation Strategist & Social Impact Advocate. She is the Executive Director & Founder of GuideStar Platinum rated 501(c)3 nonprofit Start Giving Local and the Executive Vice President of award-winning Innovation Services Firm, ON ITS AXIS. Kelly is an active member of both Forbes HR Council and The National Society of Leadership and Success. She serves as an advisor & board member to Disruptive HR and Social Good startups and as a mentor to university students studying STEAM and Entrepreneurship. Kelly is an established keynote speaker and author who is passionate about improving connection and building community.