When the global pandemic originally hit, stay-at-home orders forced most businesses to adopt remote or hybrid work models. Job security was uncertain as shortages drove mass furloughs and lay-offs. Ambitious hiring plans were met with difficult cutbacks or hiring freezes, challenging HR teams and forcing them to adapt.
As we enter 2021 with the roll-out of vaccines and the end of the pandemic in sight, society is entering its “new normal” and HR teams must be prepared for it. Below, we’ll explore how the pandemic is reshaping our modern workplace and how HR professionals can help teams adapt and thrive.
The New Normal: Second Year of the Pandemic
As waves of the virus continue to affect communities globally, many HR teams are preparing to manage workforces remotely well into the new year. At this point, around 90% of employers offer remote work to some or all employees (up from 33% last year) and most workplaces have adopted technology to support growing remote working needs.
However, the pandemic will continue to affect the U.S. workforce and redefine the role of HR. On the cusp of recovery, many businesses are asking themselves:
- How is the outlook on occupational health and workplace safety changing post-COVID?
- How will the mass-adoption of remote working affect workplace culture and daily operations moving forward?
- How can technology continue to transform HR operations, ensure business continuity and enable hybrid teams in the future?
- What are the long-term social implications for employee engagement, productivity and mental health?
The questions are seemingly endless, but what is known is that the pandemic highlighted the need for agility and adaptability, accelerated our digital economy and re-emphasized the importance of HR.
How HR Can Help Teams Adapt to Emerging Changes
1. Become Agile
2020 was a year of tremendous change, regardless of your place of work. The success of remote working pushed businesses to establish hybrid and remote working models to support employees in distributed environments.
Moving into 2021, HR managers should continue to design organisational structures built for hybrid teams to thrive in this new normal. Highly flexible organisational structures can support agile teams and are more scalable and adaptive as future changes arise. Adaptability has also risen as HR managers look to replace furloughing employees by reskilling and redeploying workers with the help of competency mapping.
Moving forward, HR managers can expect to see job roles designed for candidates with transferable skills that can be applied in a broader context. Meanwhile, offering flexible working hours with adaptable organisational practices can help organisations support employees while also increasing productivity and efficiency.
2. Manage Evolving Mental Health Needs
COVID-19 highlighted the growing mental health crisis plaguing workers across the country. Depression, burnout, stress and anxiety rates have soared due to the pandemic and they are having big effects on employee productivity and engagement. As such, HR managers saw mental health support as a business imperative and began building holistic benefit programs.
However, experts say we are not out of the woods yet. Female employees are seeing increased levels of substance abuse and sleep apnea, signally long-term physical and mental exhaustion.
A December 2020 survey found that stress levels are still up 16%, and the risk of anxiety, depression, and PTSD remain alarmingly high compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
To manage this ongoing crisis, HR managers should be prepared to support employees’ evolving mental health needs in the following ways:
Tailored Benefits: COVID-related benefits, such as mental health days, emergency leave, Election Day perks and Juneteenth as a company holiday all became commonplace in 2020 and will continue to be important as employees tailor perks to meet emerging pain points.
Emphasis on Savings: A majority of households live paycheck to paycheck and one-third cannot cover an unexpected $400 bill. Financial security is a major point of stress so HR managers can expect to see—and should plan for—greater emphasis on payroll-deduction emergency saving accounts.
Emphasis on the “Whole” Employee: Employee wellness has been linked to greater engagement, fewer absences, higher productivity and lowered healthcare costs. Companies are starting to realise that holistic employee benefits are critical for both the employee and the business.
3. Leverage Technology to Make Data-Driven HR Decisions
When teams initially transitioned to remote working conditions, technology was necessary to ensure business continuity. In the next phase of the “new normal”, businesses are shifting focus to investing in technology that supports collaboration, employee wellbeing and data-driven decisions to fuel HR operations.
HR teams are leveraging technology to drive employee engagement through collaboration tools, connect employees to powerful mental health resources and even reduce procrastination through time tracking software.
Looking ahead at 2021, HR teams can expect a bigger emphasis on technology in recruiting efforts. HR departments need to build proactive and innovative work cultures to help their companies recover and move forward from COVID-19.
For example, as a senior executive at DataRobot stated, “In the unpredictable job market of 2021, it will be critical for organizations to leverage AI to ensure they find the right candidate for the job. AI will enable HR departments to become more proactive in their hiring and help them determine a candidate’s cultural fit by using data to measure the quality of a hire.”
AI is powering predictive assessments, for example, which allows hiring managers to be more strategic and efficient, as well as assess soft skills and desirable traits that wouldn’t have likely surfaced during previous hiring processes. It can also help eliminate unconscious bias that arises and advance opportunities for diverse hires. This will fuel smarter hiring decisions, which fosters a stronger workforce and sets candidates up for longer retention and better success at the company long-term.
The changes that have come from the pandemic will have lasting effects on our modern workplace and how HR teams operate. Companies that adopt a dynamic approach will be able to better manage, react and implement changes as they arise. Employees don't expect companies to have all of the answers, but knowing that businesses are working towards actionable change to care and support staff during these difficult times can make all the difference.
Author Dean Mathews, founder and CEO of OnTheClock
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