How HR can manage the ever-increasing remote workforce

Gartner has prepared guidelines for handling a pandemic and HR officials discuss how they are coping with the shift away from the office.

The country is now entering the third wave of planning and response from companies and HR leaders to the coronavirus pandemic. That effort includes figuring out how to pay employees who aren't able to get into work, according to Brian Kropp, chief of HR research for Gartner, which has published guidelines that address issues including how to identify critical roles in a preparedness and response plan, and how to create a checklist for handling a pandemic incident.

The first wave of dealing with COVID-19 was purely about health and safety and ensuring employees were made aware of the importance of washing hands and going home if they felt sick, Kropp says. Then, once people were mandated to work from home, companies started dealing with how to get remote work to work: What are the right technologies for the business and what is the proper etiquette around working remotely, he said.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

What HR, other executives should consider

Now, "the big question bubbling up is how do we pay employees who aren't able to get into work, especially in retail, hotels, and amusement parks," along with other categories such as companies that use contractors or people who need security clearance for government positions, Kropp said. "You can't do that job from home."

Or, how to proceed when demand has completely fallen apart for the work you do. For example, an employee can work remotely with an online reservation system, "but once these reservations have been canceled and there's no more work…What do you do as an employer? That's a big question companies are struggling with right now."

Another element to consider, Kropp said, is that because of the tight labor market, most companies have built profoundly different relationships with their staff that are more emotional and less transactional.

"They have spent time building deeper, more connected relationships in the last couple of years where they care not just about them as an employee, but as a person," he said. "So there's that factor that says we shouldn't just lay people off."

The coronavirus pandemic also differs from past crises in that this a "humanitarian crisis not a financial crisis," like the country experienced in 2008-2009, he noted.

How to pivot

At some point down the road, the crisis will die down, a vaccine will be created and the economy will start to rebound, Kropp said. In the meantime, companies should carefully consider the implications of layoffs now.

"When that happens, most people expect demand will come back fairly quickly, so if you lay [employees] off now you'll have to hire them back," he said. "There's costs associated with that—damage to reputation, recruiting costs, missed sales, retraining, re-onboarding, and so on."

It will be harder for companies to take advantage of going after business when things return to normal or near-normal, if they're focused on finding workers and training them, he said.

 "If you manage costs now and lay off people…when the economy comes back you won't be able to take advantage of that because you'll have to spend time rehiring," Kropp said.

As the country learns to manage with the virus and it starts to die down, HR and other executives will need to figure out how to introduce employees back to the workplace, he said. They need to decide what their protocols will be, such as requiring employees to have their temperature taken every day, and what to do about employees who may decide to continue working remotely permanently.

"I was talking with an executive the other day and they pointed out that no one realizes it, but we're conducting the world's biggest pilot on remote work and there's a lot of lessons that will come out of that," Kropp said.

Rough data has shown that before coronavirus about 5% of people were in jobs where they were working from home full time and 60% felt they could work from home occasionally, he said.

"My guess is, when this is all said and done, we will end up in a world where 20%-25% who can work from home will work from home full time," he said.

The good news is there are a plethora of tools that can minimize the need to be in the office that companies have already been using to keep up with the on-the-go, always connected world, observed Ronni Zehavi, CEO of Hibob, an HR platform that supports corporate culture and employee collaboration.

"So working remotely in a corporate position is no longer seen as a burden like it has in generations past, and there are many tools in place to connect employees even if they are spread out around the world," Zehavi said.

What those on the HR frontline are doing

In some companies, the transition has been relatively seamless. "We have had remote staff for many years, so tech [is] already in place and well tested, said Tracy Marshall, senior vice president and principal of Development Guild DDI, a hiring firm for nonprofits. 

Right now, Marshall and other officials are ensuring all employees have the technology they need to do their work, including laptops, headsets for video conferencing, VPN access, and increased Zoom video conferencing access.

The firm has 40 staff in Massachusetts and New York City, and employees have adapted well, Marshall says, "but remain concerned about how we can best serve our clients. We're also concerned about the impact on the economy and what it will mean personally and professionally. We are using Zoom as much as possible to maintain a sense of community."

COVID-19 is "an opportunity for us to reexamine our own practices around communication and decision making, as well as how projects are managed and meetings are run," says Amanda Atkins, director of internal communications at Slack.

"But most importantly, we're prioritizing our people and making sure work is not a source of stress for them through this uncertain time," she adds. 

Slack has also executed established business continuity and pandemic plans, which include closing its offices, restricting travel, and ensuring its infrastructure continues to work efficiently, she said.

The company has rolled out a number of initiatives to help people adjust to this new normal, Atkins said. For example, many Slack employees are also facing the added responsibility of having children at home, "so we are encouraging teams to be flexible and kind to one another during this time, and [be] accommodating of different schedules," she said.

Employees have been offered a stipend to pay for a more comfortable work from home set up, Atkins added. "We've offered unlimited sick time that can be used however employees need it to navigate through this time. We trust our people and are committed to seeing them through this unprecedented experience." 

Kropp has two takeaways for employers. "Think about not letting people go. You're going to have to have some difficult conversations between HR and the CFO on how to manage the cost of the business," he said.

The second echoes what Atkins says Slack has done. "As companies are moving employees to working remotely, executives need to make sure they are managing things differently, such as creating the right amount of flex time so employees can juggle work and their changing personal lives," Kropp said.  

"The advice we give is you have to shift from tracking inputs and processes and where they're spending their time and focus on outputs,'' he said. "If they're getting their work  done, don't worry about it. You have to have complete trust in them that the way they're doing it is OK."

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