How HR can ride the tidal wave of a disrupted workforce

With the onset of the Coronavirus has come with it a tidal wave of communications, fears, behaviours and mental health matters that, likely, we’ve never had to deal with before and certainly on not such an unprecedented scale. We’re all trying to react, cope and plan at pace to ensure all our people (and ourselves) are supported, listened to and looked after.

The SARs outbreak of 2002 and then again in 2004 was a test of how HR rallied other business areas together to address the pandemic and, in some cases, implemented top-down draconic measures to cease human-to-human transmission. Covid-19 has forced us into this situation again but on a much larger scale and with a heavier impetus to react quickly, fairly, but firmly to protect our employees.

How many times have you been bombarded with Coronavirus queries from across the business and thrown your hands up in the air because you just don’t know where to start, who to start with and what you can and can’t say? The current socioeconomic climate is overwhelming. It’s impossible to strike a balance between staying informed to be proactive in addressing workplace concerns and becoming blinded by the headlights by over-absorbing the relentless stream of new information. Coronavirus is contagious, but so is panic amongst employees.

You’re not alone

The truth is, as human beings, we like certainty. And whilst we can never guarantee certainty in life, there’s always things we can do to feel calmer about our circumstances and re-iterate this in our employee communications. This is an opportunity for HR professionals to ‘rally the troops’ and bring together all the business areas that enable people to be productive, to be safe and effective in the office, or working remotely.

Where to start

The leaders of the business will be in full planning mode and either creating a continuity plan or evoking it – make sure you have a seat at the table and guide them on what they can and can’t do legally as you’re the experts. Work with facilities to ensure employees that are still on-site are well informed of best hygiene practices and social distancing rules. They’ll be able to advise on utilisation of office space to achieve this, whist you explore flexible working options. Don’t forget Marketing will surely have a definite plan of action on how to communicate with customers and clients and most of their key messages can be adapted for an internal audience.

What can be done

HR must set the ground rules for how employees communicate with each other and ensure business communications are consistent and in line with employee expectations. We must be the trusted guardians of communications that are factual, relevant and on brand. Advice from Government and Health authorities should be followed when making decisions and setting guidelines. It’s important to remember to distribute these updates in a format and style that’s relevant to your employees. Try infographics, a Q&A session using that allows employees to ask real-time questions, a dedicated page on your intranet that could include links to third party resources.

Here’s a few pointers to get you started or that may not be on your radar yet:

  1. Create a homeworking guide that details expectations when working from home, IT support available and a refresh via E-learning on your Working from Home Policy (including and updated related to DSE)
  2. Bring forward your E-learning schedule to refresh employees on core learning and any recently introduced new policies and procedures
  3. If you have an internal instant messaging service, set up a dedicated group for official Covid-19 communications
  4. Set up another Group for remote workers to keep in touch and share their stories to keep communication lines open and less formal
  5. Remind employees of the services they have access to as part of their employee benefits package, such as EAP, GP Anytime, Physio On-Demand and wellbeing or exercise apps
  6. Revisit your CSR policy to see how you can help those more vulnerable; if you have a call centre and calls are in decline, you could offer a friendly phone call to those who may be feeling particularly anxious or lonely. Consider volunteering time off and look out for the latest from the Government who are looking at paid emergency volunteering
  7. For companies of 50+ employees, use your employee forum groups. It’s vital that they continue to have a voice and are listened too. Video conferencing is ideal in this instance. Continue with a strict agenda and timing so people are discouraged from making it into a personal discussion that is more appropriate to talk through with their line manager
  8. Create a tracker that records absences in relation to how your absence policy may have been adapted for business continuity
  9. Use this opportunity to update personal details. A survey is a quick and easy way to do this.

Flexible working options

It’s not an option for everyone as we all have individual circumstances and companies need to continue to function efficiently while protecting their continued existence.  Employees need to trust that HR are being fair and consistent and that the decisions being made are in their best interests. There’re several options that may be available but here are just a few:

  • Using annual leave
  • Use accrued flex time
  • Go into a negative flex balance by up to a defined number of weeks and work this back when normal operations are resumed
  • Flexible working options such as, reduce hours or days worked, job sharing and career breaks
  • Parental leave
  • Unpaid leave

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HR needs to be the stalwart communication channel

The tidal wave of communications, fears, behaviours and mental health matters that have manifested themselves over the recent period have to be managed by the guardians of trusted communications – and that is HR’s role in this uncertain time. We must instil trust, reliability and show compassion when dealing with our people. For indeed, we are also one of those people.