For HR execs, pandemic has spelled change now — from layoffs to end of traditional team-building — and in the future

What does it take to keep employees happy during the pandemic?

Like the effort to push back the virus that has disrupted everything else in the business world — it’s a moving target.

The careerlong mastery over employee engagement that human resources professionals could count on was yet another victim of the COVID-19 crisis. HR experts can no longer say they know what’s best for retention, especially when it’s resilience that’s all anyone can think of.

While everyone adjusted to life under social distancing guidelines, Michael Ciavolino, who serves as president of the Jersey Shore Association for Human Resources, said the focus for HR experts was to be as assiduous about employees’ safety as possible.

For many, that’s meant remote work arrangements — at least, when companies haven’t been forced to lay off or furlough workers, which comes with its own challenges (and lots of paperwork) for HR departments. For newly telecommuting workers, HR teams have been tasked with keeping them not only in the loop, but motivated.

“There’s been a massive destruction not only of jobs, but workplace culture,” Ciavolino said.

Employee engagement activities organized by HR departments were “massively reliant on in-person experiences,” he added.

No one in HR is packing employees into a conference room petri dish for pandemic trivia, in other words. And the hand sanitizers aren’t sitting next to condiments at mask-donned company picnics just yet, either.

Courtesy photo
A Jersey Shore Association for Human Resources podcast.

But keeping up morale in HR isn’t just fun and games.

Health and wellness programs, mentoring groups and other HR-led employee engagement initiatives can conceivably be done remotely, but they haven’t been in the past. Other HR duties, such as training and the onboarding process, have had a more of a virtual aspect already.

At the same time, Ciavolino pointed out that something like 90% of the hiring process has been driven by candidates. Even if the pandemic has had a massive impact on employment, Ciavolino doesn’t see signs that the war for talent is ending, which means keeping employees happy with the company they work for is no less important.

With the amount of organizations indicating that they’ll be planning to keep more workers remote even after the pandemic reaches its theoretical terminus, it’ll be up to HR professionals to find new (mostly digital) ways of ensuring workers have a positive feeling about their place of employment.

Public policy organization Brookings Institution reported recently that up to half of American workers are fully working from home, more than double the amount working from home on an occasional basis two years ago; and that, after following a snail’s pace in embracing these work arrangements, more companies would in the future.

“So, companies (and HR professionals) are going to have to adapt to the new normal, at least for the rest of this year, but perhaps much longer,” Ciavolino said.

Remote working has been resisted by some executives over the years due to concerns about constrained productivity, he added. Few companies had a choice but to embrace it when COVID-19 struck locally, forcing HR staff into the position of having to ensure that the feared strain on productivity isn’t actually happening.

The sudden shift has been significant enough that those in the field expect a totally different skillset will be asked for in future HR professionals.

“For HR executives, the pandemic has sped up the determination about what skills are becoming outdated and which ones are needed more than ever,” Ciavolino said. “For one, there’s going to be an added emphasis on communication skills.”

As companies start to reevaluate what skills their HR team should bring to the table, HR teams are similarly reevaluating what skills the people they’re hiring should have.

Digital skills, for instance, will have to take on a new meaning for recruiters in an environment dominated by telecommuting.

“I think that, before this pandemic in the country, those things weren’t the main consideration for every company,” he said. “It was about plugging a hole, finding a person for this job. But there’s really new expectations for 2020 and beyond.”

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