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August 12, 2020


How HR departments are navigating coronavirus.

A businessman walks down a city street while wearing a mask.

Budget cuts, furloughs, overhauled business practices, new work-from-home policies—these are just a few of the changes that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on the workplace.

And human resource professionals live at the intersection of these issues. Even before the current crisis, these organizational linchpins were in high demand because their services are crucial to organizational health. They oversee benefits, manage work culture and internal communications, and supervise talent divisions.

Further reading: Employment engagement during COVID-19.

For many employees, HR professionals are the human face of their organization's response to the pandemic. Here's what they've been focused on while navigating coronavirus.

New office guidelines for employers.

Navigating coronavirus became easier, yet more complicated in May, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) new guidelines and recommendations for office buildings were released. The CDC recommends conducting daily temperature screenings of employees before they enter the workplace and spacing out workstations by at least six feet—or, if that's not possible, surrounding desks with plastic shields. Common gathering areas—such as the water cooler, the community kitchen, and the office snack bar—would be off limits under CDC's guidelines.

If followed, the New York Times suggests, the guidelines could lead to a far-reaching remake of the corporate work experience. Such an extreme shift requires an all-hands-on-deck response from pretty much everyone within an organization. But the day-to-day management and implementation fall to HR teams, and so does communicating changes to employees.

Work from home policies.

"Companies, surprisingly, don't want to go back to work," Russell Hancock, president and CEO of think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley, told the New York Times. "You will not see the drum beat and hue and cry and rush to get back to the office."

This has become readily apparent just by looking at how quickly and dramatically big tech and Fortune 500 companies are transitioning to a virtual work movement. Facebook, Nationwide, Shopify, and Twitter are among the companies that are adopting permanent work-from-home policies, according to's Remote Work Policy Tracker. Other companies, such as Amazon, Google, and Zillow, have plans to reopen their offices by the end of the year.

As difficult as these kinds of changes are on the organization, they're just as hard—if not harder—on individual employees. Many, if not all, of the operational aspects behind these policy changes will need significant support from HR. Communicating these changes falls on HR professionals, and they'll be charged with dealing with any issues that any employees have with empathy, caring, and thoughtfulness.

Boosting morale.

Two-thirds of employers think that maintaining employee morale has been a challenge during the pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.

It's even more challenging for larger organizations, where the office or workspace was a social and cultural hub for colleagues to gather, stay connected, and have fun. Washington Post columnist Karla Miller found that employers were offering cash, paid time off, and online pizza parties to reward employees and keep teams connected.

Employee survey company Culture Amp recommends sending out regular pulse surveys during times of crisis. Pulse surveys often annoy employees during normal times—but these aren't normal times. "During times of crisis," Culture Amp's Rachel Bolsu writes, "regular pulse surveys can help leadership prioritize meaningful initiatives to support employees."

Layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts.

The most unfortunate aspect of how employers are navigating coronavirus is that some companies have had to cut jobs. In just the past 10 weeks, nearly 41 million people have filed for unemployment—an unprecedented number, CNBC notes. Any HR professional will tell you that layoffs are the worst part of the job—but they've probably never been a more important aspect than they are right now.

In addition to layoffs, organizations are trying to get creative with how they're preparing to absorb expected budget shortfalls. Many major corporations are ordering—or have already ordered—sweeping pay cuts and furloughs to avoid layoffs. But some companies—especially ones in the travel, leisure, and entertainment sectors—have announced massive layoffs, Business Insider reports. Other companies are doing what they can to help their former employees; AirBnB, for example, has started an alumni talent directory to help former employees find new jobs.

Every organization will face unique challenges. It's more important than ever for HR professionals to showcase their social and emotional skills when planning and implementing responses to these challenges.

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