Covid-19: Questions for HR help desks

With a larger proportion of the workforce now working from home, HR departments across the country are experiencing an abundance of new challenges and opportunities. The pandemic has transformed the way most people work and interact and, as a result, is fundamentally changing the function of HR.
The responsibility, and privilege, of supporting our client’s teams through these difficult times has offered up insight into which work issues are currently top-of-mind. As we gather these insights from emerging concerns and issues, we are able to utilise experiences from this environment to learn how to better design our HR helpdesks and to cater to individual needs in an employee-centric way.
Off the back of these insights, we have identified three key lessons that HR help desks can use to redesign current processes to adapt to this period and beyond. This includes refocusing on the following questions:
Is there a focal and unified HR helpdesk?
With queries and concerns on the rise, it helps to have clear guidelines as to where employees can reach out for support. Having a unified and clear point of contact for the HR helpdesk is vital and leaves no room for confusion when employees seek guidance.  
While some companies will be able to continue working at their usual pace, their employees are adjusting to a different situation that arises from working from home – such as and juggling home-responsibilities while continuing to work their daily jobs. In line with this, it is also important to ramp up availability and responsiveness inline with this increase in demand. 
Is there a human element to the HR helpdesk?
An emerging trend in the way that people contact HR channels shows that the human-element is especially important – people like having human contact. While previously “less voice and more self-service” was a popular trend, our teams have witnessed a steep fall in this type of usage. Instead, teams are more inclined to picking up the phone and explaining their issues to another person.
This is because being able to speak with another person over the phone or through web chat allows the human element to be felt. Even simple day-to-day chatter about the weather and asking how you are is more appreciated these days, as human contact has been limited under the current circumstances.
While it will be important to retain our digital services, being able to provide the right balance of people and machine will push HR helpdesks in the right direction, towards a more supportive background.
What are the changes in behaviour HR has witnessed? Are they being addressed?
Covid-19 has caused changes in employee behaviour, and it works in our favour to recognise these changes and adapt to them.
During times of uncertainty such as this, it is normal that there is a rise in anxieties surrounding the job roles and onboarding process. In addition to this, there has been a sharper focus from employees on what benefits and healthcare options are available from their employers. HR leaders would do well to have this information on tap to assist people with easy access to the necessary information and help them to feel supported.
With changes to work and daily routines, such as home-schooling and mandatory leave uptake being discussed, having clear HR guidance on these topics will also offer a sense of comfort. Questions being frequently asked around holiday entitlements under lockdowns, business interruptions such as transfers, and promotions are also likely to be points of concern.
We have also seen a spike in the requests around employment certificates, which are necessary to personnel who need to travel around during the lockdown. By providing greater clarity on how this task can be carried out, HR helpdesks can assist employees to access the right resources in a timely manner.
HR leaders need to be fully aware of how these behaviour shifts are affecting their people and streamline operations to offer reassurance and much-needed guidance, particularly around remote onboarding and next stage processes.
Covid-19 has brought about a change in how people work and interact, and inevitably how HR enables desk functions. The questions outlined above can be used to help us design our helpdesks better, and to adapt to fostering the needs of employees. From creating a visible, central HR helpdesk, shifting towards a humanized approach, and recognizing key shifts in employee behaviour – we can use the pandemic environment as a unique opportunity to address and support people across our clients’ teams.
 As millions of Americans continue working from home, new survey results suggest why some of them should get comfortable. 77% of surveyed HR leaders expect the shift toward more teleworking to continue, even one year after COVID-19 substantially subsides.
Conducted by The Conference Board, the survey assessed more than 150 HR executives primarily at large US companies. They weighed in on the various actions they are taking and plan on taking in light of this pandemic.
The findings also reveal that this summer, US workers should continue to brace for more permanent, sometimes painful changes at their organizations. Rather than continuing to enact more easily reversible decisions such as furloughs and hiring freezes, some HR executives said their companies will now focus on making long-lasting changes, including more layoffs and restructurings. Insights and highlights from the survey include the following:
Expect more work from home, even one year after COVID-19 substantially subsides
  • 77 per cent of HR executives expect an increase in the number of employees working remotely for at least three days per week. That's even 12 months after the pandemic substantially subsides.
  • "A shift toward more remote working will have major implications for HR departments," said Robin Erickson, PhD, a report co-author and Principal Researcher at The Conference Board. "Among other changes, they will be able to recruit workers from a broader geographic pool and will need to hire and promote those who can inspire remote teams."
Among the companies that were prepared for remote work, many are self-reporting an increase in productivity now, during the crisis.
  • 37 percent of companies that had more remote workers before COVID-19 report that they are actually seeing increased employee productivity now, during the crisis.
  • This self-reported boost in productivity suggests the immense potential of remote work – and the flexibility it provides – to improve performance and results.
A majority expect to return to pre-pandemic revenue levels within the next 12 months
  • At the end of April 2020, more than 55% of survey respondents from organizations that experienced a decline in revenue after COVID-19 expected to return to pre-pandemic revenue levels within the next 12 months.
  • 39% believed revenue levels will return after 12 months; 4% believed they will not return to pre-pandemic levels.
Long-lasting changes, including layoffs and restructurings, are more likely to take place this summer 
  • According to the survey, two of the more drastic measures – permanent layoffs and major restructurings – are more likely to take place from May through July than they were to have already occurred.
  • However, only 16% expect permanent layoffs to come in that timeframe; 9% expect a major restructuring.
  • "Even though a small number of organizations are planning these measures, they can have a large impact especially if those companies employ many workers," said Amanda Popiela, a report co-author and Researcher at The Conference Board.
In the months ahead, blue-collar-heavy companies are more likely to enact harsher workforce cost reductions than white-collar-heavy companies
  • Companies with more industrial and manual services workers are much more likely to implement furloughs with benefits, conduct permanent layoffs, require employees to use paid time off/vacation, and cut salaries/wages.
  • "Top factors that determine the severity of a company's workforce cost reductions include the ability to continue doing one's job remotely and the ability to safely return to the workplace," said Frank Steemers, a report co-author and Economist at The Conference Board.
As companies plan to reopen the workplace, what's top of mind for HR executives?
  • Worker health, well-being, and safety are top priorities:
    • 89%: Ensuring office preparation and return to work
    • 86%: Addressing health and safety concerns for those returning to the office
    • 75%: Offering employee mental health/well-being support
    • 75%: Determining worker sentiment to return to work (e.g., temperature checks before entering the workplace)
  • Compensation adjustments and acquiring new talent can wait:
    • 34%: Acquiring "critical" or "essential" talent
    • 22%: Adjusting compensation
    • 19%: Acquiring new hires for all open roles
Today, the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) released the results of its second COVID-19 member survey. Representing dozens of sectors and industries, 1,127 respondents revealed that HR professionals are actively planning a return to work and the majority said they anticipate significant change throughout the workplace. Respondents confirmed the first wave of employees returning to work is happening fast with the majority of organizations starting the process within the next three months.
Looking at a return to work trends in Ontario, HR professionals shared the following:
  • 86% have started to plan for employees to return to work
  • 89% plan to recall employees who were temporarily laid off as a result of COVID-19
  • 53% expect to have all of their employees back in the primary workplace within six months
  • 38% of workplaces are planning permanent restructuring as a result of COVID-19
Louise Taylor Green, CEO, HRPA said, “HR professionals have been front and center in supporting their workplaces and employees through the most significant workforce disruption in modern times. Workplaces will fundamentally change and the ‘new normal’ will require a total reset in HR practices and policies.”
Of respondents, 81% have been very involved in their organization’s return to the work planning process.  This includes physical changes to the workspace, new infection prevention and control measures, changes to shift schedules, and hours of work, along with increased supports for mental health, and toolkits and resources for leaders who now oversee remote teams and are leading people through enormous change.
“The velocity and complexity of change for those in a leadership role is unprecedented.  This period of change has been a remarkable demonstration of professionalism and the value HR professionals bring to organizations.”  
“We see that HR professionals have enabled their organizations to adopt a fundamental mind shift in terms of the viability of remote work, even as teams navigate some major challenges. An astounding 70% of respondents report their perceptions of remote work have changed since the pandemic,”  Taylor Green continued.

Key Takeaways: 
The change will be the new normal: 38% of organizations plan permanent restructuring, including changes to their business model, organizational structure, policies, new workflows, reduction of physical workspaces, downsizing, and the ways people interact. 
--Crises spurs creativity: Respondents contributed many examples for how their organization leveraged their values as a means of retaining and engaging staff and also looking to the future.  Experimentation and agile change have become the new normal with heightened corporate social responsibility actions.
--The 9-to-5 norm is radically changing: A wide array of programs are being put in place including modified work schedules: 25%; flex-time: 19%; and rotating shifts: 18%.
--Relationships within unionized workplaces remain stable: For unionized workplaces (31% of total respondents), only 16% found an increase of grievances. The perception of relationships with labor-management has stayed the same (64% positive relationship before COVID-19 and 62% positive currently).
--Work from home is here to stay: 81% of organizations are planning to permanently retain or expand remote working options.
--Supporting working families is a priority: 76% of organizations are planning to make special arrangements to assist their employees as schools and child-care centers remain closed and summer camps are not available.
--Strict health and safety measures are expected: For 80% of organizations, sign-off will be required on any new and/or updated policies or procedures related to health, safety, or hygiene in the workplace prior to returning to work.  Nearly all, 95%, plan to implement or expand the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees but the ways in which this need is being met varies. Of these, 91% are prepared to discipline employees for failing to comply.
--Business travel is on hold: 85% of respondents confirm changes to policy and approach to business travel will be in effect, including travel of any kind is postponed indefinitely or, if travel is permitted, it requires approval required from Executives.
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