The Pandemic Has Expanded the Role of HR

The coronavirus pandemic not only expanded HR’s corporate influence, but also led to a renewed focus on employees.

The events of the past 18 months have led companies to focus on employee health and well-being on many levels—how workers feel, where they sit and whether they are vaccinated, among other things.

HR professionals have long tended to employees’ physical and mental health, but now they’re being more proactive about it, says Bryan Hancock, a partner and the global leader of McKinsey & Co.’s talent management practice. That means noting how employees feel as well as developing skills to detect problems early and to help. 

Doing so requires HR to demonstrate more emotional intelligence, notes Holly Maurer-Klein, SHRM-SCP, a vice president at HR/Advantage Advisory in Pittsburgh. “I think it’s going to change what companies look for in HR professionals,” she says.

It also requires renewed attention on the employee experience, which remote work has changed dramatically. Hancock advises HR to concentrate on particularly important inflection points, which he calls “moments that matter.” 

For example, employees hired in the past year may have never come into the office or met their boss and co-workers in person. Maurer-Klein notes this reality is calling out for new kinds of mentorship programs, like matching new hires with an established employee they can talk with every day to become better acclimated to the company’s culture. 

Another important employee experience that has become more complicated is having “tough conversations,” Hancock says. Before the pandemic, a manager who needed to discuss a problem or deliver bad news might have had a private, one-on-one conversation with an employee in the office. That may no longer be possible in a remote- or hybrid-work environment, and video calls leave something to be desired, with intimacy lacking and body language hard to detect. HR will need to figure out how to handle such situations and train managers on new models. 

Employees’ mental health has also been top of mind for employers lately. The HR team at Sedgwick, a global provider of tech-enabled risk, benefits and business solutions based in Memphis, Tenn., instituted several new practices as a result, according to Michelle Hay, global chief people officer at the company, which employs 27,000 people. For example, managers were trained to check in frequently with workers about their health and well-being. And to alleviate stress for staff members handling claims for clients’ employees who contracted COVID-19, Sedgwick’s chief medical officer held special sessions for these workers. The sessions gave people a chance to talk about their anxiety and provided tips for easing it.

Employers began paying more attention to employees’ lives outside of work as well. For example, at Medidata, which is a New York City-based company with 3,500 employees that provides a cloud-based platform for clinical medical trials, Bhateja encouraged his staff “to think about a day in the life of an employee,” from the moment they awoke to the time they went to bed, as a guide to determine what help the company could provide. One initiative to come out of this experience was the decision to provide employees free access to an app called Task Human that offers resources such as life coaches, yoga instructors and nutritionists. Employees can book free one-on-one appointments at their convenience.

 “We realized that everybody’s situation was so unique and different, and it was impossible for [HR staff] to be available to every single employee for every single personal conversation,” Bhateja says.

Companies also increased their focus on racial and social inequities that events of the last year brought to light, Hay says. At Sedgwick, HR professionals talked with employees about how they felt and developed training to help identify and eliminate bias.

HR has also become responsible for where people work as well as how they do that work, especially at home, Kropp says. This includes coaching them on how to minimize distractions and work more effectively. It also could include providing guidance on how to set boundaries so employees don’t end up working too much, which could lead to mental and physical problems. These kinds of issues not only are bad for the employee but also could have legal ramifications for the employer. If someone develops back problems from sitting too long without taking a break, “is that because [the employer] created an unsafe workplace for them?” Kropp asks. “We’re going to find out at some point.” 

In addition, HR has had to keep up with fast-changing health guidance and requirements. During the pandemic, HR professionals had to quickly learn how to follow and implement official guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on sanitization and social distancing. In 2021, their focus turned to vaccinations.

That is yet another sign of HR’s rising importance, Bremen notes. “HR is now in charge of vaccine strategy,” he says. “That’s critical and central to business strategy.”

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