The HR Roadmap to Post-COVID Reopening

If 2020 required HR leaders to roll with the punches, then 2021 calls for the ability to adapt to the new world of work. From recruiting new team members to establishing a resilient culture, HR leaders have a lot to consider as vaccines roll out and restrictions ease. The issues of employee mental and physical health, office reopenings, and flexible working arrangements are just a few of the issues HR will need to address. Developing a roadmap for the coming months will help leaders determine their path forward, as we outline in our on-demand Roadmap to Reopening: Your Post-COVID Workplace Questions Answered webinar.

The critical role HR will play in the post-COVID workplace

As a business function, HR has never been more valuable. The planning and execution for nearly every change to how we work occurring now and in the next 12-24 months will fall to HR. That means business leaders will need to ensure their HR function isn’t hampered by outdated practices from a pre-COVID world.

To succeed, we recommend that organizations form strategic task forces to manage the return to work. These teams should include a mix of strong HR leadership, C-level executives, and other members of leadership. You may or may not choose to include employees at the staff level. 

Starting right now your task force should meet to establish a timeline, initiate research, and explore the key issues that your organization is facing as you approach a full reopening. At the top of the to-do list should be a communication plan

The moment that you have the task force in place should be the moment you tell your employees what you’re doing. Explain that you’ve put a task force together, that you realize there have been changes that have come about as a result of COVID-19, and that the organization is starting the planning process. This is a time when your employees are anxious and concerned about what your end results will be. The more you are transparent, starting with letting your employees know you have begun planning, the better the health of your organization and the less your workforce will be distracted in a way that hurts productivity and retention.

The future workplace is hybrid

The future workplace will exist in both physical offices and in virtual environments. That means HR will be responsible for ensuring managers have the tools, training, and support to manage hybrid teams. Training managers to have the skills to lead hybrid teams will be a top priority for companies across industries, and managers will need guidance as companies emerge from “any productivity is a win” emergency mode to permanent hybrid and remote work environments. With the right toolkit, managers with hybrid team experience can achieve their operational objectives and deliver greater value to the company. 

Only 15% of attendees who responded to our in-webinar poll say they have comprehensively identified which roles will be able to work remotely or hybrid going forward. The majority of our attendees (78%) say they are still in the pre-planning stage or actively working on identifying remote-eligible roles.

As with any major change, there is an opportunity to not only rebuild what was broken, but also to build it back better. For HR, that means leveraging the new normal of remote work to target pockets of talent wherever they regionally exist, not just within a commutable distance. Rather than settling for the best available local talent sourced at the time, hiring managers will be able to target the right people with the right skills, wherever they happen to live.

Redeveloping a robust and impactful company culture may be more difficult than when employees gathered together daily, but the rewards of doing so will be proportionally greater. With the right approach, HR can generate a culture that meets the needs of the new normal, that extends beyond the confines of a physical office and aligns with the company’s public-facing brand perception.

Addressing the changing expectations of employees

While some employees may happily return to a full-time work-from-the-office approach, a significant percentage of the workforce will want — if not demand — the flexibility to work from home all or some of the time. For many employees, pandemic-related work from home policies have allowed them to make positive changes in their lives. They have reclaimed time previously spent commuting to work, enabling them to spend more time with family, or created more flexible schedules that allow them more work-life balance. 

The role of the office will continue to evolve in 2021 and beyond as leaders determine how best to use physical spaces. In fact fewer than 1 in 5 executives want the office to return to the way it existed prior to the pandemic, according to data from PWC. 

Nevertheless, some positions can’t be performed remotely indefinitely. That’s where an employee handbook will be valuable in creating consistent communication around employee expectations.

Managers can interpret company policies in different ways; the handbook takes ambiguity out of the equation. The more definitive and specific you are as it relates to a role, and your justification for whether or not it can be performed remotely, the less pushback you will get from employees. In addition, having clearly defined policies prevents inequity in their dissemination, so that you aren’t inadvertently creating discrimination among departments or of particular demographics of workers.

In a work environment where some employees prefer to work from home while others wish to come to the office, managers will have to adapt to the realities of hybrid teams. Likewise, hiring initiatives will have to consider the diversity implications of targeting workers who have access to dedicated home-office space or technologies that other demographics may lack.

Among our webinar attendees, 54% say they have not expanded the geographic areas in which they hire, while 30% have adopted a national scope. This type of move can benefit diversity and access to talent, but may have unintended consequences in terms of pay gaps. HR leaders will have to ensure that diversity hiring does not align with salary adjustments to local markets to create racial pay gaps, either real or perceived. 

This is not the time for managers in the field to independently make decisions, because from a liability perspective, organizations are not judged based solely on what’s going on within a single department. A centralized HR or C-level review of your organization’s return-to-work decisions should be a part of your overall game plan.

The challenges HR leaders face in 2021

As the workplace continues to evolve in 2021, forward-thinking leaders will face many unprecedented challenges. HR leaders have already started to ask important questions, such as:

  • Are our managers prepared to lead hybrid or fully remote teams?
  • How do our hiring practices change now that commute is no longer an issue?
  • How do considerations like state taxes, time zones, state law compliance, and hiring in other markets drive our strategy?
  • How do we build a strong culture among distributed teams?

Not all of these questions have immediate answers. It will take time to understand how the pandemic has reshaped employee expectations. In addition, employers will need to coordinate with their clients and vendors to determine how best to collaborate. The next several months will be a time for planning and thinking deeply about how to shape the future of business.

Ultimately, communication will be extremely important. HR leaders have an opportunity to engage employees in meaningful conversations about the future of work. Transparency and a willingness to sit down and have meaningful conversations will go a long way toward calming anxieties about the months ahead. 

Watch OperationsInc CEO David Lewis discuss the vaccine rollout, hybrid team management, and other 2021 workplace challenges in our on-demand webinar.