How has the pandemic changed the role of human resources?

Human resources has been irrevocably changed by the pandemic, necessitating the need for HR professionals to learn new skills to accomplish new tasks.

How has the pandemic changed the role of human resources?

There isn’t a business function that hasn’t been significantly impacted by the pandemic-induced changes companies have been forced to make to stay operational. One function that has seen an especially dramatic shift in purpose and processes is human resources.

The overall role of HR and the daily tasks performed by HR professionals have gone through significant shifts, particularly because of the exponential growth of remote work in response to the COVID pandemic.

Not only have human resources professionals had to guide their companies and employees through the transition to a more digital and distributed work environment, but they have also had to learn how to be productive and successful in their own roles when working from home. Both have required HR professionals to learn new skills to complete tasks they weren’t necessarily prepared to confront.

“During this colossal shift to the digital workplace, the role of HR has changed,” write Philippe Gomes and Marine Fournier of digital workplace solutions provider Powell Software. “HR has had to redesign and reimagine the way it works within the workplace.”

HR as a business function had changed

According to a survey by ADP Canada, 43 percent of HR professionals believe the role of HR has changed because of the pandemic, with the majority of those saying their role has become more challenging. Much of that difficulty likely stems from the fact that HR is playing a more strategic role at companies as they try to deal with human capital challenges and sustainability concerns presented by the pandemic.

Simply put, human resources has become increasingly critical. Isil Ata, head of human resources for the Middle East at Cigna, puts it this way: “Human resources has become one of the single most important functions for any organization in these unprecedented times.”

In addition to guiding their companies through the transition of becoming virtual workplaces, HR is also driving strategic planning for the future.

“We’re the ones who will put our workplaces back together,” says Johnny Taylor, Jr., president and chief executive officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. “CEOs are counting on our speed, our expertise and our creativity in reshaping the workplace for resistance and recovery.”

With this new role has come the need for HR professionals to learn new skills that help them succeed. They are wearing more hats than ever before with executives and employees alike turning to them for guidance on how to move forward and overcome the present challenges. Consequently, they are performing tasks they hadn’t previously been expected to do.

Navigating virtual recruiting

While some companies had already been moving to virtual recruiting, the pandemic forced many organizations to make the transition quickly. HR teams are now “conducting the entire recruitment process from planning and talent sourcing to assessing, selecting, hiring, and onboarding in a virtual environment,” write Randa Bahsoun, Khaled Bin Braik, Boudy Kassis, and Ahmed Khairat at PwC.

Virtual job fairs and hiring events are specific elements in virtual recruiting that HR teams have had to learn how to navigate. To conduct virtual recruiting events, for example, HR professionals adopted new technologies to facilitate those events, marketed them to the right audience, and developed customized content.

Remote onboarding is also a key part of virtual recruiting that HR is now conducting. This can be especially challenging to manage successfully online and HR teams have had to strengthen their technology, communication, and engagement skills to foster connections and complete paperwork virtually with new hires.

two office workers in masks at laptops; how the pandemic changed Human Resources concept

Managing remote teams

Managing remote teams wasn’t a task many HR teams were prepared for at the start of the pandemic. Even those that may have been discussing the advantages of a more remote workforce didn’t plan on having the luxury of time being suddenly taken away from them.

But for many, that is exactly what happened. They had to learn how to manage remote workers when the infrastructure and the support systems weren’t there to ensure a smooth transition. And with 80 percent of employers planning to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time after the pandemic, the ability to manage those employees is a skill HR professionals will need to perfect.

Learning and implementing new technologies

Technology is the centerpiece of virtual work. The COVID-induced shift to virtual work has created a demand for “easy, intuitive, and ‘waterproof’ systems, accessible at any time from any location” to maintain continuity, write Bart Moen, Norman Smit, and Vincent Okkersen, HR leaders at Deloitte Consulting.

Human resource departments have largely been tasked with selecting, learning, and implementing those new technology systems, which means they have had to become IT specialists and/or align themselves more closely with IT departments.

Writing and conducting regular employee surveys

Ensuring that employees are adequately engaged with the company as they work from home is another challenge the pandemic has presented. Human resources professionals have had to become very adept at gauging employee engagement. With everyone distributed, the most efficient and effective way to do this is through surveys.

“HR can also keep a finger on the pulse of engagement through quick surveys and the creation of feedback loops that provide leaders with a barometer of where they need to double down on checking in, motivating, and keeping people on board,” writes Tracy Brower, Ph.D., a work environment sociologist and principal of applied research and consulting at Steelcase.

That means HR professionals have had to develop excellent survey writing skills. They have had to learn which questions to ask, how to ask them, and when to ask them to get the most honest feedback from employees. While conducting periodic surveys has long been a task for HR teams, conducting them frequently with a remote workforce has required HR professionals to develop new survey skills.

diverse team smiles at camera; how the pandemic changed Human Resources concept

Serving as public health administrators

Perhaps one of the most unexpected and challenging new tasks HR teams have had to address is filling the role of public health administrator. Employees that do return to the workplace expect and deserve a safe working environment. To deliver this, HR departments have had to stay current on fluid policies and regulations related to worker safety.

They have had to make changes in the workplace such as staggering work schedules, relocating employee work stations, mapping routes through offices, and writing mask policies. They also have to communicate those policies to employees and audit compliance.

“HR leaders have not only been tasked with ongoing communication of evolving policies, but ensuring that they understand the rapidly changing environment so that their procedures are in compliance,” writes Chip Luman, cofounder and COO of HR technology company Atlas ID. This “is made even more difficult when guidelines are changing by the day, adding yet another ball for the HR managers to juggle,” Luman says.

Protecting employee privacy

Privacy has become a concern for Americans during the pandemic. A survey by identity protection software developer Okta reveals 84 percent of Americans feel they will sacrifice too much privacy for pandemic-related data collection. This has placed a burden on HR teams to ensure that companies protect the privacy of their employees when gathering data to make business decisions.

Key to accomplishing this task has been learning what the privacy regulations are, and then helping leadership create employee data ethics policies, which Jay Cline, Sean Joyce, and Joseph Nocera at PwC assert should be one of the key agenda items for leaders right now.

The rapid growth of virtual working has given rise to these new HR tasks, but the need for them isn’t going to disappear as employees return to work. The skills HR professionals develop to accomplish these tasks are going to continue to be essential because COVID has created a new normal for work. Human resources has been irrevocably changed to meet the demands of that new workplace.

Images by: Olga Yastremska/©, Alessandro Biascioli/©, Kurhan/©

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