Recently, I read recommended steps for employers who are having employees work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. It was written by a prominent employment law attorney at a prominent law firm. It listed 15 items, the majority of which made sense. It began with an overall statement of employee support. The very next point, however, caught my eye. It pivoted to a recommendation that employees be reminded of their at-will status, and that except as prohibited by law, they can be fired at any time, for any or no reason, and with or without notice.
Making at-will point No. 2 in 15 struck me as a bit tone deaf. During a time of already high employee anxiety about the future, why prominently remind your employees yet again how uncertain their status is? (Read more of my thoughts on at-will clauses here.)
This list prompted me to reach out to various HR professionals around the country and see what they were doing during these times. What’s their focus? Is it minimizing employee claims or something else? Happily, it seems many if not most HR professionals aren’t focused on claims risk. Rather, they are truly putting the human into human resources.
Care and Compassion
Patty McCord is author of Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility (Silicon Guild, 2018), and co-creator of the famous Netflix culture deck. “If there’s something good about the current crisis, it has forced employers to trust their employees,” she said. “Instead of bending them to work—subjecting them to endless rules, requirements and procedures—they’ve had to bend work to them.”
“Employers are forced to realize that employees are adults and that the overwhelming majority want to come to work and contribute. Let’s give them the freedom and the responsibility to deliver what they’re paid to deliver.”
Horace O. Porras is vice president, human resources for American Tower Corporation in Coral Gables, Fla. As a result of COVID-19, his company shut all of its offices in the US. Work is now being done from home. “The most important thing we can do in HR,” Porras said, “is to show we care.” Porras recommends that HR employees find out what each employee needs and what his or her specific concerns are. “Every person is a world.”
“People need to know it’s OK to stay at home,” agreed Charlotte Miller, director of HR for the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association. “And that their [paid time off], sick time or vacation time won’t be affected.” She cautioned against unintentionally encouraging people to come to work who may be sick or have someone in their household who is sick. “Make it clear that there’s no need to prove how tough you are by showing up at work.”
Managing Communicable Diseases in the Workplace
Connect and Communicate
Miller asserted that HR professionals need to be very proactive in checking up on people. “Be as accessible as you can possibly be, whether it’s at the office, via phone, e-mail, text, online or otherwise.”
Porras said, “We’ve been very proactive about communicating with our employees during this time, what they need, what their setup is, supplies, etc. In addition to our current employee benefits, we’ve been open about providing other economic support such as if they need to upgrade their Internet or use their cell phones for international calls. We’ve shared advice and suggestions on adapting to work at home with family, hygiene and other matters.”
“In Latin America, most of our employees don’t have cars and rely on public transportation. If they need to go outside their homes for a specific and essential reason, to minimize their risk, we have offered to cover costs of taxis or Ubers”.
“We recognize that the fear is real. We’re doing our best in HR to allay those fears and prevent panic.”
I’ve written before about the tendency of HR sometimes to carry the point of consistency too far. Porras echoed this concern. “Now’s not the time to be worrying about inconsistency and employee claims risk. These are unique circumstances, not a time for rigid enforcement of policies.”
Porras shared an example about how employees are now using flex days: “We have a flex day policy that specifies terms and conditions. We’ve told employees not to worry about it. ‘Do what you need to do. We trust you.’ “
“We feel that in return for us trusting them, they’ll trust us and will do what they can to help our business survive this time.”
After the pandemic passes, the challenges won’t be over. We probably won’t get back to normal. Instead, there will be a new normal. HR will need to get ahead of this curve. “HR professionals must be nuanced post pandemic,” Miller observed. “Be sensitive to the fact that there will be some employees who were essentially unscathed while others suffered greatly. Even if you think there was an overreaction, please don’t say so. You never know who you may be hurting.”
Porras added, “HR will need to find out what the reality is for each employee and customize our approach. For example, even after there’s no longer a need to work from home, there may be circumstances where we allow it, such as where a caregiving situation has changed for the employee.”
HR should look for ways to spread positivity, Miller said. “Consider celebrations, both in groups and one on one.” She said that her executive director “has done a nice job with messaging, including about how we will emerge stronger than before thanks to the tools and ways of communicating we’ve had to develop to get our work done.”
McCord sees a silver lining as well. “This is a great opportunity to get away from best practices to new practices. For one thing, do we really need all of these in-person meetings? Chains of command? Compliance red tape?
“How about focusing instead on trust and respect and with flexibility to maximize everyone’s productivity? Let’s start with the notion that people want to come to work to make a positive difference. Let’s give them the means to do so, even if it means getting out of their way.”
“We can turn this crisis into an opportunity for long-term organization growth and health—and HR can play an indispensable role.”
Care, show compassion, connect, communicate and be flexible—these are COVID-19’s HR lessons. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of SHRM, summed things up as follows: “Every workplace operates under a set of guiding principles, whether overtly expressed or more subtly embedded in the culture. This is the moment to examine the principles that define you as an employer and a corporate citizen, and ensure they are ones you want to uphold and are prepared to live. Employees will rest easier knowing that you are operating under a strong value system that doesn’t waver in good times or bad.”
This content was originally published here.