Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted many areas of business operations, notably human resources. Between navigating furloughs, keeping up morale, and reconfiguring workflows to accommodate remote work, professionals with HR duties played a pivotal function for organizations. Additionally, COVID-19 magnified pre-existing business challenges with supply chain, competition, and access to capital, forever changing certain industries as a result.
The continuing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic mean HR systems and functions, as well as compliance risk, will continue to be challenging in 2021. Many employers have turned to outside HR resources as a way to alleviate the overload, especially if they’ve reduced staff or are looking to ramp up hiring and onboarding in the coming year.
Mary Leveridge, CPA, Executive Vice President at Inova Payroll and former owner of Payroll Strategies, has seen firsthand some of the challenges employers and HR professionals have experienced during the health crisis. Mary and her team have leveraged their HR resources and expertise to help employers meet many of those challenges.
Here is what employers are experiencing now and some ways that expert HR guidance is providing solutions to key challenges during the COVID pandemic and into recovery.
Challenge #1: The navigation of evolving legislation designed to aid recovery.
“It’s a challenge for businesses, especially smaller businesses, to fully understand new laws, like the FFCRA, so they rely on us for support and lean on us to give them guidance,” said Gene Tauer, HR Director and New Client Implementation Specialist at Inova.
Gene went on to explain that they received a number of calls from employers requesting help navigating the FFCRA. If an employee tested positive for COVID, they needed to know how that related to FFCRA – do they qualify for emergency sick leave or FMLA?
In one particular instance, Gene describes a small business that had an employee who thought they might qualify for emergency sick paid leave through the FFCRA but ended up not qualifying after evaluation by the team. “We’re navigating each different scenario, and so many times during this whole crisis, something will come in and we think we've seen it all. And then something new will come in, and we're like, wow, that's a whole new twist. We hadn't thought about that before.”
In addition to the immediate questions that arose, policies needed to be created and updated based on these legislative changes. The COVID-19 pandemic left questions wide-open for employers regarding what documents they are required to provide employees, how they should update their employee handbook, and what laws apply to them.
This is a concept that John Wise, Director, HR Outsourcing Technology at Inova, is familiar with. "We're having to interpret, or try to help our clients in terms of legislation that's changing every day. We tell them on Monday what our opinion is based on current legislation and then the following day, it might be a different recommendation based on updates."
Now there are questions about vaccination mandates and return to work procedures, as well as how to handle requests to continue working remotely. Everyone is also watching Congress for additional aid packages to help individuals and businesses. If that should come to pass, employers will no doubt have even more changes to accommodate.
Challenge #2: The continuation of furloughs and layoffs.
“Some of our employers saw a second wave of furloughs and layoffs in Q4, and it wasn’t necessarily because of another wave of COVID,” Gene said. “It's more just a residual thing for the crisis as a whole. So, I think a lot of them were holding their breath and trying to hang on, as long as they could last.”
The team provides support to employers offboarding employees during a normal year, but 2020 brought unique challenges. For months, Mary and her team provided assistance in managing layoffs and furloughs, from making layoff decisions (determining whether it’s a temporary or permanent layoff), to delivering the news of a layoff to the organization, including drafting a letter or determining how much notice to provide, as well as how to help employees who were permanently laid off.
There are high hopes that this trend will calm down in 2021 as a vaccine helps more Americans develop immunity to the virus and creates an environment where behaviors move closer to 2019 levels as the year progresses.
Challenge #3: Bringing people back to work and expanding teams.
On the flip side, some employers are bringing people back now, according to Gene. “They have new policies about how to operate when they're coming back from furlough if they're going to open up the office again and return to work.”
Mary and her team are also helping to facilitate the process for other workplace changes such as wearing masks, organizing a different layout of the facility to accommodate social distancing, determining whether they’re going to test employees or not.
Another item that requires attention is determining eligibility for benefits because insurance carriers have different timeframes and terms related to furloughs. The team worked as the facilitator between the broker and insurance carriers to assess the waiting periods on behalf of the employer.
Beyond plans to return to work, some employers are planning to increase hiring this year and are making plans for increased recruiting, hiring, and onboarding activities.
“[Working remotely] certainly changed the recruitment environment, and it's changed how candidates and jobs are viewed and what employers are more open to, so it's going to change everybody's recruiting process.”
In working with recruiters, Mary and her team are seeing this theme often enough that they believe employers will be particularly challenged to remain competitive in the job market in 2021.
Challenge #4: The transition to digital technology and more automated processes.
“One change I’ve seen is employers are becoming better at leveraging technology as a way to communicate and interact with their employees and help with tasks like filling out a form or signing up for benefits,” said Mary.
Some employers have been resistant to the use of certain technology and continue to use outdated practices, but from Mary’s perspective, the clients that really struggled with using automated processes have gotten to a point now where they seem to grasp it and want to utilize it. “It creates efficiencies and gives us a way to audit changes and make sure the right HR activities are happening the way they should happen.”
With the onset of COVID-19, HR is embracing advancements in technology and managing the transition to remote work. Now that the value of virtual meetings and digital workflows are evident, they’ll be integrated into processes going forward. They may not be as abundant as they were in 2020, but there likely won’t be a return to pre-COVID levels.
Challenge #5: Maintaining employee engagement and accountability.
There is more than one reason employee engagement was particularly problematic for employers and HR professionals in 2020. Whether the choice was made to move to a work-from-home arrangement or to adjust the physical workspace to keep employees from spreading the virus to one another (or both), communication was both more critical to the success of the business and also more challenging.
Keeping communication lines open, sharing important information, understanding how productivity was impacted, and just understanding whether employees were okay was not easy. To help her clients consistently communicate with their employees and listen to feedback, Mary facilitates goal-setting and feedback meetings throughout the year.
“Once a year, we help our clients set goals for all of their employees, and then throughout the year, they have a feedback meeting where the managers sit down with the employees and go through the goals. We sat in on those meetings to provide feedback as to what feeling we were getting regarding those professional relationships,” Mary said. Holding regular meetings with employees gave the senior management teams more comfort that goals were being met and communication was cultivated throughout the company.
Now one month into the New Year, we can be assured that while there are still challenges ahead, there are also opportunities.
What were your biggest HR challenges of 2020, and how do you think that will change in 2021? Of the changes implemented to accommodate the pandemic, are there some you think will contribute to your success in 2021? It’s a good time to reflect on the past year, ensure you have the proper HR resources ready to deploy, and plan for success in 2021.