HR Challenges: How The Pandemic Hit HR Teams Hardest

Benjamin Babb
HR teams have been stressed by the pandemic.

The state of the return to work

By one estimate, 42% of the US workforce transitioned to remote work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now many companies are in the midst of implementing their return to work strategy.

According to a recent survey of business leaders in the US, about 40% of the companies they represent plan to return to the office by the end of Q3 2021 — and another 20% plan to do the same by the end of Q2 2022. Of those returning to the office, more than 60% were preparing for a hybrid office model consisting of a mix of in-office days and remote work.

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Returning to work is about more than physical office spaces. In that same survey, leaders reported plans to invest in a broad range of initiatives in the near future, presumably shaped by the reality of the pandemic and the imminent shift to new work models. At the top of the list were “diversity, equity, and inclusion” efforts and “relationship building.”  Another 70% of the respondents indicated that they were reevaluating recruiting and retention strategies as part of their return to work plan.

What do all of these stats have in common? They tell us that the road back to the office — and any semblance of workplace normality — runs through the HR or People Ops team. More importantly, the data brings into sharp relief the fact that HR teams are facing a number increasingly complex challenges, with no end in sight.

Investments business leaders are planning as of April 2021
65%Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts
55%Relationship building
45%Home office equipment setup
39%Personal development and training
37%Facilities improvement
37%Mental health benefits
Source: Charter Survey of Return-to-Office Decision Makers

The pandemic’s effect on HR teams

Most of us think of our HR departments in terms of three functions: hiring, payroll, and firing. Although these processes play critical roles in helping businesses operate smoothly, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the responsibilities that fall to a typical HR team. The majority of an HR team’s work happens below the surface which, for the rest of us, usually means that it’s out of sight and out of mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed that. Beginning in March 2020, the full scope of what HR departments have to handle has become increasingly clear. In addition to managing the sudden shift to remote work and dealing with a fiercely competitive talent market, HR teams have had to deal with one disruption after the next. They’ve had to adapt quickly and with limited resources, even while they dealt with the reality of the pandemic in their own lives.

New responsibilities, new stressors

In companies where the majority of employees transitioned to remote work, HR teams had to reconfigure policies and recalibrate tools to ensure that people had everything they needed to stay connected and productive during WFH. For some companies, the initial change was as straightforward as letting employees take their laptops home.

But not every company had enough laptops to go around, nor did they have the budget to provide them for every employee who wanted to work remotely. And even if they did have the budget, they faced surging demand for hardware coupled with limited availability due to a chip shortage in the supply chain.

Many HR teams also found themselves tasked with managing office spaces that had been emptied overnight and which would require cleaning, reorganization, and upgrades to ventilation systems and other equipment before employees could return to work.

For businesses and employees where remote work wasn’t possible, HR teams had to navigate other types of disruption. This included employee’s struggles with childcare, safety policies that were in a state of constant flux, and the difficulty of hiring for positions with few — if any — applicants.

To make matters worse, HR team members were dealing with these new stressors in their careers while facing challenges at home. Just like everyone else, they’ve had to figure out how to balance childcare and homeschooling with remote work and create appropriate office spaces in their homes. Our HR teams are coping with the same anxieties, uncertainties, and the crushing isolation that so many of us now know too well.

More changes to HR processes may be on the way

For almost all HR teams, even the most predictable and well structured processes have had to be reconfigured since the start of the pandemic. Recruiting, onboarding, compliance, and other standard HR activities had to be adapted to the new reality of remote work and more widely distributed teams. Processes that were once primarily conducted in-person were suddenly handled entirely through video conferencing.

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According to technology blogger Mike Elgan, many HR teams are facing the prospect of even more dramatic changes to their work. In a column that looks at remote work trends, he predicts that one long term effect of the pandemic will be the expansion of hiring pools. Now that many jobs are 100% remote and recruiters aren’t limited to a specific geographic location, recruiters can hire a qualified candidate from anywhere in the world. As a result, several HR processes will become increasingly complicated.

He writes that we should expect

“…vastly more complex HR — hiring, benefits and more. An employee working full time from home already adds complexity. Hiring in other states and countries sounds great until you consider that you have to comply with the tax, employment, and leave requirements — including meal breaks, overtime, vacation pay, and other issues — where each employee is based, not just where the company is based. If you have employees in 30 states, you have to comply with the law in those 30 states. International hiring amplifies that complexity.”

And that’s just one area of HR that’s likely to be impacted; more challenges and changes loom on the horizon. In a recent breakout session with HR leaders, Pipefy identified four areas of concern shared by many of the participants:

  • Returning to work (RTW). Not all employees are able or willing to return to the office. HR teams are dealing with RTW hesitancy or circumstances that make it difficult for some employees to return to the office.

  • New policies. HR teams are tasked with enforcing new policies and safety protocols that employees may find confusing, complex, or even controversial.

  • Higher turnover. Employees who aren’t willing or able to return to the office may look for jobs that allow them to work remotely 100% of the time. The increase in turnover — coupled with candidates’ strong preference for remote work — has made recruiting more competitive and complex than before the pandemic.

  • Employee engagement. HR teams will need to develop new strategies for maintaining employee engagement and company culture now that employees are working remotely or in hybrid office models.

HR teams are holding the rest of us together

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new work challenges for all of us, but HR teams have felt double the impact. In addition to the dissolving boundaries that once separated work life from home life, HR teams are also facing unprecedented changes to their processes, intense competition for talent, and a range of new responsibilities resulting from new work models and safety measures.

On top of all of this, research suggests that half of US workers may be experiencing mental health issues due to the pandemic. That means even more work for HR teams, many of whom are now responsible for putting together the resources needed to help employees care for their mental and emotional health.

In some cases, HR teams are on the front lines of this wave of stress and anxiety, listening to and reassuring their colleagues while trying to find solutions that balance the needs of the individual with those of the business. And they are doing all of this while they may themselves be overworked, anxious, or stressed out by the pandemic and the ongoing return to work.

Check on your HR teams. They’ve had a a tougher time than most since the pandemic began, and it’s likely there are still tough times ahead. A little empathy for HR can go a long way in keeping them safe and healthy, so that they can take care of the rest of us. 

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Written by
Benjamin Babb
Senior Writer at Pipefy, where I focus on helping businesses manage workflows, optimize processes, and deploy automation. I'm also a ghost story aficionado who listens to more Enya than anyone should.

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