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What HR priorities are being affected by remote work?

The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of employees to work from home—and that shift to remote work may be the new normal for some time.
By: | April 15, 2020 • 3 min read

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on coronavirus strategies and priorities for HR leaders—from HR’s top experts.

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of employees to work from home—and that shift to remote work may be the new normal for quite some time, prompting leaders and employees to adjust to new ways of working.

One strategy to meet the challenges that come with remote work—especially in such a sudden and uncertain environment—is to prepare managers to be effective virtual leaders in order to boost engagement and productivity.

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Many senior executives have been forced to live as teleworkers for the first time, says Kevin Oakes, CEO and founder of the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). “That firsthand experience is going to change their opinion of what working from home is like, and the notion of a workplace—where and how work gets done—is going to change in the short- and long-term,” he says. Issues such as how to measure collaboration between managers and remote employees will come to the fore.

Managers of every stripe are finding themselves in situations they’re not prepared for, says Rebecca Ray, who leads the Conference Board’s U.S. Human Capital Center. Frontline managers typically receive training in the basics, she says, but now “we’re in a whole new world. How do we help them through the nuances of video interviewing, virtually onboarding new hires, building a virtual team?”

At Aerotek, a global staffing firm with more than 8,500 permanent employees, HR is focused on ensuring managers have the right tools to “engage holistically,” says CHRO Tanya Axenson.

“A common bias many folks have is ‘proximity bias’—you’re more likely to engage with the people you see every day,” she says. “We’re teaching them to be deliberate in how they’re engaging all their people.”

Companies are learning the hard way that employees who thrived in traditional work environments can struggle while working remotely, says Cara Zibbell, CHRO at mid-sized staffing firm Atrium.

“Not everyone can navigate these tech tools comfortably,” she says. “It’s important to provide training in this area.”

Rebecca Ray, who leads the Conference Board’s U.S. Human Capital Center, sees engagement as yet another challenge in the new environment. In many cases, employees are teleworking while taking care of kids and older relatives who are also homebound. “In these situations, it’s simply going to add to the stress and exacerbate the situation,” says Ray.

i4p has just completed a major study on holistic (financial, mental and physical) wellbeing. “We think more companies are going to pay attention to this,” says Oakes. High-performing organizations in this area have twice the gains of low-performing ones in productivity, retention and customer satisfaction and six times the creativity and innovation of their low-performing counterparts, he says.

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“The same study found that only 15% of organizations rate their effectiveness in addressing mental-health issues as very high, even though high performers are twice as likely to address this as low performers,” says Oakes. “We anticipate more companies will recognize the need to offer mental-health programs, because this pandemic is going to take a major toll.”

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Coming Thursday: Using HR tech to meet the challenges of COVID-19

Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.

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