Two years later: What has HR learned?

March 11, 2020 marked the official start of the pandemic, and HR's role continues to adapt

Two years later: What has HR learned?

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic due to COVID-19 and the world quickly changed in so many ways.

But none more so than workplaces as organizations around the world adjusted on the fly to adapt to the new normal: employees worked from home, businesses laid off workers and workplaces adopted a host of new mandates such as masking, enhanced cleaning procedures and changing layouts so people were distanced.

And while many departments saw changes, it was HR that may have saw the biggest upheavals.

Now, as many jurisdictions slowly end the restrictions, HR professionals are surveying the new landscape and welcoming workers back.

Lessons learned

So, what were the biggest areas of enlightenment that HR has experienced during the past two years?

“The biggest lessons learned for HR is just how big of an umbrella term HR obviously is; there’s so many hats that an HR individual would wear: health and safety, compensation, benefit, training and development, recruitment, selection, and performance management, counsel to managers,” says Andrew James Caldwell, team lead for the HR advisory department at Peninsula Canada in Toronto.

“What we’ve learned is that all of these umbrellas, when working together, can really make some positive change.”

Working remotely became a massive social experiment, and for many employers it was successful and employees proved that they can deliver from afar.

“Some companies that did not allow or offer work from home pre-pandemic, are now realizing that it does work and we are going to continue even after this is all over,” says Julie Labrie, president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions in Toronto.

“This is one of the biggest changes with some of my clients that were really not flexible at all with work from home before and now, they’re totally into it, they see that it works and they’re going to offer it.”

But one thing is certain: working from home and hybrid options are here to stay, she says.

“The biggest thing that most companies have learned is that they can offer work from home, it’s working for their workforce. They’re still able to operate and offer great products or services to their customers so why not continue with it if it’s working because it will have an impact on the environment, it will have an impact on everybody. People will be happier, less stressed, they actually work more when they’re home so it’s something that they should consider to keep offering.”

Read more: A new survey showed that 40 per cent of workers would not return, if forced back into the workplace.

With all these changes, new cost savings appeared and many of these can be attributed to HR, says Caldwell.

“The less turnover that you have, the less you’re spending on training development, because you’re keeping talent that’s trained and learned and those the on the job know the business. Then, if you’re working with your managers and you’re dealing with change management, dealing with a stressful environment, and people are using employee assistance programs that HR was probably fighting to get employers to implement at the start have turned around with again, employee retention and engagement. People are more productive, producing more, and you’re having less people do more work.”

Focus on recruitment and retention

One thing that has become exacerbated is the skills gap, says Labrie and smart companies will make adjustments to reflect this reality.

“[Salaries] have gone up drastically and in order to attract those people, you have to bump up the salary and, of course, now with the inflation, that’s also going to be another topic. Those people will expect more money but you have to make some adjustments to your internal staff if you don’t want to lose them because they’ll be on the lookout for more money.”

Many employers are unaware of this reality, but candidates are quickly making them aware of it, she says.

“They call us and say, ‘This is how much I’m willing to pay’ and I tell them right away: ‘You’re completely off; it’s going to be a challenging search because you haven’t adjusted your salary.’ And very often that’s what happens: they won’t believe us until they actually start searching and talk to people and see that ‘We’re off by five or $10,000 here, we’re not going to get what we want if we’re not increasing it.’”

With the great resignation continuing, finding new talent to replace departing employees will become more of a focus moving forward, according to Caldwell.

“Recruitment will be a big challenge right now, filling key positions and that will be definitely a hard hit for the next year that we go into this. There is going to be a huge focus on keeping talent in the office: ‘How do we keep them? Is it going to be that we want to go to hybrid? We want to get people back in but if we do that, are we going to lose talent?’ There will be an even bigger focus not just on a recruitment but retention.”

Read more: The future of work is already here, according to three HR leaders, and it began in 2020.

This new focus may also have to involve other departments to be truly successful, says Labrie.

“If you’re trying to attract people, you need to involve your HR team with your marketing team because sometimes those two, they don’t communicate and they really don’t know what they’re doing.”

Safety considerations going forward

With many workplace mandates being eliminated what procedures will remain long after COVID is a memory?

“The cleaning may stay up because it’s nice having a clean office,” says Caldwell and the idea that workers should not come in when they are sick will remain.

“A mental shift in employers and employees [is] ‘If I’m not feeling well, maybe I’ll stay at home instead of going to work and getting everybody sick.’”

Other areas such as vaccine mandates and social distancing will probably fall by the wayside, he says but not everything will disappear.

“You’ll see some people wearing masks more often; the mask mandate will drop [but] employers may choose to say, ‘You can leave it on if you so choose or take it off.’ The mask will probably actually stay longer than we think.”

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