COVID-19: The Pulse of HR – What Is HR Doing Now?

A week ago, we embarked on a project with the MIT Sloan Management Review and CultureX to find out what HR teams around the world are doing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The answer is: a lot.

The Covid HR-Pulse is open throughout this crisis. Please take our brief survey to describe your company’s response to the crisis as we update findings weekly.

Based on last week’s survey and discussions, here is what we discovered.

Top HR Priorities

First, crisis response has become top priority for HR.

As Sally Sourbron, head of HR for ServiceNow Europe noted, ServiceNow’s response fell into three urgent areas:  communication, remote work, and reporting. The cloud computing company immediately developed a global response team (led by the CIO) and created a set of channels for communication, tools for remote work, and daily reporting capabilities on infection, location, and information about work at home.

These measures address some of employees’ most pressing concerns while transitioning to a remote workplace. Daily crisis standups provide regular, stable updates to employees as they worry about their future, clarifying roles and responsibilities as they shift in real-time. New reporting capabilities allow the company to pivot to meet critical needs as productivity and absenteeism shift unpredictably. Secure, remote-friendly tools and flexibility in travel & expenses guidelines make employees’ lives easier and more productive as they work from home.

ServiceNow’s response seemed encouraging, and we wanted to see if it was consistent with the HR discipline as a whole, across the world. So last week, we invited thousands of HR leaders to take part in a five-minute survey asking them for their take on current events, and what was working well and less well in their organizations.  

As the pulse data shows, HR organization’s response has fallen into four important areas: physical health and wellbeing, followed very closely by remote work, and then quickly followed by issues related to jobs and work continuity and finally an urgent need for mental health, resilience, family support, and dealing with uncertainty.

covid-19 hr response

It’s amazing that before this crisis, fewer than 50% of companies even had a remote work program. Banks, regulated industries, and many financial services companies did not let employees work from home. Today companies like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and others are rushing to build remote work strategies.  (Hence our launch of the Remote Work Bootcamp this week.)

Note also how many companies are already focused on “job movement” and protection of jobs. The Food Industry Association, for example, has started a massive program to help companies in all aspects of foodservice and delivery realign their people toward new jobs and roles. Accenture is developing a similar program with the help of Verizon, Lincoln Financial, and ServiceNow. As soon as plants and restaurants and locations were shut down, companies started to think about moving people to new roles.

One of the other issues top of mind is “continuity of operations.” Novartis and other pharma companies were explicitly clear that the “crisis response” team is not the sole job of HR even at a time like this. ServiceNow and many other companies are continuing to hire, and in fact ServiceNow shared with me today that it onboarded 45 people last week via Zoom. Our survey does suggest this is the exception, rather than the rule; only 5% of HR Professionals anticipated their organization increasing its workforce in the wake of COVID.

Employee Issues

We then asked HR professionals to tell us “what’s on the minds of your employees?” Unsurprisingly,  the #1 issue is job security. As demonstrated by the more than 6 million people filing for U.S. unemployment, people are immensely concerned about their pay and their jobs. Right behind job security is health and wellbeing, followed then by family issues and finally, employees’ ability to do their jobs.

covid-19 employees issues

It’s interesting that financial issues are so much higher than anything else, probably driven by unemployment numbers, uncertainty in the financial markets, and no clear end to the health crisis. Certainly, health is a big issue, but note that family health and productivity also score high.

Many of the HR leaders I interviewed this week told me that “making family life easier” is one of their biggest and most immediate goals because employees working at home are often also taking care of kids, monitoring schoolwork, and helping parents and other family members. Companies are now surveying their employees to see who is impacted by these situations so they can relax work hours or add flexibility.

One executive told us her company has rated employees “essential” and “non-essential” and started a policy that all “essential” roles would not be eligible for vacation. Non-essential employees were asked to take as much vacation as they could, since the company knew its business was slowing down and many of these people would have more time at home anyway.

Note that the issues of social isolation, mental health, personal finance, and stress scored high. These are issues that were problematic prior to the crisis, but now they’re urgent. Companies are hiring online coaches, counselors, and giving people as much open support as they can right now.

What Programs Have Been Most Successful?

We asked companies “what is working” and you can see there are a lot of things. Most of these programs are focused on communication, remote work, and ongoing health and wellbeing. Note also that more than 70% of companies are readjusting their HR priorities.

covid-19 what hr is doing

What Have Companies Learned – What Is Hard To do

We also asked “what are some of the challenges you faced?” As you can see, they fall into the areas of coordination, integrated communication, and rapid response. Many HR teams are not designed for agility; rather they are designed as service delivery functions. In this world, HR teams have to immediately create response teams and quickly empower local business partners to act locally with global coordination.

covid-19 response from HR

As you can see from this data, local control and authority is a key to crisis response. The military has learned that distributed autonomy with central coordination is the model that wins wars. HR departments are figuring this out quickly.

What Does All This Mean?

We will publish this pulse every week in the coming weeks, so please tell us your experience.  But the takeaways from this first survey  are clear. In today’s world of Black Swan events, HR teams have to:

  • Focus on people first, economics second.
  • Develop rapid response teams that cross organizational boundaries.
  • Distribute authority to remote HR professionals, and coordinate action quickly.
  • Create real-time data collection to identify precisely where problems are occurring.
  • Rapidly develop programs to educate, train, and empower people to work at home.
  • Relax rules for hours, pay, and vacation to respond to fast-changing conditions.
  • Quickly assess what jobs are going away and start to align people toward new roles quickly.
  • Stay positive and communicate a positive growth spirit despite the uncertainty and change.

Re-Frame Employee Experience: Focus On Real-Time Action

One of the most important HR capabilities being tested is agility. HR departments must build a crisis response muscle, learn quickly how to distribute authority and coordinate activity, and implement real-time data collection, listening, and communication programs. 

EX after COVID-19

We’ve been working on EX programs quite intensely for the last few years. Now is the time to make this all matter.

Please take our brief survey and contribute to next week’s pulse.  Thank you.