Top 9 HR questions on the coronavirus, answered: How to continue business operations—webinar recap, part 2

How HR can lead through the coronavirus pandemic
Man sitting at computer, watching HR webinar to learn how to best continue business operations during the coronavirus crisis.

From managing essential workers reluctant to come into the workplace to creating all-virtual internship programs, HR professionals have been challenged like never before due to the coronavirus pandemic. To advise the HR community as it adapts during this uncertain period, we recently put together a unique #TalkHR webinar: How HR Can Lead Through the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Four expert panelists—Tracie Sponenberg, Chief People Officer at The Granite Group, employment attorney Kate Bischoff, HR leader and #HRSocialHour Podcast host Jon Thurmond, and outplacement veteran Caroline Vernon—joined our live chat and Q&A to tackle many urgent questions from the audience for helping teams adapt, continue hiring through the pandemic, and much more.

Below is a condensed version of the Q&A, edited for clarity. Some of the questions answered include:

  • What are organizations considered essential doing when employees are refusing to come to work even when they’re healthy?
  • How can HR or the business demonstrate to those essential employees coming into the workplace that they are appreciated and maintain their morale?
  • How do you handle employees’ expectations in a kind and compassionate way while setting realistic expectations?
  • Do you anticipate that employers will be more flexible with possible decreases in productivity at all levels?
  • How are you continuing to attract candidates while not being able to hire them immediately? 
  • What is a good program for future leaders hired in the beginning of March? 
  • Any thoughts on how we communicate delayed performance reviews so as to not alarm folks?

Read also part 1 of the webinar recap, “Top 11 HR questions answered: HR’s role, labor policies, PTO, and outplacement.”

How do we best continue business operations and navigate the new remote work reality?

What are organizations doing that are still considered essential when employees are refusing to come to work even when they’re healthy?

Tracie: Our culture is really understanding of our people, and we are being extremely understanding, letting people keep their jobs, letting them use PTO to the extent that they have it. There are many different situations here. Do they have some that they’re caring for? Do they have an underlying health condition that may make them potentially eligible for some assistance? But even for people who aren’t, if people are just scared, our CEO came out on video and said, “Listen, if you feel like the right thing for you to do is stay home, then stay home, and we’ll be here for you when this is over.”

Kate: You have to be careful of how you approach someone with underlying health conditions because we don’t want you to be walking into a perceived disability claim under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). However, you might want to say, “Folks, we understand this is very scary, and for some of you this might be even scarier than those of us who are really healthy. So, as business goes down, come talk to us if you’re one of those folks who wants to stay home and be furloughed.” It’s totally okay to ask for volunteers at this point in time, for those who might be more scared or who have folks at home that really have those underlying conditions that make them at greater risk.

For retailers with a workforce working in stores, as an essential business that doesn’t have the option to work remotely, how can HR or the business demonstrate to those employees that they are appreciated and maintain their morale?

Tracie: We’re living this. Our virus response team sends daily emails, and we get our CEO on video every day. This goes a long way for a team. Also, I recognize this won’t work for all cultures, but we gave out my personal cell phone number and my CEO’s personal cell phone number and invited everyone to call us at any time with any questions. 

We’re trying to continually let people know how much they’re appreciated. We try to do that anyway, but even more so now checking in with people regularly. My whole team is rotating around and calling all of our locations and checking in with people and seeing what they need, and seeing how they’re doing. It’s just that constant communication, going both ways. It’s more important in these times to listen than to talk. So, we do a lot of that. Those normal HR issues don’t stop in times like this. They may even amplify. So, you really sometimes need to be an ear for people as they’re going through this.

Related: How to Maintain Morale During a Crisis

Many employees are expecting our company to close and continue to pay them and keep them whole. Unfortunately, not all businesses can do this, so how do you handle these employees’ expectations in a kind and compassionate way while setting realistic expectations that this is impossible?

Kate: A lot of my clients are in this spot. They have treated employees wonderfully for a very long time, and they are now looking at the financial realities of what they’re going to do, and that financial reality is that they cannot continue to pay folks. So, what we’ve done is, we’ve looked at how much money we have on hand, and if we were going to do a traditional layoff where we would be offering a severance package, can we take that cash and throw it at COBRA, so that people can have health insurance as long as we possibly can. Then we move everyone to a furlough so that they’re making unemployment.

Our goal is to make sure that employees have all of these capabilities to continue to pay for groceries, continue to pay for prescriptions, et cetera, but also have that healthcare. And so, we’ve been very open in saying, “Look guys, we want to do what’s best for you, and so our plan going forward is to do this. We’re not going to be able to pay forever, because we don’t know how long this is going to last.”

For those employers who don’t have as much cash on hand, what we’ve said is, “We’re paying all of April’s health insurance. We’re going to reevaluate mid to late April whether or not we can pay May’s.” And then with the influx of small business loans, looking to see if there’s a possibility of getting some of that cash to help fund these other programs. But they’re being very transparent and being very open with their folks saying, “This is what the current landscape looks like, this is what we’re trying to do for you, and this is when we intend to make our next set of decisions.”

Are any of you using any internal social platforms or technologies for employees to post their experiences—maybe share glimpses into their daily routine, post pictures of pets while working from home—so we keep some optimism going internally? 

Jon: The timing of all this has been really interesting for Team Fishel in that we implemented an employee portal just lately. So we really are trying to put as much information there as we can, though we’ve not necessarily implemented the social aspect of it. 

Tracie: We only have a portion of our team that can work remote. So while we have an intranet and have tried to put a lot of social tools in place, and we do have the resources for managers who are managing remote teams for the first time, we aren’t pushing it company-wide because we have a lot of people who have to leave their house and put themselves at risk every day and be face-to-face and hopefully at least six feet apart from our customers. So even though working remotely is the right thing to do for those of us who can, that’s a tough line for us to walk. 

Do you anticipate that employers will be more flexible with possible decreases in productivity at all levels? I myself was not ready to work at home, and don’t have an ergonomic office space. So, getting work completed at my normal pace has been quite a challenge. Also, having a toddler at home is another challenge for me, as well as other coworkers that have children. 

Jon: I think it’s going to be learning that maybe it’s not so much about productivity, but about the time. In other words, maybe it’s not 9 to 5, maybe it’s 9 to 2 and then 6 to 10. I think there are ways to work around those things. The ergonomic office is a different situation entirely, but when it comes to working from home. I think you obviously have to have a level of trust on both sides. We have to be able to trust that the employees understand their work and are doing the work they’re assigned, and that the employees trust that management is giving them what they need to be successful.

But I think it’s not so much lowering our expectations as opposed to changing the expectations of the deliverable itself or when it’s going to be delivered, and again, getting away from normal working hours. Showing that flexibility, not only locationally, but also when work is done.

How do we continue people operations such as hiring, onboarding, and performance reviews?

We have a 10-week summer internship program for software engineers starting on May 26 that we’re considering moving to remote. Are there any best practices for a successful remote internship?

Jon: If you are going to be remote, you’ve got to make sure that you have set those people up for success. Getting them the equipment, making sure that you’re onboarding them, even if it’s over video. Setting realistic expectations as to your communication. Give them a roadmap to success.

We have a very robust intern program with Team Fishel. Most of our folks are going to work because they’re out on the field working with our construction crews and learning that business. However, when they start, we sit down with them and give them that map and say, “Here’s what you’re going to work on over the next 10 weeks, to learn our business, to learn your job and how to be successful, to walk away with experience that you could apply in the real world, hopefully with us down the road as a full-time teammate.” I think it’s going to be even more critical now to get those plans in place and set those people up for success as best as possible at the outset, and not try to be figuring things out the day of. 

Tracie: I think the idea of a remote internship is really intriguing, and can open up a lot of spaces for people. My son is in college, and he’s in the middle of trying to figure out this internship that he has for the summer. What’s that going to look like? He’s actually working remotely for his school job. He’s a cybersecurity student, and they pivoted immediately to have them work remotely. One of the things that works for him is some kind of structure: regular meetings, check-ins with the supervisors. These are all things we should be doing anyway, it’s just doing them virtually.

How are you continuing to attract candidates while not being able to hire them immediately? Are you still accepting application screenings and interviewing now?

Jon: We are able to hire immediately. We are learning on the fly because in our world, particularly in construction, video interviewing is a foreign concept to many. We are learning how that works, which is great. I am excited about that personally. We have jobs posted. We are scaled back in certain areas; we certainly recognize that not all our areas are as busy as others. However, in those areas where we do have immediate needs and opportunity, we are actively sourcing, we’re recruiting, utilizing CareerArc and whatever means necessary to set those folks up. We’re working with them to understand that the interview process is going to be a little different than it used to be when you just came into the shop and met somebody and shook their hand and what have you. That nuance is different, and working through the onboarding changes with that as well. 

But again, I think it’s really company dependent. I know some companies have probably pulled all their jobs down, and that’s one way to go. If that’s you, maybe send out communication at the front end: “Hey thanks for applying. Based on current conditions, we’re in a holding pattern.” I think you have to do what makes the most sense for your organization, but make sure you’re consistent in that messaging to those candidates so they at least know what the story is.

Explore: CareerArc Social Recruiting Platform 

What is a good program for future leaders hired in the beginning of March? What work can they do remotely, provided they are not given enough training right now?

Tracie: We had someone start on my team today. You can do the same things that you would do in person, you just have to rethink how you would do them. Maybe it’s not ideal, but maybe it’s a great chance for somebody to do some remote training, some remote learning. I know we have her spending time with each of our team members and learning what they do, and then she’s doing a massive deep dive into all things COVID-19.

We have a future leaders’ program that’s ongoing that was in-person every month, and we’re rethinking how we do that virtually and what that looks like. So, you adapt. That’s what we do, right? We’re masters of that in HR: you adapt and you move forward.

We are a nonessential tech startup, and have decided to put our performance review process scheduled for April 1 on hold, until things return to more of a normal. Any thoughts on how we communicate this so as to not alarm folks that this is purely a financial decision? This decision is partially financial, but we also feel performance conversations are best delivered in person.

Tracie: You want to be as honest as possible. Holding the performance conversations in person—I think we are going to learn that may have to look a bit different than it does now. But if it is a financial decision, I think be as honest as you’re able to be. That goes a long way.

Watch the full webinar.

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