Supporting Employees During Crisis: The Ultimate Test of an HR Leader

by Thomas Frisch on April 30, 2020

2020 started with the promise that it was going to be my best year yet as an HR professional. I was going to accomplish every resolution this year. From launching a new training program for managers, initiating a diversity & inclusion program, and my personal goal of reading every book I could find on being a first time dad. That all changed when the COVID-19 Coronavirus put much of our lives on pause. The idea of "social distancing," toilet paper hoarding, and sanitizing delivery boxes were completely foreign concepts just a month or two ago. The lifestyle inconveniences turned into real fear as I started witnessing the early effects of this virus that we still don’t have any solutions for. 

An unfortunate side effect in this disruption has been the impact on how people do their jobs -- or if they have one at all. The Department of Labor’s latest unemployment insurance data came with jaw dropping results. The total initial unemployment claims made the week of April 11, 2020 was 5,245,000. For context, that is compared to 203,000 just one year ago -- a 2,484% increase. The stress has affected more than those who have lost their jobs, though. Adapting to the new normal has been extremely difficult for many employees. 

As Human Resources leaders within these organizations, it is our job to make sure we do everything in our power to support employees, even when we’re unsure of what’s ahead. With the upside down world we are living in, these are a few tactics that can be used to relieve some of the workplace pressures our employees may be feeling. 

Be transparent

Part of the reason COVID-19 is so scary is because we do not have a lot of answers. The unknown is frightening. Employees have enough to worry about right now when it comes to their health and the health of those around them. Information is crucial -- make sure your employees have access to any information or resources that might help them. That might include making phone numbers for healthcare providers handy or providing detailed descriptions of your Employee Assistance Program. Although they may already have access to this information, it may be something they’ve forgotten about because it wasn’t relevant at the time it was originally shared. 

Put yourself in the shoes of different employees within the organization. What would they want to know? What information should you be disseminating? We know that some things can’t be shared, but for everything else I encourage you to lean on the side of oversharing.  Use company announcements as a way to provide pertinent information to employees quickly and easily. A weekly announcement on what is happening in the organization can help ease tensions.

A company intranet is a great resource to accomplish transparency. This is an area that all employees have access to whenever they need it. As leaders, you can build out content libraries with assets like one sheets with tips for relieving stress or working from home, share helpful videos, and recommend learning courses. During times like this, it’s a very effective way to provide your employees with a centralized place where they can have their burning questions answered, access employee contact lists, and feel connected to the organization when they’re working remotely. 

Be available

Create a virtual open door for employees to ask you questions. Here at NEOGOV, we have a special email address that employees can message whenever they have HR questions or concerns. So in times like this, when they can’t walk in your office, they still know how to get a hold of you. 

Try hosting office hours where employees can hop on a one-on-one video web chat with you to discuss issues. This is great because you still are able to offer a personal touch and express empathy through your body language that can sometimes be lost or misconstrued over email, chat, or text. Showing employees that you are available and willing to support them can have an immediate positive impact on their experience during this difficult time. 

Don’t just wait for your employees to come to you with issues or concerns. Be proactive! Shoot them a quick message to check in. A simple “good morning, how’s it going?” lets them know you are thinking of them. 

Set expectations of wellness

Employees will sometimes feel pressure to work through illness or disregard the needs of family so that they can stay on the clock. Communication needs to come from the top of HR down to set the expectation that every employee should prioritize wellness of themselves and their family before the needs of their job. They should be made aware of any types of leave that are available to them, even if you’ve shared that before or it lives in your employee handbook. You can remove hurdles just by moving it to the top of their inbox. HR should also work with managers to build contingency plans for teams who face gaps in resources because employees are taking time off from work. 

Ramp up training

Many organizations are adapting quickly to keep up with the changes caused by COVID-19. Making those necessary adaptations are great, but don’t forget that you need to train employees on the changes and how to leverage new resources. I live by the mantra “An employee will only value what they understand.” It’s a simple ideology, but it needs to be backed up with a lot of work that can pay off with dividends. That means your days could become consumed by creating training or documentation on a litany of new processes or resources being offered to employees. 

The reality is that you cannot be available to every employee, all the time. This makes training your managers on how to handle certain situations extremely important. Don’t forget that one of your most valuable assets are managers who know what to do without guidance, because they can help mitigate your own stress level. 

Think outside the box

We are not dealing with the status quo anymore. HR professionals can’t keep doing what they have always done in the past. When reviewing your budgets, don’t be afraid to move money around for new priorities. One big shift for NEOGOV has been online training. We are not able to sit in a room together anymore -- leveraging our online learning management system has enabled us to keep education a priority. 

Try hosting online social events to help employees continue to feel connected with the organization. Our teams have been taking advantage of online resources like playing poker during off hours and doing Friday happy hours via Zoom to discuss popular shows like Tiger King with one another.

Ask your employees

This might be the most important, so make sure you prioritize it. Don’t just rely on your own research and experiences to decide the best path forward at your organization. Send out a survey about how you can better serve your employees during this time. Learn what they want and take action where you can. There is nothing more frustrating in HR than having a “great idea” with zero buy in from employees. Can we admit that we sometimes do this to ourselves? Now is not the time to assume what employees want and need. Get out there and be proactive with your questions. You can never get too much input from the employees of your organization. 

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As HR professionals, we are looked at to calm the storm. Every organization is different. While there are tons of great resources and examples to follow out there, it is important that we react to the needs of OUR employees, and not just follow what others are doing. With your support, employees will be more likely to comfortably adapt to a new normal.

Thomas Frisch

Thomas Frisch is the Human Resources Manager at NEOGOV. He graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Finance, Real Estate, and Law from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He has spent the last decade supporting employees and leadership at companies going through high growth stages. Contact Thomas: tfrisch@neogov.net