indicatorAdvice for Alberta businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

Overcoming human resources challenges in the face of COVID-19

By 21 June 2020 5 min read

As businesses reopen across the province, human resources (HR) management is a branch of your company you have to strengthen. Bringing back staff, adding workplace policies to safeguard everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing and redesigning routine tasks like performance reviews are crucially important priorities for the HR department to tackle.

It’s not easy simply because we’ve never been here before. According to several experts we spoke with, there are some ways to effectively overcome a variety of new challenges the coronavirus has brought to the Albertan workplace.

Entrepreneur advice comes down to communication

“While many organizations were able to pivot operating norms to keep businesses running, others were faced with the brutal task of reducing hours and staff. It’s clear we all face immense change with the impending return to work,” Louise Taylor Green, CEO of Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA), said in April 2020

An HRPA survey conducted in the same month found that 34 per cent of HR professionals introduced policies/expectations about workload for remote workers, and more than half changed their approaches to onboarding.

Your business may also be undergoing that same kind of shift in staffing protocols, such as developing remote-work strategies and guidelines, and making the office compliant with physical distancing rules. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to create detailed plans that align with government phases for reopening.

Right from the beginning of announcing return-to-work dates, business owners have to be clear about what’s being launched.

“It all comes down to having a communications plan up front,” says Catherine Glambeck, Entrepreneur Strategist at the Calgary ATB Entrepreneur Centre, “and sharing what staff can expect with this restart, and how you’re going to make the physical space safe for them.”

When companies invite employees back to work, owners should make sure all communication is written, not solely verbal.

“When you have it in writing, there aren’t any grey areas,” notes Chris Broughton, principal consultant with UpSourced HR. “You want proof that there was communication between employer and employee, and that could even be email if something like ‘read-receipts’ is turned on.”

He added the message should say the employee must return to work within seven days of receiving it.

The HR challenge of work refusals

You might come across a situation where some staff don't want to come back to work because they’re worried about contracting COVID-19. Employees cannot be penalized for exercising their right to refuse unsafe work, but after investigating the concern and identifying the hazards in a report, in consultation with your H&S Committee or representative, and implementing the controls, employees can be subject to corrective action should they continue to refuse work.

If an employee still thinks that the dangerous condition has not been solved at their workplace, they may then file a complaint with an occupational health and safety officer, who would further investigate the complaint.

Broughton brings up the important consideration of working with parents seeking stay-at-home opportunities because they can’t find daycare for their children.

“Still, the onus is on the employee to exhaust all possible options, to tell their employer they truly tried everything to find a daycare for their children,” he adds.

It’s a fine line to balance, especially when many employees might still voice their concerns about contracting the coronavirus when they return to work. Being sympathetic though, can only go so far in this department, too. Employment lawyer Muneeza Sheikh tells CTV News: “While [employers] do have a legal obligation to accommodate a valid reason for not being at work, whether it’s medical leave, or whether it’s family status related... what [employers] don’t have an obligation to do is accommodate someone’s fear and anxiety about getting COVID-19 in the workplace.”

How can you manage lower staff productivity?

Owners and HR managers may have to deal with another wrinkle in the reopening plan: lower productivity from staff who have been so used to working from home and crafting their own flex-hours schedule.

“You have to be patient with those employees,” advises Maria Gafiuk, Entrepreneur Strategist at the Edmonton ATB Entrepreneur Centre. “The pandemic is affecting everyone differently, both physically and mentally. After two weeks, if you still see issues continue with employees who aren’t productive, work with them and share any resources you have that could help with their mental wellbeing, for example.”

Employees who are lagging behind may also still be working remotely, so Glambeck suggests initiating or continuing social events that have shifted online with those workers.

“Look at how some companies launched virtual happy hours over Zoom, to make employees still feel sociable despite working from home. And when people come back to the office, you might not be all able to hang out in the lunchroom like before, but you can still have online events with everyone.”

Another item to add to the HR management checklist is redesigning how performance reviews are administered. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests making an empathetic assessment “based on where your people are”, considering how many people are now wrestling with uncertainty and dread.

HBR adds it would be unfair to judge your employees against the company’s pre-pandemic goals, and instead concentrate on your individual employee’s growth and learning. Don’t focus on the transactional aspect of performance when instead you could assess an employee’s empathy, resilience and capacity to adapt during this challenging era.

Integrating your HR approach

Managing the many challenges affecting your HR department should be approached with buy-in from company leadership, as opposed to falling on just the owner to solve every problem.

Broughton recommends combing through the resources provided by websites such as Alberta Biz Connect.

“There are some great suggestions there on how to adapt your workplace during the pandemic, and the guidelines you should follow now,” he says.

HR processes and personnel have all been significantly affected by the crisis, which has encouraged those departments to adapt to these changing times. When businesses prepare their workforce strategies with strategic, comprehensive plans, they’ll be better suited to weather the storm disrupting everyday practices.

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