HR supporting and leading during COVID-19

HR supporting and leading during COVID-19 – Brenda Sparling Howe

In this article series, I ask HR senior managers and leaders to discuss ideas on supporting and leading during COVID-19.

Featured guest contribution by Brenda Sparling Howe

What role should HR play to manage the COVID-19 issue unfolding and lead the way?

HR should be assisting their leadership during the COVID-19 crisis by recognising the cause and effect of uncertainty on their employees.  This is where the emotional intelligence of a leadership team is critical, taking time to express empathy and compassion for their employees. This includes understanding that as employees continue to social distance and work from home that a shift in priorities is happening. That the focus previously demonstrated by their employees has shifted to family health, extended school closures and the uncertainty of the impact of COVID-19.

It is extremely important for HR and a leadership team to communicate (or over-communicate) in a calm and methodical way and encourage the same of their teams.  This is where shorter and more frequent communication would be desirable providing information as it is known rather than waiting for all of the information to become known.

The first priority should be the safety of employees followed closely by their financial well-being.  This should include remote and flexible work options, providing opportunities for connecting with their teams ( through Zoom or Microsoft Teams) and options for support through remote health services including EFAP or Maple. Should financial support be available, companies should consider providing an additional fund during COVID-19 or if layoffs are required providing a top-up to EI (Employment Insurance).

Additionally, HR can also assist in considering the needs of the customer, understanding that the needs of their clients / customers have changed even reverting to the basic needs of safety, security and health. Consideration should be paid to the tone and nature of the communication with both employees and customers.

For the continued needs of employees and customers, leaders need to consider financial performance and need to be able to make hard, fact-based decisions.  The process for this should include:

  • centralised decision making
  • cataloguing the sources of cash available to the organisation
  • articulating economic scenarios
  • modelling the projected financial impact
  • defining the non-negotiables
  • identifying the levers available to the organisation.

The purpose, credo and values of an organisation should remain non-negotiable ensuring a united philosophy where the head and heart unite. An authentic purpose motivates and engages employees. It further attracts and maintains customer loyalty as well as providing the guiding process of how an organisation should respond.

What should form core parts of the HR plan?

Key components of a Pandemic and Response Plan should include achieving effective preparation and response through clarity, process familiarity and confidence for associates and other stakeholders. Appropriate information – from official sources – should also be shared with properties, customers, associates and business partners in a timely manner as well as, modifying operations and procedures to protect employees and customers.

Considerations within any Pandemic Plan needs to consider:

  • the continuity of business
  • Influenza Manager and/or Committee
  • maintaining essential business operations
  • business planning for absences
  • supply chain distribution and border closures
  • financial analysis
  • staff travel
  • expatriates Evacuation Plan
  • communication with staff
  • medical precautions and communication.

In balancing the needs and rights of both employee and employer in managing a crisis, what are prime considerations for HR?

From my perspective, the key to any response during a pandemic is the management of the continual balance of the needs of both the organisation and employees.

The first consideration would be to take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of all employees (pursuant to OHSA (Occupational Health and Safety Act) legislation). This could include making sure that employees notify HR if they or someone in their close proximity has been diagnosed with COVID 19.

Direct any employee with symptoms to the appropriate health care authorities, ensuring that employees notify management if they have travelled or been in close proximity who someone who is returning from another country. Remind employees to wash their hands, practise social distancing and  follow all directions from Public Health. Ensure that employees cancel any travel and review and update all applicable policies and practices related to sick time (paid and unpaid), leave of absences and remote working.

OHSA provides the option for employees to refuse to work (this would apply to essential workers in Ontario). As such, employers should expect to receive work refusals based on concerns that working in the workplace may cause increased exposure to the virus. All refusals would need to be investigated and a response must be provided. Additional consideration must include the appropriate Employment Standards and Human Rights Legislation.

From a practical point of view, employers are facing issues related to allowing employees to remain at home including the requirement due to quarantine, having contracted COVID-19 or are non-essential workers. Employers do not want employees at work or returning to the workplace simply because the employee cannot afford to remain at home. The balance will need to consider an employer’s requirement to balance their obligations to ensure a safe workplace, employee privacy rights and their business needs.

Can you provide suggestions on the communication strategy and pitfalls to avoid?

When faced with uncertainty and unpredictability of a pandemic, early and transparent communication is critical to build trust and to ensure the credibility of an employer. The responsibility for communicating with employees should be coordinated with the Pandemic Team, senior leadership and local team managers.

A shared plan is needed to ensure consistent, coordinated and appropriate communication. As companies may have workers in a variety of locations (or provinces) as such, a multi-faceted approach is called for so that the right message is delivered at the right time to the right person in the right format. Consideration should be made to include written communication, web-based town halls and weekly touch points with team members (asking how they are feeling or to enquire if any issues have arisen during the week).

From a stepped approach, my recommendation would be to:

  • designate a communications coordinator
  • designate a spokesperson
  • identify the communication needs
    • identify the target audience and communication goals
    • determine key messages
    • determine targeted messages for the target audience
  • identify materials
  • create a communications plan
    • determine information dissemination channels
    • identify media and communications resources
    • prepare the first announcement
    • establish update procedures
    • prepare talking points
  • Monitor information flow and employee / customer response.

What actions can HR take to support the organisations for business operation continuity?

The purpose of a BCP (Business Continuity Plan) is to maintain operations during a crisis. As an HR professional, it is important to stay current with best practices, observe industry responses and maintain transparency with your employees.

Key actions should include the following:

  1. Take preventative measures in office locations where employees must still report to work.
  2. Authorise flexible work arrangements for all possible positions.
  3. Avoid unnecessary exposure to populated areas.
  4. Leverage benefits providers.
  5. Think ahead on business continuity planning.

Brenda Sparling Howe

Brenda Sparling Howe MBA CHRL CHRP is a result-oriented, Human Resources professional with 20 years of experience aligning integrated people solutions with business objectives.  Brenda is known as a strategic business partner who has developed best practices and practical solutions enabling peak performance of resources.  Areas of expertise include but are not limited to Employee/Labour Relations, Policy Development, Performance Management, Organisational Development, Recruitment / Onboarding, Total Rewards / Recognition and Change Management. She has a solid grounding in legislative and compliance-related matters within Canada, USA and Europe. She is a mentor who energises teams and is a strong supporter of positive change. Read the background behind this article series and other featured contributions.



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