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What Happens to HR When Everyone is Suddenly Remote?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 55 seconds

 

The everyday role of human resources professionals includes ensuring that productivity and performance goals are met within an organization. However, the sudden shift to remote work in response to COVID-19 has presented a myriad of incremental people management concerns due to the anxiety and uncertainty employees are experiencing. Furthermore, AON’s recent study shared by Human Resources Director reports that HR responsibilities have been stretched to include crisis management and business continuity. On top of that, only 8% of HR respondents felt they were sufficiently equipped and ready to deal with the challenges posed.

Matters are complicated further, one attendee noted, because there’s often a lack of support for human resources. In other words, who takes care of HR when HR is taking care of managers and teams? HR professionals, in particular, are experiencing heavy loads of emotional labor, a term sociologist Arlie Hochschild refers to as "the work of managing one’s own emotions that [is] required by certain professions."  

For a remote HR professional, emotional labor might look like:

  • Putting aside their own fear or anxiety to respond patiently to panicked or uncertain employees.
  • Moving past their own feelings of isolation or burnout to ensure the team’s needs are met.
  • Receiving criticism and even anger from employees and responding calmly—without added provocation—to educate employees about practices that are being implemented.

 

Since many HR professionals are supporting remote teams that weren’t remote before, we—at Workplaceless— hosted a Special Edition Networkplaceless for Remote HR Professionals as an extension of our ongoing support of this community. The gathering offered the chance to connect and process their top challenges amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. When remote HR professionals came together at Networkplaceless, they voiced their current greatest concerns. Here is what they shared:

Human resources as the “Communications Cleanup Crew” 

HR plays a critical role in owning and managing the communication of organizational policies. Candace Giesbrecht, a strategic HR consultant, co-facilitated the Networkplaceless conversation and asked the group if they feel HR functions as the “Communications Cleanup Crew.” The answer? A resounding yes.

 

There’s little time for strategic decision making, and leaders rightly need to make moves quickly to ensure business continuity. (Reference our checklist if you need a jumpstart.) But what is the impact on the HR leaders of distributed teams? Some feel that when CXOs are the acting HR department, there can be a lack of experience and empathy regarding HR practices.

 

Giesbrecht indicated that human resources professionals often manage the aftermath of confusion, including questions or concerns that may result from a hastily delivered messages or poorly constructed policy. There’s a sense of “information overload” right now, so much of the messaging is changing. Sudden shifts make for a great deal of uncertainty, and HR is tasked with keeping a calm tone. This is taxing, and as intermediaries, HR leaders must manage this emotional load while dealing with these uncertainties themselves.

Isolation continues to be a top challenge in remote work

As teams find themselves increasingly confined to their homes, employees have even less freedom. There’s no option to pop over to a coworking space or cafe to balance a project heavy morning. For people who live alone, or are particularly extroverted, this can be a challenge. Good practices need to be in place to ensure social engagement, like regular connection through synchronous meetings and creative team building activities to engage large groups.

 

While many organizations see asynchronous work as aspirational in terms of productivity, synchronous connectivity like video conferencing calls are increasingly important during COVID-19. Roberta Sawatzky, a researcher and HR professor, and one of the facilitators of the session, urges organizations to combat social isolation by encouraging groups to keep their cameras on during team conversations. 

 

However, as a participant mentioned, don’t assume body language can effectively give insight into how people are feeling. Just because someone is smiling, or isn’t smiling, doesn’t give clear insight and can be misinterpreted. Putting feelings into words is a skill to build during this time, and sharing this visual feelings wheel can be a helpful structure for employees.

 

While some HR professionals remain busy, others may find they have less to do, like recruiters whose pipelines are on hold while they wait for the hiring processes to begin again. Sawatzky notes that in the midst of hiring freezes and layoffs, there are questions, including how and when to on-board and whether to continue to hire in this uncertainty. 

 

Additionally, while HR professionals work to support teams, they, along with other employees, may be questioning the stability of their own employment status. Leadership should create space for employees to express their concerns, so it doesn’t fall to just HR, and so HR professionals themselves have space to process their emotions.

 

Boundaries are blurred and burnout is a concern

Since some employees are finding work to be a positive outlet, without clear remote work structures and routines in place, they may find themselves working more than usual. Plus, remote workers commonly work more hours than they might in the office. Many employees are taking care of children and family members while working remotely, and HR is being called upon to influence a balanced work life culture, all while maintaining their own boundaries when working from home. Even the basics have become difficult; some of their biggest struggles are balancing work plus household tasks. 

 

Since we’re looking at a time period of more than a couple weeks or months, we can’t plan to just keep working; there are no vacations or holidays in sight. If employees are concerned with proving their productivity, or if the company culture does not lend itself to trusting people to do their jobs, employees can quickly become drained emotionally, physically, and mentally. Giesbrecht reminded the group that employees' existing mental health coping strategies are being put to the test, and there is never a more important time to discuss psychological safety with your team. But front line managers don’t always have the skills to identify when there are mental health needs, and this is exacerbated by isolation caused by forced work from home.

Workplaceless recommends:

  • Set time aside during the workday to connect socially, via informal events like coffee chats.
  • Take days off. Our CEO Tammy decided to take a day off on Friday to have “at home vacation time.”
  • Use Wulu and other tools to help managers with mental health checks, and rely on peer to peer check ins.
  • Create space for people to opt-out, since demands on time are overwhelming. Leaders must choose the most important channels and required connection points.


Staff lack tools and support to work from home 

What is the best way to support staff in remote work? Many are scrambling to put together a remote work policy on the fly. Yet a policy is not quite enough. There are new dynamics at play in terms of managing remote work and newly remote teams. The first step is getting teammates up to speed through a program like the Unexpected Remote Work course or a simple checklist. From there, HR teams need to look towards building sustainable policies. And once teams get past the basics, attendees shared that employees often are unsure how to communicate and how often. A communication charter and remote work policy are two outcomes of our Goplaceless course that HR and managers may find useful.

 

Performance management structures may need to be adjusted. Sawatzky noted the struggle and tension she sees regarding performance when there are so many competing factors: what does performance management look like and how do we adjust? How does HR help leaders manage expectations of their team members? (Take a quick look at the Leadplaceless distributed management training.)

 

Without proper training and support, managers and leaders won’t be able to effectively communicate with their teams in this remote context. As organizations shift from a reactive remote work plan to a strategic and sustainable strategy, HR will need continued resources and tools to support their teams so they can thrive.



Check-in regularly, with yourself, with managers, and with employees

Giesbrecht recommends managers check in at the end of meetings. Ask “how complete do you feel about this meeting? How much did this meet your needs?” Notice her language, and the emphasis on emotions. If the weight of emotional labor is to be in any way lifted from HR, managers should take steps to integrate check-ins and allow space for their people to give feedback. Not only do these actions increase engagement and efficacy, but they give space for employees to process. In the end, Giesbrecht notes, perception of support and the engagement the employees feel isn’t always a match.

 

 

There have been drastic shifts to home, personal, and work lives, and the impact each employee feels will ultimately reverberate into the company culture and alter existing norms. HR plays an important role in ensuring teams and managers are on track and we were glad to offer this space for HR professionals to connect. People teams will need ongoing support to ensure that they can continue to support others. 

 

Workplaceless had originally intended on launching a workshop series for remote HR professionals in May 2020. However, as the situation with COVID-19 unfolded, we elected to delay the program until we could be in a position to support the new state of needs of the HR community. We welcome you to join our waitlist for the forthcoming Remote HR Workshop series. We would love to continue to stay connected via LinkedIn or at future Networkplaceless events.

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