Q&A

How HR can lead during this pandemic

A conversation with Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin Covid-19 HR

Workers are looking to their employers for guidance and reassurance in all forms as the COVID-19 crisis evolves. Much of that responsibility falls to human resources teams. It’s a major challenge: Only 39% of U.S. employees say their companies have communicated a clear plan of action, according to Gallup.

How can CHROs and their colleagues build trust with workers in these unsettled times? We reached out to HR technology expert Josh Bersin for some answers.

What are the top priorities right now for HR teams?

First is the health and safety of employees. If you have offices or facilities in operation, such as hospitals or manufacturing or the supply chain, make sure that people who have symptoms are reporting the virus and that buildings get cleaned properly if the virus is reported. You have to have policies in place for those things.

The second thing is working at home. I’ve talked with a number of big companies who are saying, “We weren’t prepared for this. We need to figure out pretty fast how to do this.” At Bersin Academy, we’re launching a Remote Work Bootcamp this week, which teaches principles and best practices.

You need to set rules and norms for behavior. Do I need to dress up for a video call? What if I’m late to a meeting because something at home happens with my kids? Should I schedule an open discussion during the day where people can chat about what’s going on in their lives, the stress they’re under?

[Read also: Managing remote employees in the COVID-19 era]

What are some obvious mistakes to avoid?

Some companies want to monitor people and see what they’re doing all day. One company I know of has a monitor on employees’ computers. If you’re not using the keyboard after a certain number of minutes, it starts beeping at you. Other companies have cameras that go on sporadically to see if people are at their computer.

None of this will go over well with employees right now. Nobody wants to be monitored just because they’re home. They want to be able to work the way they want to work.

Many companies are facing hard choices about layoffs. How can HR help support making smart decisions?

HR can and should be very involved. You have to ask do we furlough people, lay them off or reduce their hours? What kind of benefits are they going to get in outplacement? What happens if they have medical problems and other conditions that could be liabilities to us if we let them go? These decisions are ultimately made by executives, but HR can be a strong partner in making them strategically.

Truly empathetic communication is badly needed.

Companies can lay people off very quickly, but they need to understand it takes a long time to hire them back. If you let a lot of people go, your remaining employees are dramatically impacted. Research shows that if you do a massive layoff, the people remaining are going to be 20% less effective. They’re going to be in shock and wonder if they’re next.

What’s the best way for HR leaders to gain workers’ trust?

One of the most important is competence—doing things well. It’s also about how leaders communicate, how they listen, how they empathize.

Truly empathetic communication is badly needed. People don’t want to hear grandiose platitudes from leaders. They want to know what you are doing today and every day, because things are changing so fast that people are worried about their jobs, their families, and their health.

It’s a model of, “I understand what you’re going through. I’m going through it too. I’ve been talking to you individually. Here’s what we’re doing today to take care of it. This is what we’re going to do tomorrow and this is where I want you to tell me what you need next.”