COVID-19 is changing the core of the American workforce. With federal social distancing mandates and local stay-at-home orders, many organizations are putting business continuity plans into action.

Teams that once worked shoulder-to-shoulder have shifted to telecommuting to facilitate operational resiliency in a very uncertain economy.

But what are some other ways these changes affect your teams, specifically when it comes to human resources (HR) policies and procedures? Are these components included in your business continuity management program (BCMP)? Are the plans you created before the pandemic working as you anticipated?

We recently sat down with Jeff Gelinas, Vice President of People, Product and Marketing at Engage2Excel Group, to talk about how coronavirus shines a spotlight on human resources policies, especially related to the role of HR in business continuity planning and execution.

First, we asked Jeff about the types of HR policies organizations need during a pandemic and how a shift to telecommuting impacts them..

Effective HR Policies for Remote Teams

“The COVID-19 pandemic could potentially raise the need to update policies to account for those unimaginable situations that nobody would hope for, just like the one happening right now around the world,” he said. “We now see a significant portion of the ‘front office’ workforce working from home. And while organizations have become increasingly supportive of telecommuting arrangements for many years, something on this scale was not foreseen.”

As a result, many companies are frantically playing catch-up in the midst of a crisis, trying to mitigate gaps in their policies.

Some of the key issues coming to the forefront include whether or not existing security policies are effective or need updates to reflect this sudden push into a near full-scale remote workforce—and whether or not employees now working from home (some of which may have never worked from home before) have adequate training about security policies and data privacy requirements.

The COVID-19 situation raises a lot of questions, Jeff said, as he outlined some of the big questions organizations have tackled over the past month. For example:

  • What is your policy on furloughs?
  • Are employees responsible for their portion of benefits while on furlough?
  • Can employees use paid time off (PTO) during a furlough?
  • Do employees accrue paid time off during a furlough?
  • Do you need to amend your organization’s severance policy due to COVID-19?
  • How do you handle employees who are not sick nor required to quarantine, but are fearful and have anxiety about coming to work?
  • How do you handle connectivity at home for employees not accustomed to working from home?
  • What if certain employees do not have high-speed internet or necessary equipment?

“The current situation creates a lot of gray, and gray is not exactly an HR person’s best friend,” Jeff said. “One of the keys to getting through this challenge is agility. Make sure you have a task force (with representation from HR, communications, legal, IT and operations) to talk through issues as they come up and be able to respond quickly.”

Jeff cautions that teams will make mistakes, but this is the time to learn from those mistakes.

“For example, the United States Congress recently passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and Coronavirus Stimulus Bill that gives new guidance to companies,” he explained. “It’s important for organizations to understand the contents of these bills.”

The Role of HR in BCMP Planning

So while business continuity teams actively tackle this new pandemic-driven business frontier, is now the time to bring in your HR teams or should they have been involved in the process all along?

“It’s important to bring HR into business continuity planning discussions early,” Jeff said, “not when the plan has already been drafted and is going through a final review.”

“A common fallacy is to have an IT or operations leader ‘own’ the plan, but doing so often misses key people components, such as succession planning. You can have a brilliant disaster recovery plan, but in times of a pandemic, people components are critical.”

The expertise of these people-focused team members may never be more important than during a crisis or disruptive events.

“As HR communicates, it’s also recommended to have someone from internal communications (or marketing) review critical emails to ensure the content strikes the right message and tone,” he said. “For example, throughout this pandemic, there has been a lot of information to communicate, but it’s important never to forget that words of encouragement and gratitude also go a long way for employees. For example, ‘We will get through this crisis.’ When things are back to normal, employees will remember the way they were treated.”

Building Better Relationships between HR and BC Professionals

The COVID-19 pandemic is a learning opportunity for everyone, especially business professionals who likely have not dealt with an economy-busting pandemic in their lifetime.

So how can business continuity professionals better leverage HR expertise to build stronger and more effective business continuity plans?

“HR departments see everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Jeff pointed out. “They help promote your organization’s mission and vision while seeing any cracks in the foundation. Because the HR department works with every department in the organization, the HR team is well-suited to point out risks and vulnerabilities that other departments may miss, especially around the organization’s No. 1 asset: its people.”

HR also has access to lots of important data that can help make your business continuity program stronger, so Jeff recommends building relationships that help you harness that data so you can use it to its full potential.

Lessons to Learn

In this COVID-19 era of business continuity, Jeff highlights three HR lessons every business can learn from:

  1. Get ahead of crisis communication. Build effective and valued communication tools before a crisis, so your employees are familiar and appreciative of those interactions and then build on those processes when a crisis unfolds.
  2. Create a dedicated task force. This task force should be cross-departmental and represent a range of tenure and responsibilities within your company. Consider including representation from HR, communications, legal, IT, and operations.
  3. Value recognition and appreciation. Recognition and appreciation can go a long way during a crisis. Ensure your team knows they are appreciated for who they are and what they do. It can be something as simple as acknowledging the person who changes out hand-sanitizer in your sanitation stations to deeper involvement, like the person who comes up with creative resourcing strategies to encourage social distancing. Use recognition tools and reward efforts to protect health and safety.

Looking Ahead

COVID-19 creates a unique opportunity for organizations of all sizes to build operational resiliency.

“Resilient organizations build immunity to obstacles and challenges,” Jeff said. “Partner with your HR team to create team-based challenges. For example, organizations like Spartan Races offer corporate programs to strengthen resiliency and team communication. It’s essential to get people out of their comfort zone, which could also include giving people stretch assignments. Encourage employees to seek new ways to solve problems and then reward them for doing it. Problem-solving and creativity are very much needed in times of uncertainty.”