During the past three months, the faculty and administration of De La Salle University have been preparing to transition to e-learning given the ongoing pandemic. Preparation meant learning to optimize our learning management system and understanding the nuances of distance learning. Preparation also meant ensuring that course content, in my case Strategic Human Resource Management, is relevant and takes into account the implications of this pandemic.
HR must be one of the busiest units for most businesses, not just now but since the lockdown was announced. Organizations with existing business continuity plans, work-from-home (WFH) arrangements, and counseling and mental health programs were in a better position to respond. However, many organizations were caught by surprise, and this was and still is a huge HR challenge. Of course, other units in the organization have their roles to play. However, because of the impact on employees, HR has a major role.
The HR group is expected to play a significant role in setting up WFH arrangements. Aside from identifying which types of work can be shifted to WFH, HR needs to guide both managers and employees on how to manage this environment.
On top of being worried about health and safety, employees are concerned about job security. Almost all employers paid the salaries of employees during the first month of the lockdown. However, in the second month, as the lockdown was extended and the business implications of the pandemic became clearer, some employers resulted in commuting leave credits while others gave advances to be offset on an undefined date. Sometimes, they would do these without explaining to employees what they were doing and why they were doing it. HR plays a critical role in supporting top management by informing employees about what the company is doing, addressing their concerns, and checking their wellbeing because not everyone may be coping well with the stress. HR also has to keep abreast of and comply with guidelines issued by the government through the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 related to employment and occupational health and safety.
For organizations that deliver essential services, HR implements health and safety protocols, possibly extends work hours, arranges transportation and accommodation, and helps employees cope with stress.
The response to the situation includes a shift to online platforms. For many employees, this requires acquiring new skills in a short time. In coordination with the IT people, HR arranges online training on how to work online.
As businesses are slowly opening up, HR is busy scheduling and rationalizing staff rotations, arranging employee shuttles or even accommodations, working with the administration group to ensure that COVID-19-related occupational health and safety standards are implemented, arranging for COVID-19 testing, and dealing with arrangements for regular employees who are deemed to be part of the vulnerable population.
All these are on the assumption that no one in the company and any of the employees’ families has tested positive for or died of COVID-19.
Business owners and higher management of companies severely affected by the pandemic may be thinking of or may already be implementing severe measures such as workforce reduction, temporary suspension of operations, or even cessation of operations. These steps involve HR as well. More than accomplishing the paperwork required to comply with regulations, HR supports management in communicating with employees, and implements the process as smoothly as possible. Ideally, HR should also be looking for ways to help affected employees by providing them with complete and accurate documentation about their employment, and assisting them in finding other jobs or helping them identify alternative livelihood opportunities.
For organizations that continue to operate, HR should be looking at consolidating the lessons learned and preparing for the new normal. Organizations need to recalibrate their systems to operate effectively and efficiently in this new environment, and to continue to deal with the impact of the pandemic not only on the organization but also on its stakeholders. Aside from systems, HR should look at how this new environment is affecting the organization’s culture and should continue to monitor employees’ mental well-being.
If HR plays only an administrative role or is unable to respond appropriately, the response-ability shifts to higher management, who will now need to direct and lead these efforts on top of addressing sustainability issues. This highlights the important role that HR plays in organizations and the importance of having the right people for the job, and that includes people in HR.
As we begin our trimester using e-learning, we have to adjust our content to include the implications of this pandemic to help students acquire knowledge and skills to help them navigate in this new environment, support them as they adjust to this reality, and equip them for the future.
Dr. Mary Margaret Que teaches in the graduate programs of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. She is also the managing director of ExeQ Consulting Service.