What the pandemic taught us about human resources and the company culture

By Sheryl J. LaPlace, PHR

No one can deny the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on the traditional workplace. Some impacts have been shorter in duration, some have led to more permanent workplace adjustments and, in some cases, businesses have been forced to close their doors permanently. 

Some companies, by the very nature of what they do, experienced an increase in demand for their offerings, and those businesses thrived. Examples include organizations that provide delivery services, technology products and technological support. 

Whether large or small, whether providing goods or services, the businesses that navigated most successfully from the onset and through the duration of the pandemic to date are those that were positioned and prepared to handle the unexpected. 

With so many rapid changes and developments during the height of the pandemic, to remain viable, businesses had to be poised to quickly pivot and respond to evolving legislative, societal, customer and employee needs. What made the difference? 

The difference-makers

Having a solid human resources infrastructure and support system as well as a disaster preparedness plan seems to have made all the difference for many companies, allowing them to better weather the economic effects of the pandemic.

Well-positioned businesses have been able to navigate more confidently through the complexities of legislative requirements while quickly and adequately addressing employees’ needs and concerns about safety in the workplace and for their families. 

They have been able to provide employees with the tools needed to endure the mental and physical stresses of the quickly changing environment and adapt to the impacts of restrictions on travel and in-person interactions for conducting business. 

These organizations were able to respond to employee requests when changes impacted their personal lives — like child care facility closures or family members with underlying health conditions.

Businesses that found success during the pandemic have been able to navigate through compliance requirements when employees or their family members were impacted by the virus. They have been able to balance the needs of the business with the needs of employees and mitigate organizational risks during a time of increased interest in how the Americans with Disabilities Act was impacted by COVID-19 or how work requirements might lead to workers’ compensation claims.

Other difference-makers include:

  • Demonstrating leadership mastery to mobilize and motivate work teams, ensuring continued workflow during uncertainty.
  • Benefiting from an intentional culture of trust and respect.
  • Adapting and responding to disruptions and changes in the supply chain.
  • Taking advantage of business relief benefits from the federal government and other agencies.

Many companies found that their investment in a solid HR support system and in disaster preparedness made a world of difference for them. But what about the companies that were not so well prepared? Is there a silver lining for them in all the turmoil?

The silver lining

While the devastating and lasting impacts of COVID-19 on the workplace cannot be ignored or downplayed, the lessons learned and the resilience realized are equally undeniable and will potentially change the workplace forever.

For business owners who closed their doors but are considering restarting, the pandemic experience has provided an opportunity to build a more resilient business with an infrastructure that allows them to better prepare for and weather future storms.

Companies that suffered more intense setbacks but still survived now realize the importance of preparing for the unexpected and having a solid HR infrastructure in place. 

Several key insights help provide a blueprint for the future. A well-defined mission provides a compass to keep businesses on course during tumultuous times. Developing leaders and placing value on leadership competencies is not fluff, but essential. And providing comprehensive benefits (medical insurance, EAP services, etc.) that allow employees to care for themselves and family members helps workers to experience health and wellness during the most difficult times and allows them to focus and function at work.

Other important points include:

  • Having solid HR support to interpret and navigate through legislative complexities, ensure compliance and generate reliable data to drive good decisions is not just nice to have but critical in allowing owners to focus on the business and sleep more soundly.
  • Preparing the business and employees for the unexpected are key factors in remaining competitive when unusual circumstances occur.
  • Taking care of employees during normal circumstances allows and encourages employees to take care of the business during unusual circumstances.
  • Investing in HR support and disaster preparedness are worthy expenses with an incredible return on investment — an ROI that is truly realized during unprecedented circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Businesses also learned what is critical to their success, quickly determining what is essential and what is not, by asking several key questions:

  • Are our leaders and managers equipped with the knowledge, comfort level and resources to lead a remote workforce? 
  • Has the company provided the tools and equipment employees need to continue producing in unusual circumstances?
  • Have we created a culture of trust so managers trust employees to produce and employees trust that managers value and care about them as individuals? 
  • How important is the physical workspace to our business? How much of it do we really need?
  • How do we maintain a feeling of connectedness, given staggered shifts or virtual work environments?
  • Where a physical presence is required, what do our employees need to see and hear from our leadership to feel safe and valued as individuals?
  • What options do we consider before resorting to layoffs? How do we approach this decision, keeping the dignity of the individual intact?
  • How do we maintain morale during and after temporary or permanent layoffs?
  • What technology or techniques are essential to help maintain our company’s culture?
  • How do we address and respect differing comfort levels with regard to social or in-person interactions? 

Woman working at desk wearing a maskAlthough we are not fully in the clear, it’s time to check the pulse of the organization — assessing the state of the company’s culture and the well-being of its people.

A culture of trust

In answering these questions, employers learned that with trusted leadership and the tools necessary for success, employees can be trusted to deliver. Trust played a role in many ways. 

Companies that had made an investment in leadership development already had the competencies in place to more quickly gain and maintain employees’ trust during uncertainty. These companies already had the talent to help competently lead the organization through the most tumultuous periods.

Companies that had already trusted and allowed employees the flexibility to work remotely realized the benefits when it became necessary for fully virtual work. What started out as a benefit to employees ultimately ended up being a benefit to employers. 

Where employees’ physical presence was necessary, companies that had already created a culture of trust and demonstrated value for individuals had less difficulty in gaining more trust and in alleviating concerns about workplace safety. 

For companies faced with the need to embrace a fully virtual work environment, managers who had already demonstrated best practices and more modern approaches to managing work did not have to experience the learning curve of new techniques and processes during the most stressful times. They had already extended trust in their employees and had worked out the kinks.

Companies that had solid HR support could trust that company policies, practices and responses were lawful and in alignment with HR best practices. 

While we likely cannot reverse all the changes to the traditional workplace, the negative impacts on certain industries or the devastating effects on many companies, the silver lining of the COVID-19 impact on business is that new and existing businessowners can create, recreate and solidify what was proven to work. 

Businesses can leverage the lessons learned, sharpen the focus on what matters most and emulate the practices of companies that better weathered the storm — by investing in disaster preparedness and solid HR support.

Companies that had already made these investments were better positioned to pivot and respond nimbly amid tumult, to capitalize on a high-trust environment and a motivated workforce and to navigate successfully through the most difficult and uncertain circumstances.

Regrouping — now what?

Whether or not an organization benefited from a disaster preparedness plan or a strong HR infrastructure, businesses are asking the same question today — now what? Whether or not a company has just one person responsible for human capital management, has a multi-employee HR department or uses the services of a Professional Employer Organization, businesses are at a critical juncture, needing to answer, now what?

Our medical community has not yet given the all-clear. Society and businesses are still adjusting to various iterations of the new normal and additional adjustments may be necessary. Although we are not fully in the clear, it’s time to check the pulse of the organization — assessing the state of the company’s culture and the well-being of its people. 

Success is found in a multi-pronged approach:

  • Assess overall culture
    Culture, climate or engagement surveys are excellent tools to assess a company’s culture. Survey results provide valuable insights into opportunities to address the impact of policies, practices, management styles and/or interim measures that may have been implemented. 
  • Where areas of focus are identified from survey data, the company is able to drill down for even more detail, using virtual focus groups with a diverse cross section of employees. Equipped with this knowledge, a business is then able to take meaningful action. 
  • Assess management impact
    For companies without a disaster preparedness roadmap, managers had to adjust immediately during high-stress circumstances. While those adjustments were critical in the short term to get the company from point A to point B, if sustained, those pivots may now pose a threat to the organization’s culture. 
  • Assess employee and team well-being
    Anxiety and depression are said to be at an all-time high. Employees may be: grieving the loss of loved ones without their usual support systems; enduring the prolonged stress of social isolation; experiencing employment uncertainty amid the layoff of coworkers, family members or friends; bearing the responsibility of caring for family members in quarantine or those with special needs; navigating through the anxiety of virus exposure; balancing the demands of virtual classrooms with a changed or virtual workplace; filling the gaps in child care arrangements while concerned with the safety of their children; experiencing anxiety about social justice issues, heightened during the pandemic; and the list goes on and on. It is undeniable that it has been a very stressful time! 

COVID-19 impacts are indisputable. Disaster preparedness and HR infrastructure have been key difference-makers for businesses since the onset of the pandemic. Now, the bridge to a successful future includes assessing the pandemic’s impact on the company’s culture and people. Leveraging what worked well along with gathering data in a multi-faceted approach provides businesses with keys to help facilitate a desirable future. 

Sheryl J. LaPlace, PHR is a human resources consultant with Insperity, a PEO with more than 20 years of HR and business experience.