How The COVID-19 Crisis Has Made HR One Of The Most Important Jobs Today

While businesses continue to make hard decisions to stay afloat, HR teams work to keep up employee morale, reconfigure workflows, redeploy talent, and upskill staff to help them stay relevant.

learn more about Isil Ata

By Isil Ata


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In a matter of only a few months, the world as we know it has changed drastically, stumbling into survival mode as it struggles to adapt to new realities. This is equally true for the global workforce, as people are learning to deal with rapid shifts, health scares, financial strains and domestic challenges that can be stressful and confusing. As a result, human resources (HR) has become one of the single most important functions for any organization in these unprecedented times.

While businesses continue to make hard decisions to stay afloat and minimize job losses, HR teams work in tandem with business heads to engage employees and keep up the morale, reconfigure workflows, redeploy talent, and upskill staff to help them stay relevant. It is the HR team that is often tasked with providing much-needed emotional support to employees while ensuring the continued productivity of each individual.

One of the ensuing impacts of COVID-19 is high stress and burn-out among employees who feel compelled to stay switched on at all times- an issue that has plagued the global workforce long before the pandemic. In the UAE, the 2019 Cigna 360 Well-being Survey showed that 22% of residents faced unmanageable levels of stress at work. The emotional and financial impact of COVID-19 is only exacerbating the level of stress. As employees step up to the plate in meeting the challenges of working from home and taking on the responsibility of supporting increasingly fragile businesses, financial uncertainties are likely to push them to stay connected more than ever before.

While remaining connected may lead to short-term productivity, it is important for employers and employees to realize the long-term implications of this work culture. For the employee, this can trigger declining health and happiness levels, and for the employer, it could erode the engagement, productivity and loyalty of the employee in the long run. In this context, HR can play an important role in enforcing a positive and balanced work structure- one that is practiced across the board, and ensures all employees are suitably engaged and well-rested.

At the same time, the financial duress faced by companies has understandably trickled down to employees, resulting in pay-cuts and enforced leaves across industries. As such, companies may need to go above and beyond a single email or call in addressing employees who are already under stress when tough decisions are made. Productivity and morale can take a serious hit when finances are affected. In these situations, HR serves as a bridge between the management and employees that helps communicate, moderate, and consistently maintain a positive interaction, where employees continue to feel engaged and receptive.

Related: How Artificial Intelligence Is Reinventing Human Resources

As the evolving COVID-19 scenario compels companies to make drastic changes, HR must remain an integral part of the conversations and decision-making process. Doing so ensures that the impact on employees is well-thought out, and a clear and transparent communication channel is established and maintained to keep employees up-to-date on new implementations and policies. Regular and candid organizational updates offer reassurance and much-needed compassion in dealing with employees,
while playing a defining role in ensuring that they remain positive and engaged, not only through the crisis but also once the situation eases up.

If you work in HR, here are the top five things that we believe you must do right now:

1. Communicate with empathy Demonstrating empathy and listening to employees is critical, particularly during a crisis that can be daunting. Employees are keen to be heard, and the HR team plays an important function in providing that support.

2. Keep up with having less Many companies are currently facing budget constraints. Instead of pushing mindless employee activities, HR must adopt innovative ways to continue to provide positivity and fun. Offering free online courses to employees and their families can also be a way of keeping employees connected and engaged.

3. Invest in training One of the things that keeps employees engaged is knowing that the organization cares about educating and upskilling them. Changing workplace needs require employees to pick up new skills to stay relevant. The company's HR team can lead this initiative and build training plans that target various work functions, benefiting not just the employee but the organization as well, which can expand its scope with multi-skilled professionals to tackle new areas of the business. Renowned global platforms such as Harvard University and LinkedIn have made many courses available for free online to support learning for individuals and companies. Reflecting on the high demand for e-learning, digital platform Coursera reported a 750% increase in the UAE in enrolments for skills in social science, the arts, and personal development in March 2020, as compared to the same time last year.

4. Provide strong support Global HR functions have been building "priority teams" that are tasked with ensuring a smooth workflow during crises, while managing employees fairly and effectively. The team identifies sustainable practices that keep the company and its employees in sync during trying times, as well as in the long run. These can include check-ins and monitoring of employee health and well-being. In addition, regular emails offering healthy work-from-home tips and highlighting supporting policies and practices will go a long way in combatting the always-on culture, while convincing employees that the company cares for their well-being.

5. Showcase compassionate leadership Among the challenges HR teams are faced with during these times are managing health and safety, ensuring work continuity, and promoting well-planned and ethical policies. HR needs to constantly showcase its sound leadership by being there for the employees.

Undoubtedly, the end of the pandemic will bring back a different workforce. The COVID-19 crisis will certainly serve as a case study and blueprint for HR professionals around the world to build effective crisis policies and frameworks. Actions taken now will leave a lasting impact on organizations in a post COVID-19 world. In sync with management leaders, HR can ensure that the organizations remain ahead of the curve.

Related: Three Key Factors Leaders Should Focus On For Their Businesses To Rebound

Isil Ata

Head of Human Resources, Cigna - Middle East and Africa

Isil Ata is Head of Human Resources at Cigna for the Middle East and Africa region. In this role, she is responsible for overseeing HR management, policies, and practices, and ensuring their alignment with the company's overall business objectives and strategy. 
Isil brings to her role over 20 years of experience across various areas of HR functions, and has built HR departments from the ground up. She has worked in leading multinational companies, across varied industries like pharmaceuticals, textile sourcing, logistics, consulting, and insurance broking, covering emerging markets across Eastern Europe, Turkey, Middle East, and North Africa, with a headcount of 40 to 400, and turnover of US$8 million to $500 million. 
Prior to joining Cigna, she served as the UAE HR Leader at Marsh. In an earlier role, she was Regional HR Manager – Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Turkey at Mercer, where she advised and consulted business leaders on complex and unique HR related issues, such as workforce planning, sourcing, talent development, employee relations, and performance management. 
Isil Ata holds a BA in Political Sciences and Public Administration in French from Mamara University in Istanbul, Turkey. 

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