Is COVID-19 the spark of the new remote workforce?

Employers have a number of tools at their disposal, from emerging technologies to reimagined current processes, to ready employees to work from home.
By: | April 2, 2020

By Nick Otto, a professional communicator with more than a decade of demonstrated accomplishments in newspaper and trade publishing. He has spent the past five years covering the employee benefits space.

Weeks in, the coronavirus has shifted how CHROs are thinking and leading within their organizations. But through all the challenges, innovations abound as leadership embraces a new now of work.

Until only a few weeks ago, HR pros were focused on strategic five-year planning and how to attract and retain the world’s top talent. In an instant, that turned into how organizations can continue working in a socially distant society, with HR remaining agile in their reaction to the virus’ spread.

“This is really our moment,” said Diane Gherson, chief human resources officer at IBM. “In the last crash, it was CFOs that saved us. This time it will be CHROs,” she added, speaking on a Tuesday webinar sponsored by HRE.

Very quickly, she said, IBM was able to get close to 95% of its 250,000-strong workforce working from home. Thanks, in part, she added, to having the right tools in place.

“The toothpaste is out of the tube and there is no going back. It’s going to be a more virtual world,” she said, adding it’s “encouraging” to see how quickly people who hadn’t been working virtually were better using these tools.

But there is so much more to be done, she added, like issues around mental health and the challenge of working with families at home—not to mention, employees getting sick. “This is all stuff HR is good at dealing with, but it’s coming at such high volume.”

Going forward, she added, HR should be focused on planning ahead. IBM has organized groups to plan for both the next five weeks and beyond. “If we all focused on triage right now, we won’t be ready for the next phase.”

Even if companies don’t have access to the resources that a tech giant like IBM does, they can still have tools in their back pockets, said Bryan Powers, head of people at hyperlocal social-networking service platform Nextdoor.

“While we were on the trajectory of becoming a virtual workforce, we could see it was going to be when, not if,” he said. “We had to mobilize and flip three-quarters of the company to make remote work their primary way of thinking.”

They scrambled over a weekend to lay tracks on what people will work on. “I was trying to read everything I could get my hands on about crisis management,” he said. One example particularly struck Powers: On Sept. 11, commuter ferries were repurposed as waterborne ambulances.

So, Nextdoor turned to its onboarding programs as a way to reinvest in its workforce.

“We invested a lot in the new hire [programs] to make them impactful,” he noted. “We took the backbone of our onboarding structure to re-onboard all the employees into a remote onboarding.”

The company included resources on issues like how to work from home, how to manage a remote workforce and how to interview virtually.

“Every company has black swan events and you have to plan for them,” Josh Bersin, HR industry analyst, warned. “This isn’t the giant one and you’ll see it again. This is part of our job and we need to be prepared for it.”

Bersin identified five major considerations for HR:

How will we work?: Flexible time. Know how to get access to tools. Give time to workers when their kids aren’t around.

Budget and workforce: Rethink your priorities. Put some of those long-term projects on hold and focus on the now.

Leadership’s role: Maintain empathy and keep people first, including your shareholders and stakeholders.

Trust: So many impacts must be dealt with locally. Listen.

What is HR doing to react?: Just a few months ago, we were all working on the future of work; now, we don’t have time for that. We have to be adaptive and agile to do this.