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HR from afar: With workforces still remote, leaders adapt

When COVID-19 emptied offices in March 2020, it left companies in a difficult situation: how to manage employees who were suddenly working remotely from all over. The challenges continue.

For many companies, the swift transition to a remote workforce wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Many workers like working from home, and a number of companies, including Google and Twitter, decided to keep their workforces remote for the foreseeable future. And why not? Productivity has gone up, morale has improved, and some costs have gone down.

But remote work has hardly been a plus for everyone. Some roles, notably personnel management, depended on in-person interactions. People came to the office to be hired and promoted and to learn about programs, benefits, and so on. The HR office was also a repository of sensitive personal information, and many of its activities were intensely private. That has all changed.


"Companies are having to keep a firm grip on what their people are doing," says Arran Stewart, co-founder and chief visionary officer of "For the companies that are unprepared, the challenge is just managing time. Through 2019, 44 percent of companies in the U.S. had never embraced remote work at all."

The virtual watercooler

Fintech startup Neocova, based in St. Louis, sent its workforce of 50-plus people home in the spring and plans to stay fully remote through the end of the year. It's been a challenge, says Lindsay Lockhart, chief of staff and co-founder, but things at this point are running smoothly. The key to managing the team remotely, she says, is communication. "Over-communicate and don't assume that everyone has the full picture," Lockhart says. "You lose that natural watercooler banter. We like to remind our team to make sure they're sharing those smaller conversations and to make sure they feel that they're part of the team."

Those steps are crucial with the forced remote work that comes with COVID-19. "The pandemic has placed other stresses on our team," she notes. "HR has the added responsibility of ensuring the mental and emotional health of our team." The company has rolled out an employee assistance program as well as legal and financial resources to help its staff through the crisis.

"We have monthly wellness benefits, including the Peloton app [and] books on fitness. Sometimes it can be something as simple as sending a new set of noise-canceling headphones to a team member," Lockhart says, adding that part of HR's communication efforts include encouraging employees to send each other gifts. So far, she says, it's all helping. "The evidence for our employee initiatives reducing turnover is only anecdotal, as we are still a young company. That said, there has been a high level of enthusiasm around these initiatives, and I have no doubt they have been great for team morale."

Firing via Zoom

Still, parts of HR are extra difficult to handle remotely—like personnel actions. "We use tools like Zoom or other conferencing tools," says Lisa Zeeveld, COO of Belay, an Atlanta-based staffing and recruiting firm. "Having that visual presence and seeing that body language is important when it comes to talking about increases and performance reviews. You forget that you're not in the same space."

To help keep the relationship focused, Zeeveld encourages weekly one-on-one meetings, which managers and employees might not have needed when they were down the hall from each other. This cadence makes video performance reviews easier.

"Each employee knows what's expected of them," Zeeveld said. "We're creating metrics for each employee. They know what they have to do. We have weekly staff meetings that every employee must attend." She says they also have quarterly meetings on Zoom with cameras required.

"You need to have an HR partner on the leadership team so your team doesn't use HR as just a complaint department," Zeeveld notes.

But some HR functions require big changes. Bringing on new employees, naturally, has become a whole different experience. "You need to plan onboarding really far in advance," Zeeveld says. The onboarding process includes close contact using video conferencing to help a new person—someone who's never met the team in person—get acclimated. "We know that opening up a laptop that was shipped to you the first day is tough," she says.

To make onboarding smooth, Andrew Yu, founder and CTO of software developer Modo Labs, gives employees an app, called Work Ready, that guides them through the process. It's similar to what colleges and universities use for orientation, where his company has created mobile application software to fill this niche.

"Previously, there was orientation as part of onboarding," Yu says. "Now, we're using the ideas from school orientation but having an app that walks you through the first 90 days of your employee experience, making sure that the employees can learn about how to fit into the company's culture and everything else."

Maintaining your company culture is another challenge as people continue to work remotely. That's why Modo Labs' app includes a function called Quick Polls that can help measure how new employees are feeling and fitting in with the culture. No app is required to maintain the company culture; many companies have Zoom happy hours and other events designed to keep people connected.

And what about the hardest part for any HR manager? Letting someone go. "You never want to fire someone remotely if it can be avoided," says Robert Teachout, legal editor for XpertHR, a leading U.S.-based HR compliance resource. "You need to have a way to collect company equipment and their ID. At least do it with a video conference. Treat them respectfully." And, of course, if a manager has been having weekly one-on-one meetings, the news should come as less of a shock.


The road back

Over time, more businesses will bring employees back to the office, but few expect a return to pre-pandemic behavior. At least not for a long time. Many companies, some of which are already bringing in limited numbers of people, are using reservation systems. They've redesigned offices to accommodate social distancing. Gathering spots such as break rooms are going away. Sanitation practices, such as routine and frequent disinfecting, are becoming the norm. And companies are finding ways to confirm their employees' health on a daily basis, such as having their temperature taken remotely as they report to work or using rapid remote body temperature sensors.

The office space challenge should partly be solved by employees who continue to work remotely. In some cases, it will be preferable, both for employees and the companies, which is something few would have expected before the pandemic forced workforces into this situation. Lockhart even said interacting via video has in some cases deepened relationships.

"Now that we are remote and we're doing Zoom calls, we see their home offices, their pets, their families," says Lockhart. "We've started a Slack channel about our favorite recipes. It's a silver lining."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.