Time for human resource sector review

HR grapples with remote workforce complexities

Companies that believe COVID-19 work-from-home requirements will limit employee interactions and minimize the need for human resource departments are wrong, says a University of British Columbia (UBC) assistant professor.  

“Just because companies are virtual, doesn’t mean that interpersonal relationships disappear; if anything, [they] can become even more of an issue,” said Rebecca Paluch, assistant professor of human resources at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Those core problems are still there, and if anything they’re just becoming exacerbated or developing into new problems.”

Eliminating physical interaction doesn’t eliminate employee friction. For instance, Paluch said that more flexible at-home work hours could generate deadline conflicts. 

Losing face-to-face interaction can also lead to unintended ill will caused, for example, by an email that cannot convey compassion or the inflection of the sender’s voice. 

While HR departments adopt new strategies to deal with virtual conflict resolution, Paluch said they must become proficient at addressing increased demand for core functions such as training, employee development and benefit administration, but in a virtual setting. 

With most companies focused on managing new workplace realties, many HR departments have not had an opportunity to review, change or innovate current practices to include an at-home workforce. That reflection and innovation will likely come about when companies can asses how their at-home workforce functions under relatively normal conditions. 

“Right now, I don’t think that any organization is open to really innovating and coming up with new ideas for HR,” said Paluch. “They’re just trying to put out fires.”

While HR practices might not be changing fundamentally during this crisis, companies are taking a different approach to laid-off employees. 

Paluch said that because recent layoffs haven’t resulted from business cycle ebbs and flows, some companies are allowing laid-off employees to maintain access to company resources like training and continuing education programs to ensure they have a well-prepared post-COVID-19 workforce. 

She added that laid-off employees would normally have been cut off from company resources, but because of the unique pandemic circumstances, businesses are working to foster their relationship with their employees and changing what it means to be laid off. 

Companies are also developing a more personal relationship with their employees, checking in on their mental and physical health during these trying times and providing material and moral support.

Paluch said that while productivity has declined during the COVID-19 crisis, companies should not be concerned that offering employees a work-from-home option is contributing to that decline. Before the pandemic, many studies pointed to an increase in productivity when people worked from home.

For example, a 2015 Stanford University study found that working from home led to a 13% performance increase. Nine per cent of that rise was attributed to working more minutes per shift by taking fewer breaks and sick days, and 4% was associated with improved productivity. 

However, it was completed during a time when students were attending classes and pandemic health risks were not omnipresent. 

Paluch said current productivity declines are related to COVID-19’s impact, rather than the requirement to work from home. 

The virus is also leaving some companies with no option but to immediately provide a more accommodating work environment, whether either the company or its employees are ready for that option.

“More organizations were moving toward flexible working arrangements, including work from home options, but I think this was the kick that a lot of organizations needed to really be able to make that switch.” 

Paluch added that many companies had to invest in resources and personnel to accommodate a remote workforce and that they would likely want to expand on those investments rather than throw them away once the pandemic is over.