HR and the New Not-So-Normal

(The Back Story – WSR 3rd Qtr. 2020)

This is the third column for which my intent was to write about some interesting AI research for you – but the third for which –given the state of the world of work—that topic just seems so much less compelling as HR professionals face so many new questions today and struggle in the face of ever-changing guidelines from those in authority.

Some workers may not have missed a beat. Newly donned with masks, perhaps gloves, and facing frequent temperature checks, from those in health or home care, and the food supply chain to scientists running experiments, farmers and zoo keepers, workers in critical manufacturing environments, and the many workers in service industries deemed essential. They may have seen the least change in the actual tasks they faced daily. On the other hand, many office workers, particularly knowledge workers adapted to their home environment as their new “office.” And millions in hospitality, transportation, food service, and more were furloughed or lost their jobs only to face the difficulties of filing for unemployment support.

As spring melted into summer and summer into fall, the clarity we hoped would come with the shifting seasons in dealing with Covid-19 simply failed to appear. And now, facing autumn and the conundrum that workers, parents, kids, grade schools, universities and employers all have with “what’s next,” no sign of what will constitute normality is appearing.

But work we must, and, fortuitously, some vendors have proactively been providing support for companies along this uncharted journey. Consider Zoom, now a staple in internetted households for both business and social meetups, as well as instrumental in school-aged children’s distance learning endeavors. It and other face-to-face applications, albeit remote, have exploded in use throughout businesses from yoga studios to the highest levels of major corporations. Collaborative and shared project-management platforms such as Slack that may have just begun infiltrating the workplace also grew exponentially in adoption in the work-at-home environment. A+ to the software providers who actively have redeveloped or improved their software to support the remote work environment, including the “check-up” survey programs that help calibrate morale and maintain corporate culture long distance, and health and wellness applications such as that from Oracle.

Some vendors, however, have done more. One case in point is ADP, which looked at the dilemma facing companies during the pandemic as threefold. In addition to just the provision of software, the company looked at the corporate response to the pandemic as three stages: supporting compliance, especially that needed to respond to the various global provisions for payroll protection and small business loans; continuing to provide workplace solutions for the newly at-home workforce, and thirdly, ascertaining what their clients will need to return that workforce to whatever becomes the new “normal.” It is that “next step” on which this edition’s column will focus.

What are the next steps in a return to the workplace? HR today has to recognize how conflicted many workers are with the potential move back into their prior workspace and be prepared to address both the dangers and the justified fears that accompany that move.

Can I get to work safely?

Close, crowded, ill-aired spaces have proven almost synonymous with virus havens. Some workers can and likely want to continue working from their home offices, a choice more often open to knowledge workers. But as some organizations push to look “back to normal” like some large government agencies, for example, even getting to work can be cause for concern. Walking or riding a bicycle isn’t always possible, and companies may be slow in restarting their van pools and corporate sponsored buses, which themselves may be further cause for concern. Subways, commuter trains and city buses, are traditionally packed at rush hour times; and it is a rare subway station with good ventilation. Some cities, such as San Francisco, citing costs with fewer riders ,are closing lines and running fewer buses and light rail trams. Workers who used ride-shares and carpools in the past may be reluctant to even be in close quarters with colleagues that may be carriers.

Guidelines for HR:

  1. First, take the time to know where your workers are: do most reside in the city your offices are in or in neighboring suburbs? How many commute and how far? If your business is in an outlying office park, how did most workers get there before the pandemic? If they mostly drove their own cars, likely they can continue to do so.
  2. However, of your workers, how many absolutely need to be in the building or on campus? What do they normally do that perhaps could be done at home or in a different setting? If they are chefs and servers, they may indeed have to be onsite for the business to function; scientist running experiments and tests in labs can often not conduct them remotely, even through elaborate simulation software. For many other professions, perhaps less face-to-face time is required. This is not a time to be cavalier with other people’s lives: they are likely all not essential in the physical office.
  3. The question is of course compounded for those companies with multiple sites, perhaps in many states or countries where differing regulations may apply – and change almost daily. Several vendors supporting the HR community have hastened to ensure you can get access to the regulation information you need. For instance, ADP provides a site that includes legislative updates, information on the Payroll Protection Program, state withholding requirements, the CARES Act employment retention tax credit, changes in the global regulatory environment, and much more. (The site is available to all at ).

Is the workplace going to be safe when I get there?

This is in fact a bigger question than the getting there. While organizational behaviorists have been looking at what constitutes the optimal environment for productive work, I suspect they never had to consider keeping people six feet apart nor check entering employees for fevers at the door. Here there are several separate but important major considerations facing HR and the business leaders: the timing of togetherness, the ability to actually keep a sanitized workplace, and the added risk involved in customer-facing positions, such as tellers and cashiers.

The Timing of Togetherness
Businesses, like many schools, are attempting social distancing by staggering the timing of work schedules. While the past may have been solely a 9-to-5 standard day, limiting the number of workers at a time in a location and keeping single cohorts or pods of people together each workday may be one solution. Suddenly shift management, familiar to HR professionals and managers in manufacturing and hospitality is becoming a consideration in white collar environments. But unlike standard shift management, the contact potentially created in the comings and goings of shift changes must be controlled – and between-shift sanitizing has to be addressed.

New Rules for Sanitization Apply
Facing a virus that remains in the air and stays on surfaces, employees, even with facial coverings, need to know that the environment is sanitary – from doorknobs to elevator buttons. We all know the rather disgusting stories of cubes and desk phones and keyboards that are often passed from worker to worker without being cleaned , and of less-than-sanitary habits of some workers, none of which we will go into here. Nor will we cover the obvious need for sanitized not just tidy restroom and cafeteria facilities at work.
Sanitation to prevent virus spread is vastly different than normal business-office or plant cleaning. Most facilities have added hand sanitizer stations throughout the workplace and sometimes provide masks at entrances for those who forgot. Like restaurants than sanitize each table and chair between diners, whenever employees are on site or between shifts changes, new levels of cleaning are required. This requires more than the general janitorial staff that sweeps and empties wastebaskets nightly. It may require hiring new firms, or validating that existing cleaners can provide the added level of care in sanitation. Either way, the cost is likely to increase as different products and more time is required – but the cost of NOT doing it is much greater.

Facing Customers
The customer-facing aspects of a job are often why an employee may have chosen it. As HR , though, your responsibility is to keep your employee out of harm’s way in the conduct of that job. Handling items touched, sometimes frequently by others, as in ringing up groceries, requires regular cleaning of hands and the automated belt—grocery stores are to be commended for their hourly “go wash your hands” rules.

Companies that provide groceries, pharmacies, and gas stations have remained open as essential services—they had to deal with new customer-facing requirements from the get-go. Entrance stickers denoting distancing and posting as to how many people can be in a store at once are valuable, when customers follow the rules. The addition of heavy plastic barriers (commonly referred to as “sneeze guards”) between receptionists, customers and employees is now ubiquitous in most places.

For many other businesses that were closed, the reopening presents challenges. Small boutiques which often have racks close to the doorways can try to rearrange for wider aisles and less congestion at entrances. Staffing during a reopening is an HR concern; how many staff members are essential in, say, a small store, to serve a totally unknown number of potential customers. How eagerly buyers will flock to stores is the outstanding question: is it better business to be open and pay staff for a day when perhaps only a very few customers come into the store or save the wages and hope that buyers remember to return at a later date? One or two sales in a day won’t cover the overhead and the wages in most cases. Alas, there is no easy answer for this question.

Again, sanitation is critical: sanitized grocery carts; gloves for pumping gas, and cashless purchases all help both your employee and your customers. Customers in knowledge-based and other industries are on record as appreciating the remote sessions in customer support and sales which often saves time and alleviates travel expense, rather than face-to-face.

Guidelines for HR:

  1. Working with facilities managers can be very helpful in ascertaining how to deploy desks, workstations, and factory machinery at distances to encourage safety from airborne viruses.
  2. Adding plastic shields and sneeze guards as divisions in open-workplace settings can be a deterrent to germ spread—as long as they are kept clean. Ditto for barriers between employees and the public. Consider masks with shields if close physical contact is necessary (such as those worn by hairdressers and dentists who cannot work at distance.)
  3. Separate entrances or internal pathways for entering and existing can decrease exposure at points where crowding might occur.
  4. Work toward a “touchless” environment: badges that can be read without contact, no-touch keypads, automatic doors, and use of credit cards rather than cash.
  5. In addition to the ubiquitous hand sanitizer stations , some companies are looking into robot-driven portable sinks to encourage more frequent handwashing.
  6. Create a policy for that most-debated touchpoint: the elevator; it should cover how many at once, the distance apart, and in-elevator behavior. Again, with staggered schedules and more people working from home offices, the usual jam-packed elevator may be less crowded, but ascending and descending multiple stories with strangers is another virus haven. Requiring masks, encouraging no conversation, and hand sanitizer by all elevator entrances can cut down spread.
  7. Employees may relish the corporate gym to combat the “covid-15,” the extra pounds gained while working at home. But can you keep gym use safe?
  8. While HR cannot legislate integrity or even common sense, an explanation of rules such as staying home if you feel sick will prove an important reminder. A nurse feeling under the weather but trying to avoid having to take a day off went to work with undiagnosed Covid-19 – causing my friend the head doctor and other staff members to spent two weeks in quarantine after their own testing. And remember if a physical presence is required for a paycheck as in many agricultural and service jobs, people will very likely come to work sick. Can you afford it? Better to pay them to stay home than infect the whole workplace.

The Harder Questions

HR professionals will have more than enough to do just addressing the physical space and the procedures necessary to allow the workforce to continue to be productive, but there are even more difficult issues to face in terms of ensuring equity, fairness, diversity and inclusion during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the return or continuation of productive work. Layoffs have disproportionately affected minority populations, often with more damaging effects than those for their majority counterparts. According to the New York Times and other sources, white men were among the groups with lower unemployment than the national rate, while Hispanic women and others had notably higher unemployment, compounded by higher hit rates of Covid-19. Gender inequality has been heightened, as reported in “The Double Double Shift: Performance Management for Women During a Pandemic.” In that report, noted performance management expert Stacia Sherman Garr states that currently women:

  • Take on at least an extra 20 hours of work each week
  • Dedicate 2.3 more hours a day on childcare than fathers
  • Spend 1.7 hours more per day on housework than fathers
  • Provide 70% of the childcare during business hours.

Given daycare, school and camp closures, and likely a very different back-to-school year than ever before, women are by necessity working in different time blocks and simply may not be accessible for every Zoom call during standard working hours. (There are a reports of a woman who was fired because a child appeared in the back of her worktime Zoom session, yet a major business leader conducted an online speech to a worldwide audience with his cleaning lady occasionally in the background…) The issues here are systemic and not easily solved, nor new in this pandemic: finding adequate and affordable childcare is a long-standing problem; distance learning for school age students necessitates a location, usually with internetworked technology and some parental supervision. the socio-economic divide in education and employment opportunities and access have long prevailed — now they are exacerbated.

Sherman Garr’s work focuses on changes in performance management procedures for women that especially apply when managing remote workers. That is one aspect on which HR professionals should focus. But another looms: faced with furloughs and layoffs, what biases may be perpetrated? Are your furlough policies adversely affecting the women or minority members of your workforce in a way different than those for majority males?

Guidelines for HR:

  1. Review your current performance management metrics to ascertain how well they apply to the remote worker. Many tactic assumptions are made when managers see a person at his or her desk; what assumptions apply when that is not happening?
  2. Consider what resources are available not for just employee learning, but possibly extended family learning as well. Many businesses have the facilities to deliver remote learning and do so regularly. Many have courses that are seldom used. Are there any courses that would be useful for older teens or others in your workers’ households that you could make available?
  3. Do you have employees that might enjoy working together to create ideas for children art projects or other at-home activities? Can your workforce share their talents with the families of their colleagues via Zoom now? Perhaps a “what works” suggestion site from working parents for their peers: it is a means of communicating and collaborating with their colleagues and sharing experiences and solutions for Covid survival with kids.
  4. Know who you are furloughing and laying-off. Beware of disproportionate numbers of women and minorities. Do you have a way to judge the ramifications of corporate actions on the people you are affecting?
  5. Are there other ways of addressing a downturn rather than pushing workers into unemployment? Can job-sharing or part-time positions “save” more workers and keep them attached to your company?

Some corporations provide daycare on-site for parents with children; while not inexpensive (childcare never is), it is an option more firms should consider for the future. Ensuring the success of every parent in the workplace is in any organization’s vital interest.

Be Prepared to be Agile

This pandemic seems a very fluid phenomenon; regulations shift, health guidelines are in flux, and new information from hard-working scientists seems to appear almost daily. HR professionals must be prepared- and prepare their own workforces—for the likelihood of continual workplace fluctuations. Policies and procedurals changes, continuing furloughs, increased layoffs, supply chain and production disruptions will affect organizations throughout the year and into the next. (See The Back Story column “Managing Talent in—and Out—of Your Organization” in the January-March 2019 edition for more on managing layoffs.)

While we have talked about being flexible and agile, fast-moving in the face of change and the like for ages, now it really matters. HR professionals should consider the “what if” scenarios and model what the varying responses would be to each. Given massive unemployment, upheavals in insurance and benefit allocations, and the totally unknown path of the coronavirus, there is a lot to evaluate—and like a good Brownie Scout, be prepared for:

  • How will a recession impact your business?
  • What production models may change?
  • What is the likely effect on workforce size and makeup?
  • What change management efforts are likely to be required?
  • In the face of an even broader pandemic, what is the minimum number of employees the company needs to keep afloat? What kind of workers would they be? Where would they need to be located?
  • What contingencies might we need to make in succession planning?
  • What long-term health after-effects may Covid-19 produce in the workforce? Would they be considered existing conditions?
  • How should our health and wellness initiatives better address the return to work?
  • What is the effect of impending health insurance changes on our benefits packages?
  • Do our stress management efforts need to be re-addressed?
  • What is the effect of more remote work and workforce cutbacks on the real estate investments of the firm?
  • What technology projects do we have in place: do they still make sense? What projects should be accelerated?
  • How does the pandemic affect our expats and our mobility strategies?
  • If we were to face bankruptcy procedures, what is HR’s responsibility?

Granted there are many more strategic longer-term planning areas that will require addressing in organizations “what- if” scenarios, but these are some thoughts to get started. The call for agility and flexibility now is an imperative. That “turn-on-a-dime” adage may never have seemed to relate to the HR department, but now it is critical. HR professionals are pivotal in making the return to the “new-not-so-normal” a business and personal success. As Bill Gates says, ”Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent.”


i. China Superspreader Gave COVID-19 to 71 People in a Single Elevator Trip. By Hannah Osborne. Newsweek. July 13, 2020.

ii. The Double Double Shift. By Stacia Sherman Garr. Redthread Research July 2020.

Katherine Jones, Ph.D.
High-Tech Industry Analyst| + posts

Unique as a thought leader for her ability to make theory actionable and technology comprehensible to non-technologists, Dr. Jones is a sought-after writer and speaker in the U.S. and internationally. Moving easily from the academic world to the worldwide technology stage, she has repeatedly created value propositions bridging technology and theory with the practical world of today's business. Whether working with systems integrators in the Federal arena, consultants in oil and gas, or small business owners, her clarity and wisdom – as well as her wit—has been appreciated and commended. Now an independent high-tech marketing analyst, she was previously responsible for the creation and provision of thought leadership content for a web-based membership program as a partner at Mercer and spent several years at Bersin & Associates both before and after its acquisition by Deloitte, where she was the VP heading the HCM technology research practice in Bersin by Deloitte. She became an industry analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston, covering the ERP space, then human capital management in Palo Alto. Later, as marketing director for NetSuite, her efforts coincided with one of the more successful IPOs of that year. Before becoming an analyst, Katherine was in the Boston-area high-tech companies’ product marketing and strategic alliance management, specializing in data communications and network management. She spent several years in marketing education at a minicomputer company. She created new programs in high-tech sales and system engineer training and sold them to the Federal Government, leading a DDN certification project in the company’s Federal System Division. She had left a career in higher education administration and teaching, which included the assistant deanship in the School of Education at the University of Connecticut and responsibility for the Master of Arts in Teaching program in the English Department at Cornell University, where she was instrumental in the Improvement of Undergraduate Education project in the Provost’s office. An industry veteran and independent high-tech analyst, she is widely published on talent management and personnel-related technologies, cybersecurity, ERP and HCM systems implementations, change management, and the mid-market, totaling over 500 works in print. Her master’s and doctorate degrees are from Cornell University. She can be reached at [email protected]or @katherine_jones.

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