Employee engagement

What HR Leaders Learned From COVID-19, and the Lessons They're Taking into the Future

Connie Du
July 14, 2021
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At Bonusly, we try to provide the best and most relevant HR thought leadership to our readers—a task that was especially difficult when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and HR’s priorities rapidly shifted to care for their employees. Uncharted waters, indeed. ⛵️

Now that we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we thought we’d catch up with some of the HR and People Operations leaders we admire.

A main theme that emerged?

COVID-19 may have changed the HR industry for good.

As it turns out, a global pandemic has the ability to surface themes like compassionate leadership, workplace flexibility, and hybrid work. As we emerge into The Next Normal, here’s what HR leaders have learned from navigating COVID-19, and what lessons they’re taking into the future.

Developing a thoughtful hybrid work strategy

Everyone’s talking about it.

Because, as it turns out, many jobs are compatible with remote work!

“More than 20 percent of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office,” Mckinsey says in a recent report. “If remote work took hold at that level, that would mean three to four times as many people working from home than before the pandemic.”

So… what does that mean for the workplace? Managing an entirely remote workforce is one beast, but managing a hybrid team is its own ballgame. How can organizations ensure that all lines of communication are open, prevent silos, and maintain a healthy company culture?

These are brand new problems, and it’ll take new and innovative solutions to solve them.

“Before the pandemic, struggles with creating equity on dispersed teams has always been an issue.

The key to being able to maintain that equity in new workplace models is to focus on solving for how we work vs. where we work. It means creating new norms that create equity, especially around communication—be specific and intentional, and experiment! You won’t know what works for your company and culture until you try it out.
Vicki Yang, VP of People Operations at Bonusly

I believe HR needs to be a key advocate for workplace flexibility. The pandemic has shown that many jobs incompatible with work from home are, in fact, compatible with work from home! HR can build the business case for why it makes sense to build a better, hybrid approach to work. We've already done it in the past 14 months. Let's build off what worked!
Paul LaLonde, Owner and Founder of HR Logic and HR Philosopher

Hybrid schedules and flexible work times need to become the norm when possible. Companies were forced to "react" during the pandemic, and now it's a chance for them to evolve.
Steve Browne, Chief People Officer at LaRosa's, Inc.





Flexibility is crucial for inclusion

We often see diversity and inclusion linked together—as they should be!—but we don't often see how inclusion and flexibility relate to each other.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw inequality into the spotlight. While some folks just had a change-in-routine, others also had to account for childcare, spotty internet service, caregiver responsibilities, or unsuitable WFH conditions. 

Not everyone has the flexibility to do exactly what their company prefers—but many companies have the power to be flexible with their employees.

Understanding and working with your employees who have different working preferences and personal responsibilities is the definition of inclusion.

HR needs to practice more from an individual basis vs. a blanket, organization-wide basis. There are few situations or circumstances that fit every single employee. If HR would take a more individual approach, then you can evaluate requests as well as keep the needs of the company in mind. Stop the "one size fits all" approach.
Steve Browne, Chief People Officer at LaRosa's, Inc.

Compassion and empathy begin with recognizing that there are a plethora of life experiences which are completely different from our own. Once we acknowledge this difference, we can shun judgment and boxing HR solutions into what others "should" do or have.

This means recognizing that caregivers may prefer to remain remote, or that my neurodivergent colleague needs a different work schedule than me. We should also untangle from the need to "understand" others in order to advocate for them, since understanding still implies a power dynamic that favors my own perspective.

True equity in HR means trusting others to advocate for what makes them successful at work, then supporting them by meeting those needs. Full stop.
Kalyn Wilson, CEO and Principal Consultant at Dream Forward Consulting

Empathetic leadership

Leaders had to address brand new problems during the pandemic, and it seems that navigating uncharted waters prompted leaders to be vulnerable, admit mistakes, and be empathetic. 

"We tend to connect empathy to the golden rule, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' But I don’t believe that goes far enough. If you authentically want to demonstrate empathy you have to 'Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves,'" Jennifer Moss says in her article for Harvard Business Review. "That requires stepping outside of your own needs, assessing and removing bias and privilege, actively listening to your people, and then taking action."

For years HR professionals have shied away from showing emotions because they were afraid of coming across as unprofessional. This is not the case any longer.

The pandemic has helped HR to realize that showing compassion and empathy to employees, as well as their teams, is part of a healthy workplace culture that sees higher levels of engagement, retention, and overall success.

As we seek to humanize the workplace and allow everyone to bring their entire human to work, HR leads the way by becoming more compassionate and empathetic, and encouraging leaders to do the same.
Julie Turney, Founder and CEO at HR@Heart Consulting

As our world begins to open up again, employers must be careful and strategic in the ways in which they approach how, when, and where they expect employees to work. I am seeing a huge shift in the mindset of employees, and they are no longer willing to accept some of the mandates that existed prior to the pandemic.

Just because an employer can ask employees to return to the office, doesn’t mean they should. Physical and psychological safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and must be respected.
Barbie Winterbottom, CEO of the Business of HR

With the threat of The Great Resignation looming overhead, human-centered, empathetic companies are the ones that have a fighting chance at surviving the pandemic. Which leads us to our next top focus...

People-first management

My hope is that with industries suffering from employee shortages, companies will finally need to offer better pay, more flexible work, and greater pay transparency. While employee pay and benefits can be costly, not paying people well has a greater cost.

This cost includes higher turnover, higher training costs, higher workers compensation costs (more injuries), and more employee relations issues. When employers invest in their employees, the long-term impacts are much greater.
Jocelyn Thompson, Principal/CEO of WorkVision Consulting












The pandemic has significantly disrupted the way that all organizations have had to operate, and that provides an amazing opportunity. HR practitioners can step up and influence the way that organizations will need to operate as The Next Normal and the digital world of work continues to emerge.

The big question for HR is: Do we have the courage, capability and credibility to challenge organizational leaders to make more human-centric based decisions?
David Millner, Founder and Consulting Partner at HR Curator

Driving employee engagement

A big part of people-first management is truly understanding what motivates and engages your employees.

"As pandemic life recedes in the U.S., people are leaving their jobs in search of more money, more flexibility and more happiness. Many are rethinking what work means to them, how they are valued, and how they spend their time," reports Andrea Hsu for NPR. "It's leading to a dramatic increase in resignations — a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April alone, according to the Labor Department."

What are you doing to ensure you're retaining your high performers? 

Don't know where to start? Check out The Ultimate Employee Retention Guide!

Employee engagement is at the forefront of our minds. We want to ensure employees feel safe, but also fulfilled with the work that they do. We implemented many initiatives at the beginning of the pandemic that supported engagement: from regular recognition to team building activities like trivia, paint night, and scavenger hunts.

The most important element for HR leaders to keep in mind is that engagement directly affects work output. If employees are not engaged, the work suffers. We will continue these initiatives as we head back to the office to maintain our close-knit culture and employee engagement.
Maria Kozlov, Director of Human Resources at Hawthorne Advertising

Whether your team is fully remote, hybrid, or in-person, the most important way to engage your team is by ensuring there is psychological safety—the ability to take interpersonal risk on a team without being shamed. You can do this by giving positive recognition when a team member takes a risk and fails, and by being vulnerable as a leader through sharing your own missteps.
Jocelyn Thompson, Principal and CEO of WorkVision Consulting

We've talked about epiphany moments before—and we think emerging from a global pandemic certainly counts as one of those moments! As comforting as it is to think of Return to Office as a return to "normalcy," millions of employees aren't settling for pre-pandemic norms. 

Forward-thinking companies should instead take the opportunity to lead with empathy, understand employee needs, and adopt a habit of recognition

What pandemic learning will you be taking into The Future of Work?

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