Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

HR Takes Center Stage During the Pandemic

No event has impacted the economy as abruptly and with such speed as the COVID-19 pandemic, an occurrence that altered the way we live and work virtually overnight. In the span of a mere 8 weeks, unemployment shot from under 4% to nearly 15%.

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In fact, some economists claim that, due to misclassifications and discouraged workers who quit looking for jobs, the unemployment number was more in line with 20%, not unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As businesses continue to grapple with the ongoing uncertainty and myriad challenges presented by the pandemic, it’s no wonder Human Resources has stepped onto center stage. Health and safety, layoffs, furloughs, remote work, concerns over returning to worksites, changing legislation, and outdated policies and technologies are on the long list of matters that business leaders, HR departments, and employees have had to adapt to all at once.

Today, employers and HR professionals would be well-served to think beyond an organizational survival mode mind-set to one of transformation, with the understanding that there are and will continue to be many businesses fighting for survival.

If there is a silver lining to be found in this year, it lies in the opportunities to positively impact employee morale, well-being, retention, and productivity—all elements necessary for business growth and profitability.

Collective Challenges

One such opportunity can be found in the massive shift from offices to a largely remote workforce. The challenges abound—adequate technology and cybersecurity, the loss of in-person collaboration and connection, managing employee productivity, and the blurred lines between home and work.

The good news is that employers are learning that when structured properly, the benefits of the “new office normal” are many, including the elimination of stressful, time-consuming commutes; the flexibility to manage both home and work demands; and reduced office/overhead costs. Many organizations have realized that “face time” doesn’t always equate to productivity.

Invest in HR Technology

Leaves of absence, furloughs, layoffs, infectious disease control plans, and telecommuting are just a few employment policies and legislative changes employers now must manage due to the pandemic. Handbooks are more critical now than ever to ensure employees are informed of requisite state/federal laws and company policies.

Technology allows for a much easier process of designing, developing, communicating, updating, and distributing company handbooks. PDFs make pertinent information simpler to access than paper-based, cumbersome handbooks.

“The future is now” has been a mantra for many companies in recent years but not necessarily when it comes to HR technology. But 2020 may be the trigger to change that. Readily available data for critical business decisions; consistent, compliant, and efficient recordkeeping; and employees’ ability to access and update their own information are a few of the reasons an investment in HR technology can provide an immediate and sustained return. 

EQ Skills Essential to Company Culture

“Understood me,” “had my back,” “listened,” “cared”—these are some of the words employees have used to describe the characteristics of great leaders in their work and personal lives. Now more than ever, these emotional intelligence (EQ) skills, especially self-awareness and empathy, are essential to a work culture that maintains the morale, resilience, and engagement of employees.

By incorporating EQ ability assessments and training into existing development programs, businesses will be better-prepared to nurture future leaders and create the type of culture that can weather crises and yield results.

There is no question that employees’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being during 2020 has been tested like never before. The level of stress brought on by the pandemic, the economy, and the political landscape has been intensified by altered daily routines; disrupted exercise and eating habits; and, for many, increased work hours.

Depression on the Rise

In fact, research studies conducted during the first and second quarters of 2020 revealed a troubling but not surprising trend: the frequency of reported levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms, along with a dramatic increase in the use of related prescription medications.

For this, and many other reasons, employers should take a holistic approach to company wellness programs. Not everything is about weight control or nutrition; there are far more serious issues than the “quarantine 15,” beginning with mental health.

Importance of Wellness Programs

Exhibiting resilience during times of crisis and uncertainty begins with promoting a healthy culture. The pandemic has employees looking to employers to demonstrate a commitment to this important workplace aspect. Well-designed programs promote stronger relationships; improvement in mental well-being; engagement; and, ultimately, retention, productivity, and morale. These are all areas being tested by COVID-19, a health crisis whose full impact on the way we live and work has yet to be determined. It is this uncertainty that is at the core of escalating stress levels.

An effective wellness program—even a remote one—can help alleviate some of the stress, as it conveys that a company cares about and values the health of its employees. And to genuinely demonstrate employer concern, employees should be asked what they want and need because those elements may have changed over the past year.

As we all continue to adapt and evolve through these unprecedented times, we should take a step back and begin thinking about transformation—the survival of many businesses counts on the ability to adjust to shifting economic, health, and employee needs.

There’s no way to spin it: The COVID-19 crisis has been, is, and sadly will continue to be one of the most traumatic events in recent times, impacting us all in countless ways but also serving as a blueprint for HR professionals to create effective policies for now and the future.

Frank Levesque, SPHR, is a director at blumshapiro (, a regional business advisory firm based in New England, with offices in Massachusetts (including Newton, Quincy, Boston, North Andover, and Worcester), Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

The firm, with a team of over 500, offers a diverse set of services, including auditing, accounting, tax, and business advisory services. blum serves a wide range of privately held companies and government and nonprofit organizations and provides nonaudit services for publicly traded companies. To learn more, visit Levesque can be reached at

Debra Wein is CEO and Founder of Wellness Workdays (2004), headquartered in Hingham, Massachusetts, and has extensive experience working in the health and wellness industry. An engaging and dynamic speaker, Wein has presented to the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy Seals, the USA Track and Field Olympic coaches, MIT, and Harvard Business School, to name a few.

Wein has appeared on many of the major networks and cable stations in the Boston area, speaking on worksite wellness. She is also the program director of the Wellness Workdays Dietetic Internship, one of the largest nationally accredited programs in the United States, training future registered dietitians in the areas of worksite wellness and health promotion, sports nutrition and entrepreneurship, and nutrition communications and marketing. 

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