Human resources professionals are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. For small to midsize companies, HR is a department that, under normal circumstances, can be woefully understaffed and overworked. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified that reality and, as a result, left no time for strategic planning and agenda setting that is now imperative in our post-COVID-19 world.
There has never been a better time to shine the spotlight on HR and topics like work culture, well-being, employee retention, compensation and new work models. This is an exceptional opportunity to make a “course correction” and allow HR leaders to facilitate meaningful generative discussion with employees and advance change.
Take the time to set an HR agenda and consider the following:
Culture matters: Culture means a lot of things to a lot of people; however, when people are working both in and out of the office, it can be challenging to create one. Culture change is slow, but companies can use this opportunity to empower employees working from home. Avoid micromanaging and be expectant. Communication is also key in pushing culture change. Office leaders can and should use text, video or email to talk about changes in the office, upcoming social events and to encourage work collaboration.
Well-being: It’s no longer about weight-loss challenges and walking clubs — it is about mental health and condition management. One of my clients invested in an on-site mental health counselor two days per week through their EAP program to ensure that employees have access to a therapist. The therapist is booked solid. COVID-19 was a stress test on employees’ mental health, and trends indicate that employees need more support. This presents an opportunity to do better. HR can also make the strategic decision to target your highest claim conditions. For example, digestive diseases have eclipsed diabetes as the top chronic condition and currently affect 66 million people. Target it, program around it and don’t attempt to be all things to all people.
Compensation: This landscape has also changed. Now is the time to consider job leveling and/or a compensation review. According to the Conference Board, the increase in wages for new hires and inflation have caused overall compensation to jump 3.9%, the highest increase since 2008. Hourly worker wages have increased 5.7% over the past 12 months, and unemployment is under 4%. This is a clarion call for HR to add this to their agenda. Otherwise, employees can and will continue to “job hop” seeking out better pay.
Flexible work: It’s surprising to note that one-third of workers report that they are considering leaving their job in the next six months. Creating innovative work arrangements could slow that trend and is now ranked as the most important desired aspect of a new job, closely followed by better pay and career advancement. HR could take an innovative approach to this by co-creating a strategy that benefits the employer and employee together. Address the historical stigma around flexible working by communicating openly with all employees to ensure opportunities are offered on a fair and transparent basis, and that flexibility does not confer privilege or disadvantage to different groups of workers.
The biggest challenge to prioritize agenda setting for small to midsize companies can be inertia. HR has to “play defense” most days, so finding the time and energy to make change can be tough. Invest in relief for your HR department with additional staff. Plan a half-day retreat to reset and update. Empower HR to execute an updated agenda — your employees will thank you.
Hubben is vice president, corporate benefits, at NFP.