Work in the Era of COVID-19 – Impact on Employer/Employee and productivity

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected operations of organizations and changed the dynamics of running businesses in this era.  Several institutions are plagued with challenges that affect their survival.  Factories and businesses that contribute to the GDP of economies had to shut down for a while creating financial gaps. The global nature of the pandemic poses huge challenges to all organizations.  The work of ARD organizations and agencies that are development partner funded are also affected as funding for such organizations is likely to either delay or be suspended.  Organizations are now forced to alter their modus operandi and workforce to enhance productivity.  Some have had to shed off staff, opt for a combination of on-site and virtual work etc.; bringing in their wake adverse physical and socio-psychological impacts.

Challenges for Human Resources Management

Human resource management in the era of COVID-19 has been challenging.  Several organizations have taken rapid steps to adjust to the ‘new norm’.  The FARA secretariat, like many organizations, has to set physical boundaries. Organizations started with working from home to prevent cross contamination.  This was a new experience for many organizations which have to deal with staff anxiety, issues of productivity and unplanned expenditure.  Because profitability is the bedrock of survival for organizations, many graduated from working from home to working in ‘Split Shift’ mode as management observed the spread of COVID-19 in various countries.  With the split shift mode, some of the challenges were the inability to meet all team members at the same time.  This strategy was combined with virtual interactions to interface with team members in different shifts.

For most organizations, unstable internet connectivity and the cost of maintaining high bandwidth made it a bit more challenging.  As organizations observe the number of affected persons over a period and the recoveries, it became necessary to move back to in-person work to catch up with pending tasks and those requiring physical contacts.  Interacting virtually could not be dissociated from all these strategies as there is high probability of spreading the pandemic.  In all these HR has the responsibility of working with heads of departments to manage the shift system, ensure delivery and plan leave in a way that does not affect targets.   HR has to also deal with staff complaint related to access to information, access to records, systems, internet and their wellbeing.

Staff who have been unable to physically interact with their families (especially so for expatriate staff) have become more anxious because although they might be communicating via phone and other social media networks, the physical touch which is normally present at this time when a number of people take their leave is lost.  Thus, psychologically it impacts on focusing wholly on work.  In a staff survey conducted by FARA, it became evident that remote working is closely tied to extra family burdens, which includes managing the home environment and children, home-office space to work comfortably and the ambiance to focus.  It is not possible to detach work from private and family life particularly with schools and child-care services closed.  Parents are expected to play the role of teachers at home and balance this with delivery on their core official work.

Those with spaces enough to accommodate family needs are challenged with improvising to perform their work as part of the space must be reserved for kids to undertake their schoolwork and participate in online tuition with their classmates.  Parents are concerned about giving their kids the social contact as part of their developmental needs.

The other issue to deal with is the psychological effect on those living alone.  These persons are affected by the risk of isolation.  Working for hours at home without team members and close family to communicate with is stressful.  Organizations provide for health breaks and social platforms as a way of helping staff to de-stress. People who live alone can be glued to their computer a whole day and miss these sessions which are supposed to be a part of the routine to make the worker efficient.  The adverse health effect cannot be recounted; it has a long-term effect on productivity, staff cost and the bottom-line.

Opportunities presented by COVID-19 to Human Resource Management

The current situation is not all negative, as it presents some opportunities for organizations to rethink their modus operandi and seek ways of ensuring delivery.  HR can organize virtual training which may be cost effective, trainers have developed technics for delivering training programs which will normally be delivered abroad.  Depending on the mix of recruitment strategies combined, HR can hire persons virtually and save on the cost of transporting interview panel members.  There is also room to develop new organisational values and culture outside the known traditional culture.  HR needs to research and introduce new social connections such as virtual happy hours, health breaks, lunch breaks and forums in keeping with the socialization practices.  These practices may either leave employees content or dissatisfied as it could bring memories of the known social interaction, however it cannot be overlooked.

Human Resource Actions

To guide staff and the remote off-site working, HR Managers have the responsibility of developing guidelines, policies and procedures to avoid cross contamination, limit human contact, enforce adherence to the health protocols, reinforce new organizational culture and in some sectors review  ‘person fit’.  Depending on how long this pandemic persists, HR will need to review where it draws talents who are able to fit in the status of operation and are fit for purpose. One important consideration during recruitment is the determination of candidate’s flexibility to work with others and commune with colleagues, this is being eroded by the pandemic and potentially affects productivity and employee well-being. Regular employee engagement will help collate information on expectations from employees including the impact of virtual work/social activities compared to face-to-face interactions.  To help the staff manage time and family expectations, HR needs to organize forums to discuss how individuals have successfully handled the same and set systems to track delivery.

HR needs to provide employees with cognitive and emotional resources to manage the coaching on self-responsibility, productivity and well-being and at the same time reduce the feeling of isolation, loneliness and social exclusion. Organizing regular virtual team meetings to enforce interactions will go a long way to promote high working spirit.

Conclusion

It is not yet clear what the long-term effects of COVID-19 could be, there is little reason to believe its impact on organizational life will be short-lived.  The effect is not only on productivity and organisational survival but the risk of future health crises and psychological trauma.  HR and management of organisations must therefore put in place plans that look at the new reality and offers new opportunities for managing human resource and business operations.  The discussions on implications of COVID-19 on the survival of any business, the adjustment of employee well-being and productivity, the systems required to remain relevant must commence in all organisations if it has not been done.  Coupled with this is to set an action plan for reaching the set goals.

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