Late in the day on March 11, two events heralded a seismic shift in the nation’s response to COVID-19: the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for the coronavirus, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they, too, had the virus. Suddenly the coronavirus was real to many Americans in a way it hadn’t been hours earlier.
In the days that followed, President Trump declared a national emergency, governors implemented stay-at-home orders, schools closed their doors, employers (those that could) instructed their people to work from home, and places that needed to keep their worksites open implemented new safety polices.
Within a week, the federal government had passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and shortly thereafter the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
In the span of two weeks, the workplace and regulatory environment had changed dramatically for nearly every employer. In the nine months since, HR professionals and teams have been guiding their organizations across this uncertain and quickly-changing terrain in ways that will shape the HR field for years to come.
One of the lasting changes COVID-19 will leave behind is that the HR function has gained new prominence in organizations nationwide. Indeed, the leading role that HR has played during the pandemic—and will continue to play in the years ahead—became evident immediately.
In the first month of the national response to COVID-19, many of the key changes employers implemented were led by HR practitioners, professionals, and teams. These HR leaders worked to obtain PPE, implement new sanitation and social distancing procedures, follow guidance from the CDC, transition employees to a new and unfamiliar work environment, and understand new (and changing) compliance obligations. HR leaders were also called upon to guide and implement many of the challenging business decisions employers made, including furloughs and layoffs.
We at ThinkHR and Mammoth saw this change occur in real-time. In March and April alone, as HR leaders were being called upon to steward their organizations and teams, we answered nearly 45,000 questions from clients, over half of which were COVID-related, and supported more than 1.2M interactions with our content and tools. As significant as those numbers are, the real significance is in the stories of courage, compassion, inspiration, and even heartbreak that underlie them.
Since then, the challenges employers have faced—and their need for expertise and support—has not let up. Even as employers and employees have adjusted to a new work reality, the picture from an HR and compliance standpoint has been far from clear. New processes and policies for work mean unexpected and unique issues, further complicated by changing guidance from governmental agencies, including the Department of Labor. In addition, HR teams across the country have be asked to translate company culture to virtual collaboration and to support employee mental health and well-being.
We continue to see the steady drumbeat of demands on HR leaders in our own experience supporting them. By year end, we will have answered nearly 200,000 HR and compliance questions from employers, delivered more than 1,000,000 completed training courses, supported more than 4.5 million interactions with our self-service content and tools, and created more than 43,000 employee handbooks. Those numbers are unprecedented, and a testament to the challenges employers and HR teams have faced and worked to overcome.
HR isn’t going to be any less important in 2021. To the contrary, 2020 has likely accelerated a long-term trend towards more visibility, responsibility, and notability for HR leaders.
The movement for racial justice will continue to require focused and innovative attention. In addition, once a COVID-19 vaccine is available, and we can safely resume more of our normal routines, employers will face a new set of challenges and questions. Reopening workplaces across the country will bring a mix of safety, operational, cultural, and compliance-related challenges, including employee vaccinations, continued social distancing, updated governmental guidance, and changed employee expectations.
Over the last year, we’ve been both servicing the urgent needs of our clients and making significant long-term investments in our technology and team. We know both the challenges and opportunities for employers and their HR teams are on the rise, and we’re committed to making sure our clients, partners, and employees are ready to rise to the occasion.