The COVID-19 pandemic created many unknowns in the workplace, and addressing those unknowns largely fell to human resources departments. While most businesses have found a new normal, according to Sarah Reich, interim HR consultant for Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Company P.A. in Fort Myers, the pandemic-related human resources responsibilities—beyond just safety and health protocols— show it’s still far from “business as usual.”
“HR may have to create new policies that weren’t in place before. If an office transitioned to a remote workforce but never created a telecommuting policy, that’s something that needed to get created,” Reich says. “Conversely, if an office went to a remote model temporarily, but is reopening and people are starting to come back in, [you’re] creating policies about what that looks like and what will happen if one of those policies is violated.”
Reich said the pandemic has also created situations in which HR personnel are tasked with acting as contract tracers. And that role, she explained, comes with its own set of challenges.
“When an employee lets you know that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, you may need to contact trace both with co-workers and, potentially, customers,” she says. “Because of privacy concerns, you may or may not be able to share that person’s name. You end up having kind of cryptic conversations and, unfortunately, it can add to the anxieties that employees already may have about the virus.”
The pandemic is also requiring many HR departments to consider the Americans with Disabilities Act. As offices gradually reopen, even at reduced capacity and with new COVID-19 prevention policies, Reich said some new ADA conversations may arise for HR professionals.
“A company says, ‘Your job requires you to be in the office all or part of the work week,’ but an employee says, ‘I have a medical type of disability that says I can’t work in the office during the pandemic.’ That may require the HR person to enter into an interactive process with the employee to see if a reasonable accommodation can be made,” Reich says. “Whenever I’m dealing with any person’s health issue, I always have the Americans with Disabilities Act in the back of my mind.”
While some workplaces may never be able to return to their pre-pandemic “normal,” the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines is providing some hope for many employers. However, Reich cautioned, some complicated questions from an HR standpoint may need to be answered, starting with: Should an employer mandate vaccines, as a policy for employees, to allow in-person work? “There will be nuances that may involve reasonable accommodation requests related to medical conditions or, potentially, religious beliefs around vaccinations,” she says. “These are the types of decisions companies need to start thinking about.”
On top of the new policies and additional duties, Reich said that the pandemic and the addition of remote work options have also changed how HR departments maintain company culture and employee morale. “Culture certainly is different for companies that really never were in a remote capacity before,” she says. “In a company that relied on chat around the watercooler as a large part of their employee interaction and culture, you need to find ways to create a virtual watercooler. You move to more written and phone [communications], and certainly Zoom or Microsoft Teams … have become really important.
“In human resources, it’s always been important to be visible—and even more so during this pandemic, when many employees are feeling anxious about the virus itself and adapting to new work environments. Sometimes visibility is difficult to achieve when you’re remote,” Reich says. “Definitely a lot more reliance on technology and just making a point of reaching out to employees to do check-ins and make sure that they are feeling engaged and supported and know that, even though we’re remote, we are still here.”