Human resources professionals in a survey with Human Resource Executive in December reported sourcing and landing high-quality applicants and managing future healthcare, especially the Affordable Care Act, and diversity as HR’s toughest challenges for 2020. None of them could have predicted the host of other workplace challenges that came to light amid the COVID-19 world health pandemic.

Now you can include compliance with things like Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidelines and workplace insurance legislation, according to a report last month from KPMG Law. (PDF)

And that’s just on the legal front. HR professionals are challenged perhaps more so than ever with putting the “human” in human resources. “We want to put the health and safety of our employees first during trying times, so our goal is to be ‘exceedingly human’ throughout the pandemic,” said Anna Lyons, senior vice president of human capital of Alegeus. “The severity of our current situation recently hit home as I considered the fear and anxiety our associates are feeling right now — their health concerns, personal finances and general stress from being out of routine. Now, more than ever, we must collectively practice patience and kindness in our personal and professional interactions.”

CMSWire caught up with Lyons and other HR professionals to discover what they are doing in their organizations to create a sense of normalcy in high times of stress.

Related Article: How 10 Companies Keep Connected and Sane Through Virtual Channels Amid COVID-19

Becoming ‘Exceedingly Human’

Teams at Alegeus promote the concept of being “exceedingly human” in big and small ways, according to HR leader Lyons. “Little things, like inviting our clients, peers and networks into our homes via videoconferencing to see our partners, kids, pets, wallpaper and messes, have allowed us to create deeper and more personal connections across the company,” she said. “Big things, like developing our recently-released Employee Care Card, have allowed us to provide stability amidst a time of uncertainty to our employees and our clients’ employer groups and their employees. Alegeus is a family. While this might feel like ‘just words’ in the good times, it becomes tangible through our actions during the hard times.”

Addressing the ‘Evolving Normal’

Prashant Parashar, chief human resources officer at CleverTap, said his team worked hard to assist global teams as they adjust to the “evolving normal” of telecommuting, remote working and virtual meetings. “We continue to focus significantly [on] ensuring that employees have the tools and processes needed to meet project timelines despite the constraints of a lack of physical presence in the office,” Parashar said. “We're also proactively connecting with employees on a regular basis, dealing with issues as they arise with increased sensitivity and empathy.”

Peer Recognition Program, Having Fun

Camille Lewis, director of people operations at Canopy, said HR leaders can’t control everything but can provide reassurance, transparency and systems, processes and gestures that remind employees they are appreciated and their great work is recognized. To that effect, her team is implementing a tool that facilitates peer-to-peer recognition. “We are confident that with increased appreciation comes increased engagement and happiness at work, and we know that when people are happy at work they are more positive contributors to their families and their communities,” Lewis said.

Lewis and colleagues are also stressing the importance of taking breaks and having fun, even though conventional resources are unavailable. “Our People Team released an April calendar with a variety of activities that employees can look forward to including virtual Pub Trivia on Friday afternoons, virtual yoga on Thursday mornings, book clubs, and a challenge to get outside on Earth Day,” Lewis said. “Our intention is to help our people prioritize self-care so they can show up confidently for their families and their peers.”

Reduced-Hours Program, Craft Time with the Kids

Danielle Maino, director of human resources for Cloudinary, said her human resources teams know employees are overwhelmed and navigating a lot at home, both emotionally and logistically. “Nothing about life feels normal at the moment,” she said. “To continue on with 'business as usual’ without pausing to address the real human needs would be a failure.”

To ensure Cloudinary HR teams keep a pulse on how every employee is adjusting, the entire HR team has been commissioned as a task force, with each individual assigned as a dedicated support person for each of Cloudinary’s team members. The team is focused on analyzing employee engagement, technical, physical and emotional needs so it can support the organization in the most meaningful ways.

Cloudinary HR teams are actively providing activities such as virtual coffee and happy hours, yoga classes for employees to enjoy with their children at home and even HR-led video story/craft time for kid. “These things also keep us connected as a group, which is so important, especially now,” Maino said.

Cloudinary also supports initiatives that include a reduced hours program for any employee who would like to temporarily shift from a full-time workload, as well as free access to Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app.”

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Extensions of Time Off

With COVID-19, there may be situations where some employees cannot work for periods of time or cannot work their typical hours or schedules due to family matters or other extenuating circumstances, according to Donna Kimmel, chief people officer at Citrix. “And they may become anxious and disengaged,” she said. “At Citrix, we recognized this and extended our time-off and pay continuation support to help decrease uncertainty around the pandemic and instill a sense of calm. We also host virtual mindful sessions multiple times each week to guide employees through brief meditation to recharge and enhance focus.”

Kimmel added the Citrix HR teams have increased public communications and best practices posts in a highlighted section of Citrix blogs and added a weekly check-in specifically focused reporting on the rapidly emerging situation, impacts on employees and customers and programs and actions Citrix is implementing to help.

Learning Opportunities

One-to-One Employee Attention

One of the top priorities for the people function right now is making sure that people are checking in with all employees and increasing the overall communication and communication channels as much as possible, according to Derek Eassey, head of people at White Ops. The teams now have their internal company-wide "Bot or Not" meetings weekly rather than biweekly, and launched a number of other virtual initiatives such as virtual people team "office hours," virtual Wednesday lunches, remote meditation sessions, remote yoga session, Pet "meet and greets" as well as children "meet and greets" and virtual happy hours.

The people team has also proactively scheduled one-on-ones for everyone across the organization to make sure they know there is an added support network during this time. The company wants to make sure that everyone across White Ops knows that they are not in this alone and they have multiple avenues to connect with their fellow White Ops employees. “We have asked all managers and leaders across the board to be flexible with their team and be mindful of working hours, weekend emails and overall keeping the work demands appropriate,” Eassey said. “Overall, it's beyond important that we take care of all of White Ops humans as best as we can during all times.”

Related Article: COVID-19 Puts Company Cultures to the Test

Employee Experience Portal Debuts

In an effort to keep employees connected, Mimecast has launched a Virtual Employee Experience Portal (VEEP) where employees can access company updates, tips on working from home, wellness activities and more, all updated daily, according to Karen Anderson, chief human resources officer at Mimecast.

Beyond this, Mimecast has dedicated specific days of the week to wellness, learning and development and team activities that can be done online. Every Monday Mimecast employees receive a weekly video from CEO Peter Bauer at home giving a recap on the week. From there, Mimecast employees can enjoy Wellness Wednesdays, with a weekly live webinar featuring a wellness expert. These webinars include Zoom meditation sessions, group workouts and more, and are also open to employees’ family members as well, since everyone is home together. Training Thursdays are focused on weekly professional development sessions. Mimecast employees can enjoy Fun Fridays, which are theme-based and encourage teams and groups to engage in a bit of fun after a long week, Anderson said.

Leading with Transparency and Authenticity

In times of crisis HR leaders must continue to lead with transparency and authenticity, according to Amelia Generalis, chief people officer at 8x8. More employees are working remotely than ever, some for the first time and under less than ideal circumstances, she added.

“Employers must navigate how to ensure productivity and business continuity while communicating and maintaining authentic relationships with employees,” Generalis said. “Right now, it is HR’s job to tool up managers on how to build relationships, have real conversations, be human and work directly with IT to enable virtual work and collaboration where possible. We also need to eliminate undue burdens on those who are dealing with the new world order as best they can.”

Related Article: CIOs Share Business Continuity Plans Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Focusing on Employee Engagement

Tracy Porter-Stevens, business, operations and HR leader at Grapevine6, said employee engagement is key amid the current coronavirus crisis. She is working on making sure the team still feels connected to the work they are doing and the people with whom they work. It's started daily lunch time fun with games and trivia and has weekly contests including a meme-making contest, baby photos and a virtual scavenger hunt.

Porter-Stevens has conducted training with the management team to discuss the challenges and opportunities of managing their teams remotely. They have also created bi-weekly update meetings to talk about the pandemic and share important information with the entire company.

“I am also focusing on wellness initiatives because self-care is more important than ever in these stressful and anxious times,” Porter-Stevens said. “Our lives have been turned upside down and we’re not only trying to cope with our own personal situation, but the situation of our community and the world. I’m encouraging people to search for the good news.”

Grapevine6 has also implemented an Employee Assistance Program so that employees have access to telephone and online counseling and resources to help with their mental health. “When the times are rough, HR needs to be the cheerleader, the caregiver, and the glue that keeps everyone together while apart,” Porter-Stevens said. “I try to remind everyone that it’s OK to feel what you are feeling when you are feeling it and to reach out anytime they need any support.”