6 Tips for HR Leaders on Managing the Pandemic

Keeping your people (and your organization) healthy in the face of unprecedented adversity.

COVID-19 has placed a tremendous amount of pressure on organizations. Much of this pressure has been external, of course, including how to manage clinical trials, hit commercial goals, and maintain operations during shutdowns, delays, and uncertainty.

But perhaps no job function has felt as much pressure as Human Resources. The pandemic has presented unique, unprecedented challenges with endless questions and few answers around how to manage the workplace. To further complicate matters, everyone has their own perspective on the virus, making each interaction about how COVID-19 affects the office deeply nuanced and personal. 

This means, in the last year and a half, the already complex jobs of HR professionals have become even more challenging. As a result, many HR leaders feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted, wondering how they can move forward with confidence and courage while managing the stress and uncertainty of this crisis. 

This was the topic of conversation of the first episode of our new podcast, The Mixtape, in which Mix Talent’s Head of Readiness and Optimization, Patty Adams, discussed how to successfully navigate HR’s unprecedented challenges during the pandemic. She was joined by Julie Hakim, SVP North America Human and Financial Resources at Lundbeck, and Julie Hart, Principal Employment Attorney at Julie Hart Associates.

Here, we’ve distilled some of the wisdom from these three amazing thought leaders into 6 tips that can help alleviate some of the intense pressure HR leaders have felt for what feels like far longer than a year and a half.

Tip #1: Be transparent 

Information on COVID-19 has seemed to evolve daily, making it incredibly frustrating to provide timely and accurate direction to employees. Masks, then no masks, then masks again. Vaccine efficacy is X% then it’s Y%. Although new scientific findings and data regarding COVID-19 help us understand and manage the spread of the virus, they can also further confuse and frustrate people.

Sometimes, because of how quickly things change, no one knows the best course of action. Just like the experts at the NIH and CDC, we are often left with best-guess solutions based on the most reasonable interpretations of data and real-time research. 

All this is to say that, when people ask difficult questions or request updates on rapidly evolving policies, you should give yourself permission to say you don’t know, however, you will do your best to find out. Give employees a timeframe for when you’ll get back to them – for example, “Let’s circle back in 24 hours to talk about it again once I know more.” 

It might feel like you have to have all of the answers, but the reality of COVID-19 makes it impossible to have all of the answers. And that’s okay.  

Tip #2: Empower people with access to information

As the COVID-19 situation continues to change, so do the facts and opinions about how to navigate it.  But HR leaders do not have unique, special access to new information. You, like everyone else, are learning new things on a daily basis. However, if HR appears to be the source of new information, the job can quickly become about putting out little fires every day – constantly answering emails to give updates, responding to questions about emerging government regulations, and discussing what the latest science means for the organization’s policies.

Instead, we recommend showing employees how and where you are receiving the latest information. Allow them to keep up with developments themselves. Not only does this keep your inbox a little cleaner, it can also help employees understand how quickly things are changing and ensure they understand what sources you trust to help make decisions.

Tip #3: Collaborate with your medical and scientific experts

Being in the life sciences industry provides a distinct advantage as you likely have respected scientific and/or medical leaders on your team. They may not be virologists, but they likely understand the data more than other people on your staff, making them an important, well-regarded resource. 

For example, consulting with the medical and/or scientific members of the company to inform the development of COVID-19 policies and procedures will not only ensure technical input to those policies, but also sends an important message to employees that those policies and procedures were developed as thoughtfully as possible. It also enables employees outside of HR to be involved in creating a safe and healthy work environment for their colleagues.  

While maintaining workplace safety is typically a function of HR, leveraging medical expertise from your colleagues makes HR’s (and, by extension, leadership’s) job easier. Your people are your biggest resource!

Tip #4: Make sure employees feel prepared to come back

If the plan is to have people return to the workplace as soon as possible, as it is in many organizations, you need to make sure you understand employees’ concerns and reservations about doing so. 

Of course, HR professionals are no strangers to making sure a workplace feels safe and comfortable – it’s a core function of the job. Hence, while the COVID-19 landscape is a unique challenge in this regard, there’s one tactic that never fails: listening to your employees. Consider virtual or in-person townhalls, employee surveys, or weekly newsletters to keep employees informed while providing for two-way communication.

Ultimately, creating a work environment that ensures the safety and comfort of the largest possible portion of your organization’s workforce requires understanding the specific needs of your people and being willing to adapt to new circumstances and attitudes. This may sound easier said than done, but it really does begin with a conversation.

Tip #5: Be courageous

So, what happens if you listen to employees, express your understanding of their concerns, and then… decide to do something that contradicts their perspective? Maybe leadership decides vaccines will be mandatory. Maybe they decide some roles have to come back to the office full-time sooner than some of them feel comfortable. Maybe masks will be required at all times.

There’s one thing you can be sure of when making these decisions: some people are going to be upset, possibly angry, maybe outraged. As an HR leader, you are already aware that you are not going to be able to make everyone happy. And that’s not a failure. That’s a reality of the situation we’re in.

Making the tough decisions, then sticking by them is not easy. After all, as an HR leader, you want everyone to feel safe and comfortable. Nevertheless, doing what’s best for the majority of employees and the business will require some difficult, courageous decisions that must be made, communicated, and maintained.

Tip #6: Find a way to leverage the good

For many, it’s been a heartbreaking couple of years. Between losing loved ones, dealing with sickness, missing out on plans, and facing the general stress and anxiety of this situation, it’s been difficult for everyone. However, even as we understand that it has caused so much pain, heartbreak, and loss, recognizing the good that’s come out of this situation can be a great way to remain hopeful.

COVID-19 has been a rallying point for so many aspects of the life sciences business, and organizations have displayed an incredible amount of ingenuity, between implementing technological advancements, quickly launching critical therapies and vaccines, and finding creative ways to keep their businesses moving. In the crucible of the pandemic, life sciences organizations have come out stronger, more capable, and more future-minded than ever.

Patty said it best:

“During COVID-19, we’ve partnered with life sciences organizations who have come together in more meaningful, more impactful ways than we’ve ever seen, and it makes us more excited than ever to be a part of the incredible progress that’s happening in this industry.”

To hear more in-depth advice from the HR experts at Mix Talent, click here to listen to our first episode of The Mix Tape, and subscribe for more conversations with our team about developments in the life sciences industry (and probably some mix puns).

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