Published: April 8, 2020


On the frontlines of the enterprise response to the novel coronavirus and subsequent COVID-19 outbreak, there's no denying that IT has been one of the hardest-hit business functions in terms of managing tech complexity and scaling new remote-work frameworks. According to 451 Research's Voice of the Enterprise: Digital Pulse, Coronavirus Flash Survey from March 2020, 41% of organizations are currently experiencing increased strain on IT resources due to the outbreak and an additional 14% expect to experience increased strain within three months. However, the sudden shift to large-scale remote work and social distancing has also taken a toll on human resources (HR) and the people function as well.

Employees are dealing with the stress and uncertainty of the growing pandemic while trying to manage their work in an often entirely new way. HR is the function charged with retaining the corporate connection to the humanity of its employees – understanding how they feel and supporting them with available resources. However, HR is also a key partner for line-of-business (LOB) managers in helping them understand how to best use employees while maintaining a proper employee experience while also partnering with IT to make sure the right tools and technology are available to the workforce at the right time.

The 451 Take

In the initial aftermath and ongoing challenges of the novel coronavirus outbreak, HR practitioners must craft and follow a compelling response plan that helps keep employees engaged and supported, assists LOB managers in efficiently using their workforce and provides a partner to IT in an effort to collaborate on productivity initiatives that stem from a large-scale movement to remote work. With these pillars in place, HR can help its organization weather the initial friction brought by COVID-19, while helping prepare it for a new work future as well.


Keep Employees Engaged

Employee engagement emerged as a key metric for the employee experience a long time before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Essentially, employee engagement refers to measuring and analyzing employee sentiment and level of engagement with their work, their team, their manager and the company itself. High levels of engagement can translate into better productivity and retention.

Understandably, issues like the COVID-19 crisis can have a dramatic impact on employee engagement. It is HR's responsibility to understand that impact, mitigate its negative aspects and leverage its positive ones. Let's look at how employees feel that the crisis has affected their engagement. According to our Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity & Collaboration, Employee Lifecycle and HR survey from early 2020, roughly 55% of respondents said they were somewhat or very disengaged at work as an impact of the coronavirus outbreak. However, about 30% said they were somewhat more engaged or much more engaged at work in the wake of the outbreak.

This is interesting because it shows that the impact can be positive, meaning that there are aspects of the new work paradigm that can be leveraged to improve engagement for some people. So, one of the first practical steps that HR should do in light of the coronavirus is to measure engagement using tools like pulse surveys offered by companies like Culture Amp, Peakon, tinyPulse, Glint or Qualtrics. Without a formal tool in place, or if you need to measure sentiment quickly, a standard survey tool like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey could also be used.

If possible, try to go beyond yes or no questions to determine the main factors driving either a positive or negative impact on your employee experience. Bear in mind that these factors might not improve engagement for all employees. When we broke down the data on COVID-19's impact on employee engagement based on different demographic segments, we found that in general, managers and administrators were more engaged following the outbreak, while general staff and non-managers had higher levels of disengagement. It was also telling that companies with poor recognition strategies and low opportunities for promotion also had a high level of disengagement among their employees during the outbreak, according to our data. To get more contextual factors for your own organization, another option is to leverage crowd-sourced answers through a voting tool like Waggl to determine the lowest common denominator in the factors and use that to triage your responses.

If you need a good baseline for how to improve your overall engagement, let's take a look at that same 451 Research Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity & Collaboration, Employee Lifecycle and HR survey from 2020. Let's start with the top challenges listed by non-HR respondents.

According to our respondents, lack of recognition tops the list of challenges for employee engagement. Other top challenges like defining career paths for promotion, benefits, flexible work opportunities and work culture are all challenges that are also highlighted by the coronavirus outbreak. Addressing these challenges could have a twofold benefit of helping in the initial response to the COVID-19 crisis, while also improving long-term employee engagement.

In that same survey, we asked non-HR respondents to list the changes that would make the biggest improvement to employee engagement. The top five responses were:
  • Allowing employees to contribute ideas toward company strategy – 26%
  • More competitive compensation and benefits packages – 25%
  • Skills development opportunities – 23%
  • More flexible working arrangements – 22%
  • Improved tools and technologies for employees' daily work – 20%
These changes also echo some of the challenges presented by the crisis. Employee ideas could be used to help improve the company strategy during the crisis and compensation and benefits packages are crucial to keeping employees properly employed and supported during this time. Skills development can be useful in filling in gaps that emerge from employees being ill for a longer period of time, while flexible work arrangements and modern tooling are essential to the remote work toolkit.

We know from this same survey that employees becoming disengaged or disgruntled due to new remote work policies is the second-largest concern for HR professionals following the COVID-19 outbreak, at 32%. However, many of the engagement challenges and opportunities mirror the general challenges and opportunities presented by the crisis. HR professionals should invest in tools, policies and strategies to address these challenges and could well see improvements across the board in employee engagement.

Navigate Workforce and Talent Management

Another core pillar of HR's response to the coronavirus is how HR handles – and helps others handle – massive changes to workforce and talent management. Before the virus outbreak, talent management moved at breakneck speed, with companies around the world racing to hire the best talent they could as quickly as they could. Now, however, things are changing.

When we asked respondents of our March 2020 Voice of the Enterprise: Digital Pulse, Coronavirus Flash Survey what strategic plans they had delayed, reduced or halted in light of the crisis, hiring staff was the top response.

With such a large portion of businesses planning to freeze hiring, HR will have to work with LOB managers to plan around internal mobility as much as possible to make sure they have the right skills and roles in place to continue moving their projects forward. Investing in skills management can enable HR to help LOB leaders make their teams more dynamic and equip individual employees to fill in for others in different teams if they have to be out of work for an extended period of time. It's also a long-term investment that could pay off with an improvement to employee engagement and a more flexible workforce. Skills management, however, is a broad enough topic, so let's look at ways we can optimize our investment in it.

In our aforementioned Employee Lifecycle and HR survey, we asked our non-HR respondents how available opportunities to gain new skills were at their organization and 73% said they were somewhat or very available. That's good news, because it shows us that most organizations have some sort of plan in place for skilling, or maybe have even deployed a learning management system (LMS) or learning experience platform (LXP): more on the differences in those tools here.

That doesn't mean there aren't challenges with skilling. Take a look at our survey responses on the top challenges in skilling.

As we can see, even though employees know they have skills opportunities available to them, they are not clearly defined. On top of that, it's unclear which skills should be learned and how they can be put into practice. When we asked managers in that same survey how they felt skills management could be improved, their top response was to be able to match skills to business outcomes, followed by better assessing skill proficiency, customizing learning plans and cataloging both available courses and skills.

This is where skills mapping comes into play. Many learning tools already offer skills inventories and cataloging. Companies like Coursera for Business offer skills mapping and analysis, while competitor Udemy for Business offers industry and market segment benchmarking for skills gaps. Pluralsight is a vendor that offers its own form of proficiency measurement, custom role definition and industry benchmarking for technical skills. There is no shortage of vendors that can help you map your skills.

Advanced people analytics from vendors such as Concentra, Visier, Dynaplan and others can help you leverage scenario modeling and advanced analytics to predict possible outcomes from moving employees around and building out new teams. With a proper investment in skilling, analytics and organizational planning, HR can help the business weather the hiring freeze and maintain strong productivity levels during the crisis.

Support a Productive Employee Experience

It's not a shock that many companies are currently experiencing, or are worried about experiencing, lost productivity due to the large-scale shift to work-from-home (WFH) strategies as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak. According to our Coronavirus Flash Survey, nearly 40% of companies are already experiencing a reduction in employee productivity and roughly 22% expect to experience it within three months.

To combat this productivity loss, new technologies and tools are being put into place to improve communication, collaboration, work management and more. And while these tools are a great first step, it's important to remember that quick fixes aren't scalable and many of the tools being put into place could eventually become the new normal. So, these need to be put in place with the employee experience in mind. That's where HR comes in.

In 451 Research's Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity & Collaboration, Employee Lifecycle survey from Q2 2019, we found that improving employee collaboration and productivity tools was the top priority, at 47%, in IT-led digital transformation strategies. In our employee lifecycle report from 2020, HR listed workforce productivity improvements as its second-most strategic focus, at nearly 39%.

This is pointed out to provide clarity on the glaring priority overlap between HR and IT – one that existed before the crisis hit its stride. As such, we believe a core tenet of HR's coronavirus response is to work closely with IT and even LOB to determine the best tools and tech deployment strategy for its newly remote employees. This helps guarantee that employees get the tools they need to remain productive and engaged, but it also sets a tone for a modern, future-focused employee experience.

This is another 'kill two birds with one stone' scenario because a focus on tooling that emphasizes employee productivity helps with recruitment efforts as well, which will be needed once the impact of the virus outbreak begins to wane. In our Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity & Collaboration, Employee Engagement research from 2019, we asked respondents to imagine they were in the job market looking for a new employer and then tell us how important it would be for that potential new employer to offer devices, applications and other productivity tools to help them get their work done. Staggeringly, 91% said it would be either somewhat (44%) or very (47%) important. Making an investment in productivity can help you attract the best talent.

Productivity is about service delivery as well as tools. Leveraging software from vendors like ServiceNow or Espressive can help bridge the gap between HR and IT by uniting service delivery channels for the employee.

Getting employee engagement, workforce management and productivity right won't magically solve all your HR problems when it comes to your coronavirus response strategy. Still, with these three pillars in place, HR can begin to support its organization in the most relevant and contextual ways now while preparing itself to become a more innovative function and a stronger executive partner once the business world returns to normal.
Conner Forrest
Senior Analyst, Workforce Productivity & Collaboration

Conner is a Senior Analyst with the Workforce Productivity and Compliance team at 451 Research. His areas of focus are content management, HR tech and corporate performance management. Before joining 451 Research, Conner worked as a senior editor with CBS Interactive, covering a variety of enterprise tech trends. 

Brenon Daly
Research Vice President

Brenon Daly oversees the financial analysis of 451 Research's Market Insight and KnowledgeBase products, having covered more than a quarter-trillion dollars' worth of deal flow for both national publications and research firms.

Partick Daly
Analyst, Information Security

As an Analyst in 451 Research’s Information Security Channel, Patrick Daly covers emerging technologies in Internet of Things (IoT) security. His research focuses on different industrial disciplines of IoT security, including the protection of critical infrastructure, transportation and medical devices.

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