November 24, 2020 | Human Resources | Posted by Ascentis
Insights on a Challenging Year from Ascentis Leaders
As many times as we’ve all heard it said over the past year, it still bears repeating that the pandemic has altered the way we work at nearly every level. But work still goes on, no matter how many fundamental changes we have to make. With that in mind, we spoke to several leaders from Ascentis to get their insights into the ways they’ve seen workforce management change over the course of 2020 and what strategies they’re adopting for approaching an uncertain future.
Protecting Worker Health and Safety
Unsurprisingly, every leader we spoke with is concerned about protecting workers’ physical and mental health. “The trend that is here to stay is safety and health for our workforces,” says Chief Marketing Officer Troy Thibodeau. “Long after the pandemic, we will need to figure out how to continue to provide health and safety in the workforce.”
Some of those health concerns take a fairly concrete form, says VP of Account Management, Client Success, Channels and Alliances Matt Moen. “People ask, ‘What can I do to ensure safety? How can I go about changing the workflows? We have been able to step in and help with solutions like and have heard great feedback from clients.”
Burnout and pandemic fatigue are also major concerns in HR, as in most other fields. “There is a ton of exhaustion in the workforce space, in dealing with the new sets of demand added,” says Thibodeau. “When the pandemic first hit HR still had some adrenaline, and now it has worn out.”
That exhaustion is creating concern about the mental state of employees as they return to their physical workspaces. "HR is having to manage the need and want to go back, and also managing the fear of those people who don't want to come back,” says Manager of Pre-Sales Monica Lloyd.
VP of HR Jennifer Ho stresses the importance of mindfulness for both management and employees as they seek out a new definition of normalcy. “We want it to be normal, but we forget that people might not be in the same place. The extra level of understanding is important for each other.”
“Have an empathetic ear,” Moen agrees. “Listen more than talk. There are a lot of stressors on people right now and they don't always know how to handle it.”
The changes in how and where we work has had an inevitable impact on the way we communicate. While there has been a lot of media attention paid to the difficulties of adapting to video conferences and messaging apps, Ascentis leadership sees workplace communication largely as a function of a strong workplace culture rather than a specific set of tools.
“Culture isn’t created in a particular environment,” says Ho. “Maybe co-workers don't have the in-office chat, but they are more intentional about their operations. It is creating a strong team connection and engagement. Employers need to check-in more regularly.”
Thibodeau stresses the importance of seeking out regular employee feedback. “Pulse surveys of the workforce work better with the two populations of onsite and remote workers. You can get a pulse for how things are going in an office, but when everyone isn’t working remotely, we can also apply that to essential workers.”
Managing the Workforce
Workforce management has been an ongoing challenge in the COVID era, as employers adjust the physical realities of their workspaces. “There is going to be constant change,” says Lloyd. “The workplace will not be the same. Everyone has had to completely shift their thinking. There is a lack of logistics. The pivot is the most new thing, and it keeps becoming more frequent.”
“Businesses that are able to work mostly remotely face a specific set of challenges on the operations front,” says Moen. “It’s very hard to lead a team remotely, especially when the office culture is off. Working from home is a romantic idea, but it’s not a vacation. It’s harder to stay focused, and you have less resources and connectivity to people. In the long term, some people will struggle with it.”
While much of the media focus has been on remote work, Thibodeau notes that it’s important for HR professionals to keep all kinds of workplaces in their scope. “The pandemic has forced us to deal with two very different workplaces. A lot of airtime is on the remote worker, but nearly 70% of the workforce can't do their job remotely. Those employers need contingency plans to make sure you have the appropriate staff available in the event people get sick.”
“HR has historically had a lot of things on their plate,” he continues. “HR teams would say they never have enough staff to be as proactive as they want to be. The pandemic has amplified that.”
Hiring and Training Effectively
“Hiring and onboarding people is a much different challenge when you are remote,” says Moen, echoing the overall consensus of the leadership group. “Trying to develop relationships with people and feel the culture is tough. You have to do the best you can with what you have.”
Ho notes that strong benefits programs will be as important as ever going into next year. “As spending increases when people go back into the market, employers need to think how they can offer something competitive.”
“Look to see who is thriving in this environment,” Lloyd advises. “Those are going to be your culture leaders in the remote setting. Training is not just about delivering content. You need to make it interactive and short and sweet, or you have already lost your audience. YouTube-type learning will be huge. You also need a place to put in coaching and competencies and collaborative learning, so you can do proper follow-up to keep on track with it.”
Employees’ methods of work have been profoundly changed by the pandemic, and the ways employers measure that work will need to change accordingly. Moen notes that those in leadership can get better productivity from employees by allowing them more flexibility, and also remembering not to put too much burden on their own shoulders. “Don't try to broadly manage the COVID situation. Encourage some personal time away from work. You owe it to yourself to decompress for a little bit. Leaders should be telling their people it is okay, that activity does not equal productivity. Be present in your personal life as well.”
Adopting New Technology
Technological solutions have played a huge role in helping businesses adapt to the pandemic era, whether their workforces are onsite or remote. Employers will need to continue refining their approach to tech, integrating new tools with their existing systems, and investing in new technology that keeps them up to speed with the rest of their industries. “There was a demand before the pandemic for HR leaders to become more proficient with data and analytics,” says Thibodeau. “This environment will accelerate that need to become more fluent with this data. And software will help leverage that data into actionable insights to support decisions. Mobile will also take on an increased sense of importance. Mobile has become the new computer, via training, interfacing with corporate communication, or checking benefits.”
Thibodeau also notes that businesses need to reconsider existing tech tools for functions such as time and attendance, payroll, and scheduling through the lens of the pandemic. “When you place more emphasis on health and safety, it creates a bunch of complicated scheduling challenges, like finding replacements or compensating for schedule/work loss.”
Of course, all of the many changes necessitated by the COVID crisis come with a price tag. Business leadership needs to plan budgets that reflect these new realities while also keeping profits stable. “The challenge comes from us finding the dollars and the strategic reason for it,” says Moen. "People are trying to strengthen their dollars. Some people in HR are not getting the things they need to fly in their role, since it isn't a revenue generating department. The funding will more likely go to a department that does have that. The HR team is supposed to be the greatest resource, but they also need money.”
Adapting to Change
Above all else, this year has taught business leaders the importance of being able to adapt to unpredictable circumstances. “The ‘new normal’ has become the now normal,” says Lloyd. “There is going to be constant change. The workplace will not be the same.”
Ho notes that the constantly changing nature of the current workplace is going to require more flexibility than ever from both employers and employees. “With safety measures and protocols, for instance, there is often no existing guidance. It is a big educated guessing game, following local and state experts, trying something new, learning along the way.”
Want more lessons from 2020? Download the sheet, Insights from Ascentis Leaders: Lessons from Our Pandemic Year.