Traditional ideas and assumptions about the value of remote work have always been in question. But all too often, pressing imperatives of the day had organizational leaders force HR to sideline the conversation indefinitely.

Little did we know that it would take a global pandemic to turn this line of thinking into an action plan for ensuring business continuity. Leaders are now collaborating to propose, evaluate and communicate work-from-home (WFH) policies that keep employees safe, empowered and productive.

Before the infection rate of COVID-19 reached pandemic levels, 29% of midsize companies increased or added flexible work practices, according to Oxford Economics.* Now, as measures for social distancing, sheltering in and nonessential business closures become widely adopted worldwide, these numbers are rising exponentially while companies try to keep their proverbial doors open.

When protecting employees helps ensure the survival of the business

Unfortunately, such a significant change doesn’t happen without some bumps along the way. The pressures of homeschooling children, accommodating a spouse’s schedule and attending to business needs can make life seem chaotic. From collaborating with colleagues to adopting routines that drive productivity, the workforce may find that they cannot maintain the same experience of being in the office at home. Meanwhile, employees who live alone may feel lonely and burned out after working too much out of boredom.

HR leaders can address these counter-productive realities by building a collaborative workforce community, continuing talent development and training and keeping employees up to date on plans and expectations by using the following four-step strategy.

  1. Respond

First and foremost, HR can help business leaders address the immediate challenges that the crisis presents to employees. This urgent and critical move requires access to real-time data across the company to easily find where workers are located and enact preventive measures to protect their health and mental well-being. Additionally, teams need to ensure that WFH policies balance the expectation of the organization as well as fulfill the needs of the workforce. Employees need to be engaged in honest communication about their WFH experience to limit unnecessary anxiety and minimize negative impacts on productivity. This can be done by providing anonymous feedback regarding the employees experiences.

  1. Lean in

Since many companies are creating WFH policies on the fly and refining it as needs arise, the near-term strategy should support the physical, emotional, mental and financial well-being of the overall workforce, including contingent and part-time employees. HR should encourage people managers to have frequent check-in meetings with their teams, ask people how they are doing and listen with empathy to build trust and psychological safety.

Maintaining an open line of communication and fostering a sense of community are paramount to maximizing productivity now and ensuring that the business continues to move forward when a recovery begins. For example, collaboration tools, such as Remote Work Pulse, can be used to check workforce well-being with a real-time mobile experience. Leaders can ask individual employees about their safety, whether they have the right resources and information to get work done, and if they feel productive and successful.

  1. Equip

Many industries are witnessing massive layoffs and furloughs. Times like this bring with it job losses, restructuring and many other difficult financial and human decisions. Leaders can help ease a much-needed transition by devising and executing training plans that upskill and retool employees to keep them employed in a new role or another area of the business. Cutting-edge technology, like Talent Exchange, can help find opportunities for the displaced workforce.

With predictive analytics, HR teams can run simulations to model multiple workforce staffing scenarios. They can adjust organizational strategies based on how and where the pandemic evolves, which can shift requirements for headcount expansion or contraction as well as the economic impact of demand-and-supply changes.

  1. Become resilient and elastic

Coming out of today’s crisis will inevitably create a “next normal,” leaving behind any sense of “business as normal” forever. Some employees may come back to the office full time. Others may choose to work remotely 100% of the time. A few may decide to split their time between the two options. Companies with a global presence will require operating models that are orchestrated centrally and executed locally to effectively respond to present day challenges at the local, city, or country level.

Today, it’s COVID-19. Tomorrow, it could be a crisis stemming from global warming. No matter what happens, a contingency plan that impacts people must be elastic enough to adjust to the demands of the crisis and strong enough to minimize business disruption.

This reality will inevitably inspire innovative policies and communication plans to address a world of new habits that will likely be adopted to prevent a recurrence of the pandemic and prepare for a future crisis. Additionally, changes in the employee experience should align with regulatory requirements, competitive risks and emerging opportunities and reinforce the company’s thoughts, beliefs and goals.

How our leaders handle today’s crisis matters in the long term

Forward-thinking leaders and HR specialsts will unquestionably remain on the frontline of a business’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them are already working long hours. In this particular crisis, HR becomes the war heroes for most companies. With the right tools and skills, we can demonstrate the flexibility, creativity and empathy needed to ensure the workforce is ready for anything during times of volatility as well as prosperity and growth.