Stressed remote work

After more than eight months of adjusting to remote work, employees across the country have settled into their home offices. When it comes to bringing workers back in person, some large companies, such as Netflix, say they won’t return to the office until there’s a vaccine. As the “new normal” slowly becomes “normal,” HR professionals are working to create a seamless remote work experience for employees — and facing some major bumps along the way.

According to “HR and the Age of Workplace Uncertainty,” a joint national survey by educational technology firm MindEdge Learning and the HR Certification Institute (HRCI), 84 percent of HR professionals have been working remotely in some capacity since the onset of COVID-19. The survey of 757 HR professionals also found that most businesses have maintained pay and benefits levels during the pandemic: 81 percent of respondents say their companies have not reduced employees’ base pay, and 89 percent say their firms have not reduced or eliminated employee benefits.

Despite keeping salaries and benefits mostly stable, HR professionals are still up against many challenges in managing a remote workforce. Some of the top HR obstacles during the pandemic include:

Stress and Burnout Are on the Rise

Gauging an employee’s happiness through a screen is not an easy task, and the MindEdge/HRCI survey results confirm what many HR professionals have felt intuitively: Stress and burnout are on the rise. Indeed,  75 percent of respondents report an increase in their employees’ burnout due to stress from the pandemic.

Even without COVID-19 anxieties, remote work is strenuous. Long hours in front of a screen, lack of personal interaction, and a limited change of scenery can be emotionally depleting. To help workers manage their mental health, more than a third of respondents (39 percent) have introduced workplace benefits specifically designed to combat stress. Another 14 percent say they plan to implement stress-reduction benefits in the future.

HR professionals have also worked to maintain familiar company cultures, a task that requires creativity and a profound understanding of remote work/life balance. Most respondents have been successful in maintaining a positive workplace culture: 42 percent report that company culture has remained as it was pre-pandemic, and a surprising 23 percent say that company culture has grown stronger.

Hiring, Interviewing, and Onboarding Have Gone Virtual

Last month, the national unemployment rate dropped to 6.9 percent, down a point from September’s rate of 7.9 percent. That figure, though high in comparison to pre-pandemic rates, is significantly lower than those recorded at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in April. The survey results reflect this recovery, with 88 percent of respondents saying their companies are still hiring, though 43 percent report hiring at a slower or reduced rate.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents say they have been recruiting, hiring, and interviewing remotely since the beginning of the pandemic. Among those who have been interviewing candidates virtually (71 percent of total respondents), close to half (46 percent) have found remote interviews just as productive as in-person interviews, and 14 percent found them more productive. Only 25 percent say that remote interviews are less productive.

But HR professionals express significant reservations about other remote HR functions, including recruiting and onboarding. Thirty-five percent say that remote recruiting is harder than in-person recruiting, with only 18 percent finding the process easier. Similarly, 38 percent of respondents characterize remote onboarding as harder than in-person onboarding, compared to just 9 percent who say it is easier.

Among those who say that remote onboarding is harder, a majority (52 percent) say that the main problem is a lack of relationship-building opportunities. Twenty percent cite the difficulties that new workers face in understanding company culture as a key issue, and another 20 percent blame technological issues.

Most Companies Are Not Training Employees on How to Work Remotely

While millions of Americans are now working from home — some for the first time — remote-work-oriented training is still limited. There’s no question that navigating a remote work environment has been a formidable challenge for many workers, yet most HR professionals say their companies are not offering any training to help employees successfully adjust to remote work.

Fully 57 percent of survey respondents say their companies do not provide any training in how to work remotely. Only 33 percent offer such training to all employees; another 12 percent provide training only to those at the manager level and above.

Taken together, these findings show that HR professionals — while up against significant challenges — have been successfully coping with the new normal. How many of these new HR techniques and processes will carry over into the post-pandemic economy? For now, that remains an open question.

Frank Connolly is director of research at MindEdge Learning.

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