Impact of COVID-19 on Organizational Workforce: Pointers for Human Resources Management

Emmanuel Yeboah-Assiamah (Ph.D)

Researcher, University of Ghana; GCRF Fellow, University of Manchester

Introduction

The world has been challenged by global COVID-19 pandemic which has put its cold grips on almost all sectors and endeavours of the global economy. Whilst a few sectors appear to have made some positive gains from COVID-19 (e.g. telecommunication sector, IT service providers, social assistance services, finance and healthcare); a vast majority of sectors and industries have been engulfed with widespread challenges exceeding their elastic limits and currently on ‘life support’. Be as it may, one factor that appears constant is the ‘’people or workforce’’ who operate in organizations. Whilst some have been laid off, or asked to temporarily be on furlough, others have their pay and remuneration varied to their disadvantage. Also, a vast majority of the ‘surviving’ workforce operate remotely from ‘one corner’ of their homes and experiencing feelings of social exclusion. Many survivors of these austerity initiatives are going through psychological challenges and do not even know where the axe will fall next. The human relations and the ‘’informal organization’’ which had held and had glued organizational members together has to be artificially suspended, and in some cases regarded as distasteful because of the need to stick to COVID-19 protocols of physical and social distancing.

The need to come to terms with these new realities requires strong techno-structural and human resource interventions. The task of human resource manager has become more than ever crucial in taking up the strategic role of leading the organization and its workforce navigate and adjust appropriately in these trying times and beyond. Human resource managers are engulfed with a difficult task of having to dive into the “hidden window” as they endeavour to support their workforce navigate through the deep-seated vicissitudes taking place in the workplace and social space.

Employees have come to a stage of their career lives where they face far-reaching challenges which perhaps had never been anticipated even before joining the organization. Put differently, individuals in their decisions to venture into a particular career or workspace usually would take into consideration some conditions prevalent in the organization associated with the job which enthuse them in joining, yet COVID-19 has disrupted the normal workings of organizations. The ability to effectively identify, carefully diagnose, and design context-relevant interventions to help employees cross this phase of ‘living with the unanticipated new reality’ will help in no small measure sustain the organization and reduce employee burnout. This piece discusses key pointers that highlight some key challenges that employees may be going through in this COVID era. An appreciation of these issues on the part of human resource managers and organizations in general will be a first step in deciding to adopt pragmatic approaches to help their employees cope with the new realities.

Person-[new]environment mismatch? A recipe for job dissatisfaction?

The attraction-selection-attrition theory contends that people get attracted to organizations that are particularly congruent with their values, personalities, and needs whilst organizations in turn hire people with those attributes that fit the organizational culture and values. Eventually, those employees who do not fit the organizational culture and ways of doing things end up quitting the job. For now, what may be going through the minds of many employees will be: ‘I joined this organization or chose this profession because of its social activities and events but now…’’ Person-environment fit remains a useful reflection many people take into account which makes a particular job or organization attractive to them. For example, most people may want to pay peculiar attention to the possibility of developing relationships and striving for intimacy with others (Stone et al., 2019). To the worker, these expectations and considerations have been dashed because in adapting to the realities of COVID-19, they have to comply with the protocols of social and physical distancing which essentially limit physical interaction. This new reality could potentially cause an incongruence between the values/personalities of the workforce and the job which could possibly affect the psychological contract and employee well-being and job satisfaction. The human resource manager and management as a whole need to adopt a more transdisciplinary approach (Yeboah-Assiamah et al., 2018) to fashion out new modalities that encourage frequent interaction and nurturing of relationships using virtual platforms and many communication channels. There could be virtual lunches, coffee breaks, happy hours (see Maurer, 2020) and virtual concerts to foster the ‘’informal organization’’. Organizations may explore other options for enhancing social interaction via other platforms which will not contravene the COVID-19 protocols. Doing nothing to engage and encourage the ‘’informal organization’’ may not be the best of decisions as it could lead to depression and reduction of morale of some employees which may affect job satisfaction and productivity.

High incidence of work-life conflict?

Work-life balance has always been a concern of those interested in the quality of working life and its relation to broader quality of life (Kelliher et al., 2019). It is aimed at providing quality of life for an employee whilst at the same time optimizing the productivity levels at the work-place. The balanced work-life score provides an organization with a productive and innovative employee, whereas disruption of equilibrium in the work-life balance tends to produce depressed and dissatisfied staff (Feeney et al., 2019). Work-life conflict occurs when the corporate life unduly interferes in the employee’s private sphere or social life; the reverse also holds true. COVID-19 has remarkably blurred the space between social and corporate arenas of workers which has disrupted the work-life balance and fostering work-life conflict (see Giurge & Bohns, 2020). The quest to hold corporate meetings via video platforms where employees need to prepare their homes [background] in ways that will be presentable for such zoom or video meetings is a case in point. Many families need to adjust either by dedicating or reorienting one room for such corporate purposes or other members agree to be tamed whenever there is a meeting. More challenging will be when the employee has a child or baby who cannot be tamed easily. In these cases, the person cannot determine or control who screams or interferes in the course of the live video, when and how. In some homes, if the other partner is engaged in corporate video meeting, all TV sets and radios have to be muted in order not to interrupt the session which means the other spouse or members are held hostage for the entire session. At times, the other spouse has to go out with the kids so that their involuntary screaming wouldn’t interrupt/obstruct the live session. But for how long can this be done without encountering the wrath of a partner, especially, if these meetings become one of a daily or more recurrent?

On the other hand, as kids are in the house due to widespread temporary closure of schools and childcare services, employees are engulfed with home care duties which would also interfere in the corporate side of workers. As the pandemic tarries, the potential for conflict between the corporate and social spheres are likely to be taken to higher pedestal. How best can the organization or Human Resource Managers help employees manage work-life balance in this unusual period? Organizations may want to provide some form of employee support by providing them with relevant information on health and safety issues, training and development to be able to effectively adapt and adjust to the new realities and possibility of contextualized childcare options. In all these decision framing, the employees should be at the centre and should be very much engaged in the brainstorming and adoption of context-specific interventions.

Physical/social distancing and the plight of lone-ranger employees

Truth be told, there are many employees whose only family they know and interact with on a constant basis are their work colleagues and office mates. They spend greater part of their 24hrs in the workspace with colleagues and only come home to have shelter and leave early in the morning for work again. People who may fall in that category and perhaps hardest hit may be those who do not have children, spouses or other family members around (Miller, 2020; Smith, 2020). These people usually may take solace and solidarity from the workplace such that ‘’the new normal’’ which compels people to artificially and deliberately distance themselves from each other in the workplace and to be ‘working from home’ deepens the socio-psychological stress these groups of employees may go through. The quest to work remotely from home against people’s volition will only exacerbate the feeling of loneliness and exclusion depending on their peculiarities (Robinson, 2020; see Carnevale & Hatak, 2020). From what has been described above, the organization and for that matter human resource managers are to grapple with a workforce who might have a feeling of exclusion and this is the time for HR managers to take critical assessment of their human resource information systems (HRIS) to ascertain the peculiarities of their workforce. This will help identify those who may be more susceptible to feeling of loneliness and to reach out to them in ways that make them have a sense of social inclusion even if they were to work remotely from home. The need to identify employees who are single (widows, widowers, childless or others) may require special attention and interventions to reduce the psycho-social feeling of exclusion that may be going on their minds (see Miller, 2020; Smith, 2020). Hosting of virtual social interactions to enable workforce to regularly share thoughts and meet will be one of the options that may help in the feeling of social inclusion (Carnevale & Hatak, 2020).

Conclusion

From the foregoing, it is noteworthy that a lot has been taking place in the minds of employees and more especially the exigency to adjust and adapt to the new realities imposed by COVID-19. It is, therefore, crucial for organizations to provide facilitating role to enable them navigating these vicissitudes without much stress and burnout. Workers who operate from home need to have a very functional technological support at home to enable them adjusting squarely as well as the provision of adequate socio-psychological and informational support to reduce employee burnout and feeling of social exclusion. Social activities that were done pre-COVID-19 could be reframed or similar ones carried out in a virtual platform so that employees will not feel socially excluded. Agility, innovation and thinking outside the box is very much required of organizations and their HR outfits as employees and organizations go through this phase.


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