How HR Can Lead During the Coronavirus Outbreak

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Mar 25, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, the business world has been grappling with how to respond. Reactions have been mixed: numerous conferences and sporting events have been canceled or postponed. Many businesses have restricted both international and domestic travel. Even more have asked or required employees to work from home.

Yet inside most organizations, formal strategies to respond to the coronavirus outbreak are still being formulated. Many business continuity plans were not designed with this type of outbreak in mind, and, as a result, many questions remain around how businesses should communicate their plans, listen to employee concerns, and keep everyone safe and reassured.

Tasked with taking care of employees, HR is playing a critical role. HR can take a leadership role during the coronavirus outbreak by aligning the organization, responding and communicating clearly, and arming its workforce with the right tools to ensure everyone feels safe, and their concerns are heard.

Maintain transparent and frequent communication

HR leaders should help foster upward and downward communication transparency around the organization’s response to the virus.


  • Who will act as the primary voice for our overall response strategy?
  • Who will keep them updated on any changes in response?
  • What is our process if an employee is infected?
  • What tools and resources can we arm our employees with?
  • Where can employees go to express their concerns around safety?
  • Should we sanitize the office to decrease the likelihood of infection?
  • Will we still conduct in-person candidate interviews or move to video?

While employees should hear from a senior leader, HR should be front and center as a primary resource for employees at all levels throughout this crisis. Concerns will likely come in from every corner of the organization, and above all, it’s important that employees feel safe, reassured, and heard. HR can help communicate the business’ commitment to safety and the wellbeing of its employees and can create new forums for everyone to be heard and taken seriously.

To foster a culture of empathy, understanding, and transparency, consider implementing employee pulse surveys to keep tabs on what they’re worried about. Develop a method for anyone to share their concerns, questions, and suggestions anonymously – a virtual or physical “comments” box or a dedicated email alias or messaging channel. Each employee will respond differently to the crisis, but all should feel empowered to speak their mind and articulate their concerns with an open ear and without embarrassment or retribution.

Be open to flexible work policies

My company, Betterworks, made the decision to have all employees work from home since early March, with a commitment to regular updates from the leadership team. But even if your organization hasn’t mandated employees work from home during this time, many likely will want to, while others will feel comfortable coming into the office. In the absence of a firm decision on this, encourage employees to do what’s best for them. For businesses with a work-from-home mandate, it’s critical to ensure that employees at home are equipped with the right tools to continue doing their jobs at a high level.

This means investing in collaboration, networking, and conferencing tools to keep everyone aligned and in contact. Businesses should provide easy access to video conferencing, chat, and email technologies to keep everyone connected.

Encourage the use of these types of tools to stay connected to individual teams and the broader company. And knowing that employees tend to favor some over others, consider using more than one of these tools to communicate the company’s ongoing updates.

Provide managers with support and coaching around communication

As frontline employees responsible for overseeing teams during the outbreak, it’s important that managers feel they are supported by the business and armed with the proper tools and training to keep their teams running. Most have likely never been through something like this before; HR should provide them with crisis support as needed, ensure they understand how to communicate with teams about the situation, and brief them on suggested tools they can use.

Encourage managers to engage in frequent conversations with their teams via multiple avenues such as chat, video conferencing, or email, which is crucial when the workforce is fragmented and on high alert. Weekly or even daily check-ins can help ensure teams are aligned on work and open a line of communication to the manager should the employee feel the need to discuss anything. Of critical importance, managers should understand the process for reporting a possible infection on their team.

These are challenging and unprecedented times for businesses and for HR professionals helping to lead the response. But through transparency, flexibility, empathy, and support, HR leaders can ensure the business remains aligned and that employees feel safe and heard.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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