Human Resources: A CEO’s Key Leadership Partner During COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world to a degree that has not happened in over 100 years, every organization from global corporations to small local businesses to independent ‘gig economy’ contractors became embroiled in a new reality of shutdowns, social distancing, economic uncertainty and remote work.

Perhaps no business leader has been more critical to preparedness and ongoing operations than Human Resources (HR) professionals.  During a crisis like this, HR is to business as nurses are to a hospital: the first responders stabilizing the situation, coordinating continued care, taking the steps necessary to minimize damage and ensuring a healthy future.  After all, this pandemic affects people – not our products, or our buildings, or the computer networks.  It is the people who must learn new ways of working, handle home-schooling for their children, worry about themselves or their loved ones becoming ill, be concerned about business impacts, layoffs, and reductions, watch their savings be depleted, and be ready for what comes next as we emerge from this crisis.

Each of these stressors can be debilitating; together, they’re a perfect storm affecting every person in an organization.  HR, of all business functions, is best positioned to lead the emergency response teams.  These human capital experts have been fervently working to keep employees and customers safe, maintain critical functions, identify ‘essential’ on-site staff, partner with other leaders to advise on best use of limited company finances, interpret data, respond quickly to new information, comply with government direction, quell fears and anxiety, prepare for what’s next and help to lead the way forward.  Like those front-line nurses at the hospital, HR is at the core of enterprise-wide responses to the pandemic.

HR is also taking notes:

The lessons learned from this pandemic will not only be incredibly valuable for dealing with the next one, but will likely expedite changes to how and where work gets done. 


While most larger organizations had previously outlined their approach to an emergency or disaster, no one was completely prepared for a pandemic or the extent to which it would require adjustments to earlier-laid plans. “We never anticipated the majority of our workforce working from home,” said Shawn Premer, Chief HR Officer at Consumers Credit Union, a Kalamazoo, Michigan based financial institution with 300 employees.  Despite this, Consumers acted quickly, moving about 75% of their employees to a remote work arrangement within 10 days. 

Moving from on-site to remote arrangements isn’t as simple as just staying home. This transition meant evaluating technology infrastructure for remote capabilities (both the employer’s and employee’s equipment, internet access, and software), fully understanding each job in the organization to not only determine essential duties but also the processes and procedures affected, creating training related to process or job changes, coaching managers on handling remote teams, and monitoring performance measures to quickly adjust when a change is needed.

When working from home, “there are no boundaries,” added Premer. For most employees, working remotely is a new concept. People often find themselves working earlier than necessary and later than expected. Even with home distractions, it has been difficult for everyone to manage their time and know what to do and when to do it. HR has been critical in responding to issues surrounding the new work arrangements, making sure that employees have the right tools, training and support to accomplish their duties. New remote-work policy statements were drafted in hours or days. Some jobs couldn’t be done completely remotely, so some workers didn’t have enough workload for 40 hours per week – HR helped to rebalance work amongst teams to adjust and fill work capacity limits.

Not everyone could do their job from home. Essential roles, or those required to be on-site, had to be determined quickly. Among those, HR often clarified rotational access to minimize time spent on-site, began taking temperatures of those arriving for work at a central checkpoint, set up reporting mechanisms for those who had questions or needed to request time off, and developed documentation for screened staff to carry with them while on-site. HR also created instructions, policies and flowcharts to help on-site staff stay as healthy as possible.

It has been HR who employees looked to about safety concerns. Becoming quickly educated on CDC and WHO recommendations, HR set measures in place to reduce risk for employees, their families, customers and vendors. “We moved students to distance learning two weeks before Governor Whitmer’s resolution,” said Joan Morehead, Chief HR Officer at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan. Before the pandemic, 25% of courses were online. Within 4 days, 94% of classes had been moved online. “We did a total lockdown on all buildings,” added Morehead.

“Before the government was asking for social distancing, we were doing it,” said Wendy Ballast, Human Resources Manager at Stryker School of Medicine, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.


Across hard-hit industries like dining, travel and entertainment, furloughs and layoffs were nearly instantaneous, coinciding with the dramatic drop in demand.  This has resulted in a record number of people filing unemployment insurance claims.  Other industries have taken steps to, at least initially, maintain the status quo:  no reductions, no pay adjustments.  Some have even expanded benefit offerings.

“We gave employees an 80-hour COVID bank for time off, no documentation required, no restrictions on use,” said Karen Bathanti, Vice Chancellor of Human Resources at Oakland Community College (OCC), Oakland County, Michigan. This move provided a cushion for employees immediately affected by the shutdown or a COVID-19 diagnosis, in addition to their existing leave banks and time off that they may qualify for under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) or Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

If an employee reported being ill or caring for someone ill, employers immediately began sending them applicable leave request forms. HR teams are also helping employees work through new regulations, such as the CARES Act, with revised rules for accessing and managing retirement plan funds.

“Employee’s lives have been turned upside down,” added Bathanti, so the leadership team moved quickly to offset the disruption in ways large and small. Mental health experts have been engaged to be a resource for staff, tele-doc/tele-health remote healthcare options have been included in benefit plans without co-pays. Healthcare concierge services, to manage more complex health issues, are being rolled out for both employee and executive groups.

The health concerns aren’t just physical in nature. Stresses caused by COVID-19 have brought a new level of anxiety to our collective workforce. In addition to potential physical sickness, many employees are dealing with mental health concerns made worse by the impact of social distancing, isolation, change of routine and business uncertainties. HR has long known the value of employee relations programs and employee assistance plans, and this pandemic has greatly increased the need for these services. “We’re doing our best to minimize any negative impact that may affect our employees or students,” said Donna Tuchowski, Director of Human Resources at OCC. Depending on how long the pandemic and shutdown lasts, this strategy may allow for mitigated disruption to the workforce and better long-term organizational performance.

Communication, as always, is also key to building and maintaining trust, fostering the desired culture for maximum employee engagement and support. Employers are creating ‘Friday Feel-Good Memos’ and video messages from the President to keep the lines of communication open and share information as it becomes available. The approach has also become much more relaxed and immediate; what might have taken weeks or months to create and be approved by marketing and legal teams is now being crafted and sent within hours… straight to the point, heartfelt but without the highly polished presentation.


HR leaders have not had the luxury of being unprepared; disease outbreaks on this scale have been threatening for years.  We are now seeing how it plays out, how well plans have been laid, and what needs adjusting in the aftermath of this virus.

As we prepare to return to our workplaces, how will we move forward to ensure both personal and business success?   Most HR leaders agree that the return to work will not be a light-switch immediacy back to pre-pandemic.  It will be a phased return and HR will again have large responsibilities: supporting operations leaders in determining which jobs return to on-site and when, keeping everyone safe from secondary waves of virus outbreaks, developing and communicating social distancing requirements in the workspace, establishing non-compliance consequences, updating benefit plans and leave programs, solidifying remote work arrangements and requirements, and adjusting compensation plans for newly disparate work environments and changed employee priorities.

For some organizations, this presents a chance to pivot in ways that may not have been contemplated before.

“Use this as an opportunity to reinvent yourself” or how you approach your business model, said Julia Kellogg, Partner, Human Capital at Huron Capital in Detroit.  “How do we envision better operations on the other side of this?”  It likely includes more work being done remotely, either due to necessity, employee requests, or higher productivity, or a combination of them all.   For most businesses, that may require a significant amount of recalibrating that involves nearly every aspect of HR management.

For other organizations, opportunities for improvement have become clear. 

“Focus on your core function” and strategy, added Bathanti.  Know that no organization will or should have every expert on every topic in-house. Outsource those tasks or projects that are important for organizational success but likely do not require a specialist on staff.

“This has expedited many things we’ve been meaning to do for a long time,” added Tuchowski, regarding system upgrades, data management, role clarity and job analyses. It’s been vital to have accurate, current information on each employee’s role and responsibilities and how that links with others on the team or in the entity.

As we return, slowly, to our new normal, “accept that mistakes will be made,” added Morehead. “Be open to changing on the fly.  Be kind to the human spirit, but tough on issues.  Share learnings so we don’t make the same error again

About the Author:  Jeff Tomschin is the founder and CEO of PeopleMost, a human resource consulting firm specializing in aligning people with strategy, thereby greatly improving organizational performance.