COVID-19 is having a significant impact on how businesses operate in myriad ways but a common one shared by many office staff are new directives to work from home. A Gartner, Inc. survey of 800 global human resources executives on March 17 found that 88 percent of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home, regardless of whether or not they showed coronavirus-related symptoms. Nearly all organizations—97 percent—have canceled work-related travel, an increase of more than 80 percent since March 3.

“As the COVID-19 crisis disrupts organizations across the globe, HR leaders must respond quickly and comprehensively, considering both immediate and long-term talent consequences,” says Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice.

The Gartner survey shows that organizations, trying to balance employee needs with financial realities, are employing a variety of approaches to time-off policies in response to COVID-19. Nearly half (48 percent) of employers require employees to use sick leave first, then vacation leave and finally potential PTO for coronavirus absences. Twenty percent of organizations increased PTO for individuals who are sick and/or caring for a sick family member and 18 percent of organizations have granted additional PTO for parents who are caring for children whose schools are closed.

“Our research shows that only a minority of employers plan to downsize or ask employees to take unpaid leave,” adds Kropp. “Instead, most organizations are focusing on measures such as more effective use of technology and freezing new hiring to cut costs.”

The Gartner survey shows that most employers plan to cut costs while minimizing impact to pay for existing employees when possible. It found that 70 percent of organizations report that the main cost-cutting measure they plan to use is more effective use of technology. Nearly half of organizations plan to freeze new hiring.

A greater percentage of organizations plan to reduce work for external partners rather than employees—one-fifth of organizations plan to stop or limit consultant spending and/or reduce the number of contract workers. Only 10 percent of employers plan to reduce working hours, and just six percent report asking employees to take unpaid leave.

To manage remote talent during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gartner recommends HR leaders provide direction, confidence and resilience as employees are relying on leaders at all levels of the business to take action and set the tone. Communications from senior business leaders to managers should prioritize associate health and business sustainability and that they should communicate regularly with employees, maintaining an open dialog. Gartner’s survey found that 56 percent of organizations have communicated a plan of action to employees in the event the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gartner also advises businesses to contextualize coronavirus for the organization. It notes that leaders should be a trusted source for accurate and up-to-date information on coronavirus and how it is impacting the organization. Avoid sharing information from social media and leverage trusted resources such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, contextualize information and data as much as possible so that it specifically relates to the organization.

The survey results also highlight the value of encouraging intentional peer-to-peer interactions. With reduced or no face time in the office, employees should maintain regular professional and personal interactions with their peers. Gartner’s survey found that 40 percent of organizations have set up additional virtual check-ins for employees with managers and 32 percent of organizations have introduced new tools for virtual meetings. Gartner recommends that HR leaders should encourage employees to leverage communication platforms they already use, either at work or in their personal lives, to create new ways to work together.

Other recommendations include the establishment of team guidelines as remote work looks different for each employee depending on their needs and those of their families. Organizations can meet employees’ needs by empowering teams to adapt to their conflicting time demands. Also, provide flexibility for employees’ remote work needs. When preparing for employees’ eventual return to the office, businesses can empower employees to make choices best suited for their needs and comfort levels.

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