HR Roundtable Part 2: Helping Your HR Team Survive COVID-19

About 10 min

HR Roundtable Part 2: Helping Your HR Team Survive COVID-19

People talk a lot about taking care of yourself during the pandemic, but what if it’s your job to take care of others?

In Part 2 of our series, Helping Your HR Staff Survive COVID-19, we look at the non-profit sector. Imagine worrying that downtime during the pandemic will not just affect your employees and your own family but could be devastating for those who depend on your help and your services.

Allison Rinker

Today’s advice comes from Allison Rinker, VP of Human Resources for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

This 100-year-old organization helps with any challenges facing members of the community. They tackle everything from lost jobs, addiction, eldercare, hunger, abuse, homelessness - practically any crisis you can think of. So, it was essential for The Associated to remain operational during these trying times.

Allison tells us how she and her team did it without missing a beat.

EBI: What kinds of challenges has your organization faced during COVID-19?

Allison: The coronavirus pandemic required The Associated to move all our agency functions to a remote work environment. We were very fortunate because our Technology team was well prepared in advance of the pandemic and made certain that most of our employees had laptops and equipment that enabled them to work from home.

Our day to day HR responsibilities and attention changed rapidly beginning in March because had to adapt to the ever-evolving circumstances that the pandemic created for our organization. Since we closed our buildings in accordance with the Governor’s orders, we were not able to onboard new hires and continue the recruiting process for our vacant positions. We had to shift our focus on the crisis and how it impacted our existing staff and structure. So, we implemented a hiring freeze, which is still in place, and directed our attention to our employees in the areas of talent management, engagement, and communication.

Early on, our HR team consulted with our legal counsel to better understand the Families First Corona Response Act (FFCRA). We also had to ensure our HRIS could track the new extended FMLA and Emergency Paid Sick leave, and then we had to train all our HR and Payroll employees on the new law, our forms and process. During the early weeks of the pandemic, we also implemented a Remote Work Policy that identified clear guidelines and expectations for our new remote work environment. In April, we organized employee Zoom training sessions with Rachel Drunkenmiller from Unmuted Life which was intended to provide employees with strategies to support themselves personally and professionally during this time of unprecedented uncertainty.

In the beginning of the pandemic, we also gathered a group of our management team members daily via Zoom so we could discuss and respond to the state and local government requirements that impacted our organization and our system of agencies. Communication was a priority from day one and our Executive office continues to send out “Daily Thoughts” emails from our President to ensure employees are aware of what we were dealing with, addressing, and managing from our home offices.

EBI: How much additional strain has been put on your HR department?

Allison: In the beginning of the pandemic our HR team worked long days, hours and even some weekends to ensure we were in a good place in terms of managing the remote work environment, understanding the new laws and helping our employees adapt our “new normal.” As I stated above, we placed all our talent acquisition efforts on hold and shifted all our focus to talent management, engagement, and communications. We are a small but mighty HR Team, we have five staff members that support almost 1,100 employees system wide (The Associated and our Agencies) and we all did what we had to do to get ourselves in a good place, especially during the first 10-12 weeks of the pandemic.

We have a robust HRIS system in place and we even moved everything over to SharePoint during the pandemic, which took some time for us to adjust to as a department. As a result of our department’s move to SharePoint, we then collaborated with our VP of IT and our Technology Trainer to create a SharePoint Staff Resources Site for our employees. With remote work continuing for some time, we knew employees need a central spot to access important information, handbooks, policies, benefit information, content, and links.

I think what is most important to mention is that our team never deviated from our regularly scheduled meetings and check-ins, we even kept our Friday morning Coffee Huddles- a 15-20 minute get together where we talk about our High and Low of the week and our weekend plans. Keeping our commitment to one another to meet via Zoom allowed us to remain connected even when we could not be together physically in our workspace.

EBI: When it comes to return-to-work plans – how much of this falls on the HR department and how has that been going?

Allison: We have created a Re-opening Task Force which is made up of HR, Facilities, Operations, Risk Management and Security Personnel from across the system. This task force is solely focused on creating and implementing policies, best practices and procedures related to re-opening our buildings. HR has a lead role on this committee, specifically in the development and implementation of policies related to reopening.

Currently, The Associated continues to operate functions primarily on a remote basis, allowing employees who currently work remotely to continue to do so.  We have created a “Phase One” Reopening Policy for the five employees who are going into our building twice a week to check the mail, deposit checks etc. This policy also includes a required at home temperature check and prescreening questionnaire before the employee can come to the building. We have rolled this policy out to all employees; however, it is only applicable to the five employees that currently have access to our buildings. I think employees appreciate being kept in the loop as to what we are doing in terms of our plans to reopen. As a participant and contributor on this task force, it is evident to me that The Associated remains committed to the health, safety, and well-being of all our employees, our donors and our friends and family.

EBI: Has your organization turned to automation during the pandemic?

Allison: Our organization is already advanced in terms of technology and automation- from our HRIS, to online expense reports, and invoice approvals, everything in this respect has remained seamless. There are some modules I would love to implement in our HRIS system, like online performance evaluations, the HR Dashboard and onboarding, but the pandemic caused us to shift our focus and these “nice to have” items have been placed on the back burner for now!

EBI: What has it been like for you personally to deal with all of this?

Allison: Honestly, I was really stressed and overwhelmed in the beginning of the pandemic. I was juggling between being a mom, teacher, employee and wife and it was, well…exhausting. I like to be in control, I am scheduled and organized and for the first time in a long time, I felt like my world was crashing down around me. No scheduled workday, no sports or school events, my daughters were now at home adjusting to remote learning and then there was me, adjusting to a new remote work environment, all while trying to keep our family healthy and safe at home. It was all just too much!

But thankfully, after some time, I realized I was not alone in this respect- reading articles and hearing others tell their stories of their remote work experience was eye-opening. Having open and honest conversations about what I was feeling with my colleagues, my boss and my family helped me tremendously- once I finally realized it was beneficial to let them know what I was experiencing and how I felt!

Once I had these conversations, I was able to put up barriers when I needed to focus my attention to my daughters; I added break times to my calendar to ensure I stopped and focused on my own wellbeing, and I even started to wake up early to exercise before I started my work day. All these moves in addition to my incredible HR colleagues made me feel grounded and in control. I am very lucky because I work with remarkably talented and empathetic HR colleagues, and because we have a solid team that is comfortable sharing our stories and concerns with one another, we were all able to lift each other up and help out when a team member needed us the most. There is nothing better than feeling like you are cared for by your colleagues, they are a supportive and amazing group!

EBI: What advice can you offer to other HR managers, or even HR teams of one?

Allison: Be honest with yourself. Ask for help and initiate the conversation before you are at your breaking point- it is ok if you are feeling overwhelmed, out of control and on a downward spiral. It is ok to admit that you need help! It is ok to recognize your own limitations. Know that you are doing the best you can in that moment and that it is ok to ask for help and seek advice! And you may be surprised to learn that you are not alone and that others are willing to support and care for you!

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