HR realm rolls with the changes

Consulting and services firm leader says remote capabilities that already existed are now in full use.

A local human resources expert said the years-long movement in HR toward digital tools has allowed businesses to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis head-on.

Beth Kelly, president of Grand Rapids-based HR Collaborative, said contrary to what people might think, many companies still are hiring during this time, and employers that had “good command and control” over their technology systems before the pandemic have been able to carry on successfully.

Case in point on the hiring front: Alan Mack, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based NxGen MDx, a client of HR Collaborative’s that does non-invasive prenatal testing and carrier screening for recessive genetic disorders, is hiring.

Thanks to the testing platform NxGen had perfected over the years since its founding in 2013, the company was able to begin developing a test for COVID-19 in early February and now has the capacity to do up to 7,000 tests a day, Mack said. NxGen has been conducting the tests using three “highly scalable instruments” in hospitals, physician offices and nursing homes. The business was looking into doing return-to-work testing at press time.

Because of the level of demand for its testing platform, while other companies are furloughing or laying off workers, NxGen has been adding staff. As of the first week of May, the company had brought on about 20 new data entry employees to help with entering test results into its lab information system, and it was planning to onboard several additional sales representatives by the end of the month.

Mack said thanks to the fact that NxGen had embraced a virtual interviewing process “years ago” for out-of-state candidates, the transition to 100% remote interviews has gone smoothly.

He added data entry employee training and daily “accessioning” — i.e., entering information into the system — has to be performed onsite, but the company has been able to institute proper spacing between employees and give them all of the appropriate protective gear, such as a face mask, fluid shield and gloves, because they are now dealing with infectious pathogens.

“It has definitely added a level of complexity, but at the same time, the people we have coming in and interviewing, because of what we’re doing, are passionate about (the work). So we find that the people that are coming (on board) with us are actually turning out to be even better employees than what we could have hoped for,” Mack said.

Unlike data entry employees, sales staff go through a completely virtual hiring, onboarding, training and testing process, and when they are done, they can work remotely until it’s time to get back in the field.

Kelly said HR Collaborative has adopted “quite a substantial tech stack” for the candidate recruiting, sourcing and selection process it does on behalf of clients and within its own firm.

Interviews are done through a video interview portal or via teleconferencing; reference and background checks all are digital; offer letters are done via email; and onboarding is done through video meetings, webinars and e-learning.

“The whole movement in HR toward the digital and toward being more adept from a technology standpoint has really come to light as a viable and important tool for businesses today,” Kelly said. “We’ve filled three jobs, from job order to offer, without ever personally interacting with the employee.”

While there is some level of loss in not being able to meet candidates in person and interact face-to-face, Kelly said most companies understand they have to use digital technology or wait 90 to 120 days — or whenever the crisis is over — to fill a critical role, and they aren’t able to wait.

“I’m always telling them, ‘At any point you can stop,’ and they’ve all been comfortable with moving forward,” she said.

She said research has shown the face-to-face interview is one of the least important predictors of a candidate’s success as an employee. HR professionals have seen better outcomes using other tools, including reviewing work samples, administering work style assessments and skills tests, and checking the candidate’s job history and references — all of which can be done remotely.

While the hiring process is digital, Kelly said most of the employee recruiting her firm is doing right now is for essential, in-person workers.

“Now, you may say, ‘Why are you doing the interviews that way then?’ Well, in a couple of cases, we filled key nonprofit leadership roles (in partnership with) boards of directors and search committees. Those folks would typically come into a room and meet somebody and make the selection, and we don’t need to have them do that; we can do that over technology,” she said.

In terms of remote engagement of new and existing employees, Kelly said for employers that didn’t have a good grasp of how to use technology, the first three weeks of quarantine were a struggle.

“It really depended on where you were on the technology continuum,” she said.

“But probably the most significant learning that we’ve come out of this with is that it is not nearly as difficult as we thought to have people work remotely, especially in today’s world where you can interact like we are, technology-wise, and where performance expectations have become much more results-oriented and less, ‘I’m watching you work so I know how much you’re doing.’ The significance of where you work is really very minimal.”

Kelly said many employees have found that remote work actually allows them longer periods of “deep work” concentration.

On the other hand, some parents of young children have found themselves obliged to either continue paying for day care — if they are deemed essential workers — or take leaves of absence from their jobs because they just can’t supervise and teach children from home while maintaining a full-time job, especially if they are single parents.

Kelly said HR Collaborative only had one person out of 25 employees who “even considered” a leave of absence.

“Most of the folks felt like they were going to be able to do both their job and their work at home, and for the most part, that has been the case,” she said.

One factor making that possible is the pace and workload for the firm has slowed down during COVID-19.

“We are not running at the same speed that we were in February, so it’s a little bit easier to do the full-time job, just because the fire hose isn’t shooting at you, and your plate isn’t quite as full.”

Kelly said she believes employers that adopt a mindset of “flexibility and understanding” will see the best outcomes during this time.

She believes most employees, however, are hoping the necessity for remote work is temporary, because the lack of ability to compartmentalize between home and work life is leading to exhaustion, Kelly said, and people miss their co-workers.

“Our fundamental (thirst) for human connection and for being with each other and gleaning from each other is a lot stronger than any of the technology that we have in front of us today,” she said.

“While it’s useful as a substitute or as a tool to augment and to make life easier, I think at the end of the day, folks are still going to want to be together in the same room.”

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