It is now the second week after the government has announced the lockdown for all businesses in the non essential services sectors in order to ensure social distancing. Most organisations both public and private have put in place working arrangements that encourage remote working and working from home where possible as a way of complying to this directive. Creative resourcing is being employed as a way of ensuring social distancing amongst employees the idea being to decongest workplaces. For instance, organisations are staggering shifts or having few teams with fewer people at the workplace at a given time as a way of reducing the risk of infection. Other organisations such as banks are maximising on self service platforms as a way of avoiding clients visiting their branches. Law enforcement agents were deployed to enforce SI 83 of 2020 which requires that people should only leave their homes under a list of very limited purposes. This means that only those employees in the essential services as stipulated in the statutory instrument are allowed to move to and from work. The idea is to protect the employees, their families and secure the business future. This is a resource based view (RBV) of HR which stipulates that an organisation’s competitiveness is hinged on its human resources particularly if it meets these characteristics: valuable, rare and inimitable. The billion dollar question for HR practitioners is how the workplace is going to look like after the 21 days of lockdown. Since most organisations have resorted to flexible work arrangements (where employees are working from home and others working short time than their contractual hours for example 3 days a week), there has been a negative impact on work schedules and workloads. This is a puzzle awaiting the HR practitioners to solve because set targets are not going to be met as initially pencilled. In a quest to cover for this gap, some employees are going to be multitasked and even to be made to work overtime at no extra benefit other than their usual remuneration. Even if the employers want to pay for the extra effort they are also incapacitated since they were also equally affected by the lockdown (force majeure). According to Black’s Law Dictionary “force majeure” is an event or effect that can be neither anticipated nor controlled. This might also have implications on the written contracts and collective bargaining agreements that contain this force majeure clause which excuses performance if certain unforeseen events occur. This might mean the suspension of employment contracts (technical unemployment) that will be based on a technical economic report that justifies the temporary reduction or interruption of production due to the 21 day lockdown. In some cases, the employer might decide to compress the work week or introduce job sharing as a measure to cut costs since a total termination of contracts has some costs implications. Furthermore, employers might be seen paying 50% to 75% of the basic salary. This will adversely affect employees as their budget requirements are still the same as they had before this COVID-19. This shall see stress levels escalating among employees and HR practitioners should assume the counselling role as if they are also not employees who are also affected by the same situation. Burnout and development of chronic diseases will characterise workplaces after this lockdown hence it is the role of HR to conduct risk assessments soon after this lockdown so that they put in place contingency plans as a way to reduce impact. As if this is not enough, employees’ commitment and engagement is also going to be affected and this calls for HR practitioners to assume the motivation role. On a positive note, some organisations particularly those in the manufacturing sector may retain their staff in order to meet deadlines for orders acquired before the lockdown. For these, it will be business as usual as returning employees would have had time to reflect and realise the value of their jobs such that will work with vigour. Most employees would have realised that spending time at home is not as easy as one can imagine but it is actually a mammoth task. COVID-19 has revealed that so many jobs can be conducted from remote locations as long as one is technologically skilled and has gadgets to ensure connectivity. This implies that after this lockdown organisations through the HR department should take training budgets and policies seriously to ensure that employees are equipped with the requisite skills in sync with this digital economy that is upon us (4IR). HR practitioners should lobby for schemes to assist employees to purchase laptops and other internet accessories in order to cater for such unforeseen disasters in the future. After COVID-19 lockdown it is most likely that employees will be gripped with fear of getting infected by coronavirus either from their colleagues or the public transport they use to and from work. This will likely affect their performance and this will have a further impact on the business bottom line. It is the role of HR practitioners through the employer to ensure that employees have masks, sanitizers and other personal protective clothing necessary to ensure health and safety amongst employee (article 16 of occupational safety and health convention No 155 of 1981). More so, the employer should also put in place measures to ensure the workplace is disinfected as this will go a long way in protecting all the business stakeholders including the customers. Given such a scenario, HR practitioners should assume the communication role to ensure that business stakeholders including the employer and employee have adequate accurate information pertaining to their health and safety (COVID19 and related illness). This will go a long way in reducing fear and anxiety among employees and other business stakeholders. Fellow HR practitioners’ COVID-19 is reality lets work towards strategies that will make workplaces a better place to be. Thank you for sparing time to go through this article.
(Patience Mabika is a lecturer in the Department of Human Resource Management at Great Zimbabwe University and a member of the Institute of Personnel Management of Zimbabwe. She can be contacted on [email protected]).