The State of HR & People Operations During the Pandemic

Nov 10

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Challenges and Triumphs in the Pursuit of Employee Happiness

Since March of 2020, our lives have transformed in ways we would never have imagined in 2019. From new methods of socializing to the explosion of delivery services to relationships deeply challenged by changing social norms, these last two years have had major personal and cultural impacts. 

No profession has gone untouched. However, few have pivoted to the same degree as HR and people operations. Given that these teams are responsible for employee satisfaction, they’ve had to ride through their personal challenges while considering those of the workforces they manage, adjusting accordingly.

What are the biggest challenges and triumphs faced by the people at the forefront of the ongoing pursuit of employee satisfaction in this ever-changing pandemic landscape?

At Thriver, we were curious about the answers to this question. We surveyed HR and people operations teams to better understand the pandemic workplace as experienced by those with boots on the ground. Here’s what we found.

The stats that made us take notice

  • More than half of respondents rated employee engagement as their biggest concern during the pandemic.
  • Most HR and people operations teams feel that employee mental health struggles were their greatest challenges in 2020-2021.
  • It isn’t just the employees they manage who are struggling with mental health; the HR and people operations professionals we surveyed ranked mental health struggles as their top challenge, followed by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and striking a work-life balance
  • 67% of respondents feel the past two years have challenged them personally, with 11% indicating they did not experience personal challenges since the pandemic began.
  • More than 70% of participants indicated that the last two years were professionally challenging for them. Just under 5% of those surveyed felt they had not experienced professional challenges. 
  • Employee engagement, morale, and culture were all ranked as the biggest challenges currently faced by companies.  
  • Common themes behind professional challenges included:
Thriver Survey word cloud showing most popular words mentioned in survey responses by respondents

About our survey 

We conducted our research in October 2021. Participants were retrieved from an internal database and contacted via email.

A total of 179 HR/people operations professionals completed the survey; two-thirds identified as female (72%), 14% identified as male, 4% identified as non-binary, and 10% chose not to answer this question.

The respondents ranged in age from 20 to 60+, with the majority of respondents falling within the 20-40 age range.

The majority of the participants worked in the technology sector, followed by financial services.

Company size varied between small businesses (42%), mid-market (27%), and enterprise (31%).

All respondents were employed in North America, with roughly 60% located in the U.S. and 40% in Canada.

The survey consisted of 15 questions and was divided into two parts: personal reflections and demographics. We asked participants to reflect on the last two years as they answered the questions.  

Top roadblocks to booking and scheduling workplace services

HR and people operations teams are responsible for booking and scheduling many workplace activities and events for their teams. The pandemic certainly came along and complicated this part of their job. 

Survey section summary which says that 55% of respondents rated employee engagement as their biggest concern during pandemic

The number-one roadblock participants faced in booking and scheduling was employee engagement, with 55% of respondents selecting this answer. Coming in second was trying to satisfy different preferences as part of the booking and scheduling process. Employee mental health concerns came in third.

Just as interesting are the lesser-selected answers.

Only 4% found supporting management to be a notable roadblock, and 13% felt managerial buy-in made things more difficult. 

Professional challenges of the pandemic

HR and people operations teams aim to be consummate professionals and serve to keep the rest of the company on track. This isn’t an easy job even in the best of times. But what about in the COVID-19 working world?

71% of those we surveyed felt that the past two years have proven professionally challenging for them. Only 5% stated that the last two years have been without professional difficulties. And where they felt these challenges was illuminating. 

Survey section summary which says that 71% of respondents feel that the past 2 years have proven professionally challenging to them

The number-one strain faced by HR and people operations since 2020 was feeling overwhelmed by the demands of their role.

Right behind that in a near tie were time management and dealing with change, with many noting the strain of transitioning to a work-from-home model and then into a hybrid one as being particularly pressing. 

Interestingly, 17% of respondents chose not being challenged enough as their top difficulty. This is certainly something to delve deeper into, as its ranking could be tied to how the pandemic altered the HR and people operations workload. 

Which challenges were the least pressing? Those were unrealistic expectations from managers (15%) and conflict management (12%). 

Personal challenges of the pandemic

As we are all well aware, the pandemic didn’t just toss us curveballs at work; there were many personal challenges we faced as well. HR and people operations teams were not immune to this. 67% of those surveyed indicated that they found the last two years personally challenging. 22% found themselves feeling neutral about the matter, while 11% did not feel they’d been personally challenged. 

Survey section summary which says that 67% of respondents feel that the past 2 years have proven personally challenging to them

The area of personal challenge that stood out most to participants?

Unsurprisingly, it was mental health struggles – something pretty much everyone has come up against at least once in the last two years. 

Burnout, stress, and anxiety have made daily life more difficult for many HR and people operations professionals, both inside and outside of the workplace. 

Coming in second was leading a healthy lifestyle. Given how much routines changed and how eating habits tie into those mental health struggles mentioned above, this one also comes as little shock. However, it does have big implications for workplaces looking to support employees’ health and happiness.

In third place was striking a good work-life balance, which was certainly more difficult with so many working from home. 

Other notable personal challenges include financial struggles as well as personal and family obligations.  

Work from home and employee productivity

Here’s one of the hottest topics since 2020 – not that it wasn’t debated well before that. Work from home productivity: are employees more productive when in the office and directly supervised or when allowed to manage themselves from home?

Overwhelmingly, our respondents felt that productivity has increased over the last two years, with 63% either agreeing or strongly agreeing that it has. Respondents specifically noted that despite what many think, there are actually fewer things to get distracted by at home, especially when children are in daycare or at school.

Survey section summary which says that 63% of respondents feel that employee engagement has increased over the last 2 years

As for those who disagree? They made up 8% of respondents. 

So, on the whole, the pandemic and working from home made employees more productive. 

How HR and people operations can overcome major workplace challenges

Step number one in overcoming major challenges in the workplace is identifying them – for both employees and the company as a whole. In some cases, challenges are unique to an individual workplace and its culture. However, there is a lot of overlap. 

Our participants identified the biggest challenges employees and companies are facing since the pandemic began.

Here’s what they pinpointed.

1. Mental health

According to HR and people operations professionals, the biggest challenge currently facing employees is their mental health. With all the changes that were thrown their way over the last two years at work and home, this is unfortunate but expected. 

2. Work-life balance

The second biggest obstacle for employees is striking a work-life balance. While work from home offered a lot of benefits, its primary drawback was blurring the lines between personal and professional. Related to this is the third greatest challenge: making connections. With so many working from home, the socialization aspect of the workplace was sorely lacking. 

3. Employee engagement, morale, and retention

As for companies, the top three challenges all came within four percentage points of each other. These were employee engagement, morale, and retention. While none of these concerns are unique to post-pandemic workplaces, certainly COVID-19 and all the changes that came with it exacerbated these problems. 

So, how can these notable challenges be overcome?

Every workplace is unique, so you need to take stock of the variables that are within your control. However, our survey participants pinpointed a few specific ways companies could better support them and their other employees in being more successful on the job:

  • Create opportunities for employees to connect with each other, whether in person or remotely. 
  • Help employees define the work-life boundary. 
  • Increase personal and professional support from management.
  • Offer more opportunities for professional development.
  • Increase mental health support.

Key takeaways

2020 and 2021 were challenging years that helped shine a spotlight on new and ongoing problems in the workplace. HR and people operations departments, and management as a whole, need to pivot the way they approach workplace culture to address evolving needs. From better mental health support to embracing work-from-home models, there is a lot that we can do in this pandemic landscape to increase employee happiness, and thus their engagement and productivity. 

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