Six months after the coronavirus pandemic first shuttered offices across the U.S., contractors and design firms have, for the most part, settled into the “new normal.”

With distancing and other safety protocols implemented at jobsites, some firms have returned to pre-closure work routines, albeit in reconfigured office layouts with limited occupancy and mandates for masks and sanitizing surfaces. Others have maintained remote working practices for most staff.

Achieving this new balance of operational continuity, productivity and employee peace of mind has been anything but easy, according to human resources administrators tasked with devising open-ended operational plans on short notice and with few precedents to help. “One of our executives remarked that, under normal conditions, sending most of our office staff home for five months would have taken at least a year to plan,” recalls John Shaw, Kiewit’s vice president of human resources. Instead, with state and local shelter-in-place orders implemented in a matter of days, “everybody had to decide what to do and how to do it at once,” he says.

At small and midsized contractors, HR leaders tackled fast-paced operational pivots with fewer resources. “Overnight, they had to become bereavement counselors, experts in infectious diseases and the law, and IT technicians, all on top of their existing responsibilities,” says HR consultant-executive recruiter Juli Smith.

Firms already familiar with remote collaboration technology such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams adapted those tools to handle in-person functions such as training, recruitment and onboarding. However, the transition to a virtual work environment was hardly seamless. The Chazen Cos. of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., had to quickly create work-from-home policies from scratch while also taking into account employees’ personal situations and their roles in the firm.

“The one obvious challenge that still creates stress for many of our employees is the confluence of child care and teaching while still maintaining focus on one’s job,” says Lauren Gillett, the company’s vice president of HR.

At the same time, short-term pandemic fixes had to consider the broader impacts. “We still had a long-term business to run,” says Aimee Totaro, HR director for Jaros Baum & Bolles, New York. “Whether we’re in the office or remote, we have to be responsive.”

Communicate Early and Often

Underlying these efforts is a need for transparency and communication to counter rumors and inaccuracies, and to allay employees’ anxiety about whether their benefits, if not their jobs, will survive the coming weeks and months.

“What we know, we tell our people,” says Leah Hanson, HR director for IMCO Construction, Ferndale, Wash. With health care benefits among the biggest concerns, “we got with our carrier early on to alleviate fears employees may have had about losing coverage.”

Along with conducting virtual town halls about the business impacts of the pandemic, many firms have established and continue to maintain dedicated COVID-19 resource pages on their intranets. Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio was among the firms to create or adapt company smartphone apps to keep employees in the loop. “Our app has helped us take communication to the next level, replacing our intranet in a lot of ways,” says Jason Westenskow, Zachry HR vice president. “Thank goodness we had it in place before the pandemic arrived.”

Herb Sargent, president and CEO of Sargent Corp., Stillwater, Maine, says a weekly podcast launched in March helped maintain employee morale as pandemic restrictions persisted through the summer. “We’re keeping everyone better informed on project bids and wins, as well as COVID-19 updates,” Sargent says.

Also, a measure of creativity helps address “intangible” aspects, from finding new means of supervision and mentoring to sustaining internal cultures. “When you don’t see people every day, you take a hit,” says Brett Walsh, HR vice president for Graycor, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. “We need to be sure the ‘secret sauce’ of our culture and collaboration is still there.”

With many firms making pandemic-era hires with little, if any, face-to-face interaction, simulating the social aspects of onboarding has been key. Sam Wilson, Mott MacDonald’s North America head of talent acquisition, says by encouraging new staff to participate in virtual activities such as coffee breaks or after-work quizzes, “we make sure they understand what it’s like to be a part of our firm.”

Providing opportunities for employee engagement and community has helped restore connections at JBB, which promotes groups focused on at-home activities, from cooking and running to social activism. “Approaching this with empathy shows the company cares what employees are going through,” Totaro says.

Based on employee feedback, adapting HR functions to a COVID-19 world have been, on the whole, successful. “Employees tell us they feel safe working, and there’s a shared sense that we’re all going through the same thing,” says Hanson. “We keep that in the forefront of our minds.”

“People kept their heads in the game,” agrees Walsh. “We didn’t sense a drop in productivity and engagement, but we recognized that this was new for a lot of people. With the line between life and work already blurred, we focused on work-life integration and being flexible about when things get done.”

The experience also has proved educational for firms like Zachry, which implemented employee-assistance programs such as medical leave donation banks and relief funds. “We’d looked at these programs in the past, but the pandemic pushed us to do them,” says Kirt Krueger, who oversees the company’s benefits. The pandemic magnified the need for short-term disability and caregiving benefits. “When a family member tests positive, it has a domino effect,” he says.

While it remains to be seen when and how the pandemic will unfold, HR administrators are already thinking about what adapted practices may become permanent. Smith says work-from-home flexibility ranks at the top of the list. “Things won’t just go back to the way they were,” she says. “To stay competitive, companies have to be flexible about remote working.”

The upside, she adds, is the opportunity for companies to overcome local labor shortages by casting a wider recruitment net. “Not everyone will want to work from home, but it will level the playing field for firms that are forward-thinking and embrace it,” Smith says.

Kiewit’s Shaw notes that the effectiveness of technology during the pandemic will likely result in replacing short business trips with virtual meetings as well as expanding applications for training and talent development.

“We’ll also make more use of HR communication channels as a central information resource, something we recently did with the Gulf hurricanes,” he says.

In planning for more hybrid work, HR leaders hope to retain many in-person elements. “A face-to-face environment aids in building a corporate culture, networking with people you may not meet otherwise, and mentoring across all staff levels,” Wilson says.

Gillett admits that while she looks forward to getting back to traditional HR functions like benefits and training, some things that were considered important less than a year ago have been put on hold pending a re-examination of the company’s strategic plan.

“There’s no crystal ball of how long we’ll have to live with this,” she says. “The future remains a work in progress.”