The COVID-19 pandemic has created an entirely new work environment for both employer and employee.
For human resources executives, long the go-between linking worker and boss, pandemic changes have forced many of them to reinvent the way they do their jobs.
HR officials have had to confront the so-called Great Resignation that saw millions of employees quit during the pandemic, and bringing those workers, or suitable replacements, back has been a challenge.
Many of the changes are well-known, such as virtual meetings and interviews replacing face-to-face encounters.
In addition, the hiring market is now weighted toward the job candidate, and those candidates know it and want more than just a paycheck.
HR personnel have been enlisted to help companies provide those extras, such as remote work flexibility, shorter hours and a more inviting work environment at the office.
“There are many of us who have to learn very quickly a number of other roles,” said Cindy Ruffing, the director of HR for Northwest Health in northwest Arkansas. “All of a sudden we have become infection control and risk management, part legal. We have had to partner with other people to support our businesses.”
Stephanie Magnuson of Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale is overseeing the company’s human resources adaptation as the senior director of human resources transformation. She joked that the major changes in the field are the reason she has her job. Magnuson said the publicly traded meat processor has more than 1,000 employed in human resources, with the goal to help the company’s department heads create the ideal environment for each worker.
“We are truly redesigning all our processes,” Magnuson said. “HR traditionally has very much been a personnel office; if you get in trouble go to HR. We are transitioning our HR organization to be a strategic partner to help each of the leaders they support. HR was very rules-based, compliance-driven, and now all of our decisions are at the center of the employee and what the employee desires.”
With video conferencing more popular than ever because of the pandemic, companies often conduct job interviews remotely through a computer screen. Morgan Scholz, vice president of human resources for AcreTrader in Fayetteville, said this new virtual aspect of the workplace has benefits for HR professionals.
AcreTrader is in growth mode, adding up to 15 new employees each month, Scholz said. Hiring decisions can be finalized quickly over virtual meetings rather than trying to bring everyone involved into the same room at the same time.
“It has allowed us to be more agile and ultimately productive,” Scholz said.
Ruffing said the technology that came to the forefront because of the pandemic is here to stay.
“Those changes have come a lot sooner because of the pandemic,” Ruffing said. “It is still an evolving space.”
Social distancing and workplace shutdowns that started in March 2020 forced many workers out of jobs or into a new kind of job: a remote job.
Two years later, the state’s Division of Workforce Services reported that Arkansas’ unemployment rate stood at 3.1%, compared with the national rate of 3.6%, and 31,600 more Arkansans were employed than there were a year ago.
Human resources executives said the old days of the company holding all the cards in the hiring process are gone.
“It has made hiring harder because it definitely is an employee market right now,” said Scholz, who is also vice president of the Northwest Arkansas Human Resources Association (NOARK). “Candidates are leveraging offers against each other all the time. It has definitely made it more challenging.”
Jordan Franklin, the co-founder of the talent management firm Stratice LLC of Bentonville, said hiring employees is about more than the paycheck, since candidates are demanding — and usually getting — a better overall work environment that suits their personal needs.
Whether that is a flex model, which allows a worker to alternate between remote and at-home work, or more vacation days or fewer daily hours, the candidate is often calling the shots. And the employers have to listen if they want to get quality candidates from a smaller pool.
“It is definitely a candidate’s market,” Franklin said. “They are holding all of the cards. The companies that are moving toward that are definitely getting the good candidates and the higher-quality talent.
“The companies that are stuck in the [old] ways are the ones who are struggling to hire and getting frustrated with the hiring process. That’s dinosaur thinking and they are losing everyone.”
Tyson Foods Steps Up
Tyson Foods is the third largest employer in Arkansas with 24,048 workers in the state, according to Arkansas Business’ latest list. It has tens of thousands more across the country.
Its workforce was hit hard during the early days of the pandemic because of the assembly-line, close-quarter nature of the work in the company’s meat processing plants. After a rash of infections nationwide, Tyson Foods spent hundreds of millions on improved safety measures.
This year, Tyson Foods has offered workers at plants in North Little Rock and Pennsylvania the option of working 30-hour weeks while still being classified as full-time workers.
And last week, the company announced it was expanding its Upward Academy program, now available at 46 facilities, to provide free education to its 120,000 U.S. employees, a $60 million investment that will cover 100% of the tuition, books and fees.
“This commitment to our team members reinforces our belief that they are the lifeblood of our current and future success,” said John R. Tyson, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Providing equity and opportunity to every single member of our team is part of our goal to make Tyson the most sought-after place to work.”
While Tyson Foods has the resources to provide free education, other businesses still have to make their workplaces more accommodating to current and future employees. Ruffing, the president of NOARK, said candidates are looking for more than a good payday.
“A lot of companies have had to focus on the environment within their workplace, the culture of their workplaces,” Ruffing said. “We are seeing more and more a focus on employee wellness, and we are seeing more of a focus on employee benefit programs; we are seeing increased flexibility where allowable in the workforce.
“It is those companies that are employee-centric that are going to survive and thrive in this environment. You can’t compete on wage alone. The job seekers are looking for more than just a good wage. That’s a different place than employers have been in the past.”