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The increased importance of HR in higher education post-COVID-19

The beginning of the 2020-21 school year will be unlike any other year for institutions of higher education. COVID-19 has forced universities and colleges to re-examine everything they do – from staffing policies and enrollment procedures to payroll logistics and their entire technology infrastructure.

Across all the key areas that higher education institutions need to re-evaluate, one common thread is the involvement of human resources (HR). Your HR department likely is being pulled in several different directions at the moment. Many of their responsibilities are tasks that the HR team has never handled before. With the specific HR needs of universities and colleges in mind, Baker Tilly recommends the following leading practices.

Leading practices for bringing the higher education workforce back to campus safely
  • Communication is key – As in most critical situations that institutions have encountered over the years, clear communication is one of the most important aspects that you face from an HR perspective. External communications, including e-mails and newsletters, can be time-consuming for your HR staff, but they are as important as ever. Your faculty, staff and students are looking to their HR leaders for guidance during this uncertain time regarding policy updates, procedure changes and new protocols, as well as a means to boost morale. The importance of clarity and consistency in your communications cannot be underestimated during this time.
  • Take nothing for granted – As you communicate with faculty, staff and students, assume nothing. You may have been glued to news coverage over the last four months, but many others have not been. You may know where to acquire masks, how to wear them correctly and when they are needed, but not everyone on campus will be aware. Keep in mind that virtually every State, and most major U.S. cities, have a different set of safety requirements surrounding COVID-19. These requirements are also changing – daily! In short, assume nothing. It is imperative that HR owns the responsibility of informing faculty, staff and students when and where they need to wear masks, when and where they need to social distance, how to report COVID-19 symptoms, how they can get tested and how they need to quarantine, if necessary.
  • Beware of legal issues – The importance of being clear and consistent in your communications is closely tied to potential legal issues as well, perhaps now more than ever. Your HR team must pay attention to changing regulations and comply accordingly, and you need to be ready for any situation. Do not give people a reason to claim that your institution failed to keep them safe. Do not allow leeway for members of your staff or student body to claim negligence as it pertains to health and safety. Additionally, there are potential legal concerns surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and other pieces of legislation that you must be aware of moving forward.

Just as important as leading practices, of course, are the missteps that you should look to avoid. Based on our deep experience, Baker Tilly cautions your institution to avoid the following pitfalls as you prepare for the new school year.

Potential missteps
  • Failing to have a dedicated COVID-19 task force – While your HR department must play a key role in the creation of policies and procedures for the upcoming school year, it is imperative that your institution receives input from a diversified cross-section of employees. Your task force should include weigh-in from university leadership and professors, as well as staff members who specialize in risk, operations, clinical and public health, technology and facility management. Together, this task force should meet on a regular basis to provide feedback on what is working and what isn’t working, while determining appropriate steps for improvement. This task force also has to be nimble enough to change and add members as the situation changes – and get ready for the long haul. Be prepared to commit this task force to convene for at least a year.
  • Thinking it is too late to make changes – Ideally, leaders at your institution have been meeting regularly to discuss necessary changes to policy and campus activities for the upcoming year. However, if you are just beginning to address these issues, know that it is not too late. Many employers often hesitate to make policy changes for fear of going back on their word or to avoid the hassle of recommunicating or retraining team members. Remember that this is an unusual time – a year like no other in the history of your institution. You are allowed to make changes, just as the government continues to make legislative changes. You are permitted to adjust your policies now – and throughout the school year, if necessary. Your changes do not have to be long-term fixes. In fact, your HR policies should remain flexible, as the current climate is unprecedented, unforgiving and highly unpredictable.
  • Declining to take advantage of this opportunity – While the COVID-19 crisis has generally created more problems than solutions, there is a legitimate opportunity for your institution to review all of its HR policies. Examine your work-from-home procedures, as you may have compiled these guidelines hastily in early March. Additionally, you can review where there are opportunities to save money and collaborate with HR on cost saving workforce planning initiatives, such as organizational restructuring. Consider the distribution of work across the institution – do you need the same resources as six months ago? Enhance technology as needed to support not only the virtual classroom, but the virtual office. With many universities and colleges in an uncertain situation financially, now is the time to get creative. Nothing should be off limits.

How Baker Tilly can help

With the new school year rapidly approaching, your institution’s top HR officials likely have their hands full at the moment. Baker Tilly Vantagen is available to assist your HR department with the various logistics surrounding campus reopening and the critical details that will have a major impact on your institution’s policies and procedures.

Baker Tilly Vantagen offers decades of experience with addressing the key issues that you are facing today. How do you keep people safe? How do you stagger shifts? What does your faculty’s workday look like now? How do you change pay codes? How do you handle unforeseen issues?

From an infrastructure standpoint, there is a lot to think about. Our dedicated HR and financial professionals can assist with determining where your institution can implement change – both now and in the future. We are ready to serve as your quarterback, allowing you to keep your HR professionals focused on important day-to-day matters. Additionally, our specialists can concentrate on areas such as external communications, reopening project management plans and policy change considerations – or whatever you need – to ensure the new semester begins smoothly and efficiently.

For more information on this topic, or to connect with a Baker Tilly Vantagen higher education specialist, contact us.

Kim Wylam
Managing Partner
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