This is part of a special series, We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here.
In April, Claire Tadokoro, a comedian and an associate producer at Simon & Schuster, the publishing company, posted a video to her TikTok account. In it, she portrayed a human resources officer struggling to craft a return-to-office policy, juggling her employees’ desire to continue working remotely long-term—which, according to a Gallup survey published in February, is the case for up to one in four Americans—against the wishes of, in her words, “the jaded CFO [who] thinks working from home is a farce for hooligans.”
By the last frame of the video, her hair is pulled up into a half-hearted ponytail. Her wire-rim glasses sit crooked and upside-down on the bridge of her nose. As she opens a nip of alcohol, she says, “I don’t make enough money for this shit.” At the time of this writing, her video had garnered nearly 3 million views.
Although Tadokoro doesn’t actually work in human resources, her clip, like many pandemic-era TikToks, serves as a bit of an internet pulse-check on the topic. In the comments section, hundreds of users shared their personal stories and opinions about working from home. Others pointed out that many workers—particularly lower- and middle-income workers—haven’t had the option to work from home in the first place. Many fell firmly into one of two camps: those who sympathize with HR workers and those who believe the department serves as a tool to protect a company, not its employees. (Fittingly, in TikTok’s top videos algorithm for the term “human resources,” next to Tadokoro’s video sits a clip entitled “You are the Human Resource!” It starts off with “HR is not your friend.”)
The idea of HR departments as a company’s mouthpiece, not an employee’s friend or family (no matter what they might claim), is hardly new. What is new, however, is the heightened focus on its function as a whole. Over the course of the pandemic, employees of all levels have looked to their HR departments for answers to how pressingly important issues—like COVID safety, mental health, and systemic racism and the uptick in racist violence largely against Black and Asian Americans—would affect their workplaces.
But what has it been like for HR workers themselves to navigate the pandemic? To find out, VICE spoke to an array of HR employees from various levels and industries, in healthcare, financial services, and other fields, as well as consultants, to find out what happens when your work is handling other people’s work problems in the worst working year in recent memory—and all eyes are on you.
To understand the effect that the pandemic has had on HR workers, it’s helpful to understand the issues that have affected their departments overall. John Bremen, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson—a global advisory, brokerage, and solutions company with an HR consulting arm—argues that a series of major issues have affected people operations over the last year in a particular order.
First, he said, during the initial months of the pandemic, the emphasis was on employee health and safety. “Physical safety was paramount in the earliest days,” Bremen said. “And then, we very quickly got into emotional well-being. By the summer, a lot of people were worried about isolation, anxiety.” (Accordingly, a survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson found that 92 percent of a group of more than 100,000 workers experienced some level of anxiety during the pandemic, with 55 percent experiencing a moderate or high degree.)
Lila, a senior HR manager at a software startup who asked that her name and employer be omitted for privacy reasons, observed that her company’s transition to remote work quickly affected the work-life balance of her employees, calling it their “biggest challenge.” Suddenly, she said, her workplace’s culture of collaborating IRL had morphed into a barrage of all-hours Slack messages, particularly about the latest pandemic-related news. “Every time new COVID news hit, it was like, ‘Oh, I have to send this out to everybody.’ Like, everyone was reading it. We had to then create a dedicated channel in Slack just for COVID stuff.”
“I feel like I can never sign off. I feel like I’m not making a meaningful impact at work.”
Soon, she began struggling to maintain the same work-life balance she was encouraging her colleagues to uphold. “I’m not saying nobody’s making sure that we’re okay, but at the same time, I have to put my feelings aside about what’s going on,” she said. “Especially in New York, when people are now crammed in these small apartments, and they have like, four roommates, and they’re not happy, you know?” Suddenly, she said, she realized she was “so worn out,” and began asking herself questions like, “What am I doing? Does this setup work for me? Am I working too much?”
In addition to finding it difficult to manage her own work-life balance, Lila felt that remote work put a strain on her employees’ perceptions of her team. “I think there’s skepticism when you don’t know the person on a human level,” she said. “A lot of times, if there is skepticism, at least most of our employees would get to see us and meet our team, so I feel like that helped people be like, ‘Oh, OK, they’re genuine in the efforts that they’re doing.’”
However, she said, there will always be “a handful” of employees who are wary. “We get a lot of blame for company decisions—many times because we’re the message deliverers,” she said. “At first, I really tried to change that perception and probably worked harder, but it’s been so hard in the current day with COVID and everyone being remote. You only have so many face-to-face interactions with people. I tried to make my rounds and ensure that people understood how we work as a people team, but to be honest, recently (probably starting in winter), [I’ve done that less], because it does take a toll on you.”
Jamie Grecco, the human resources director at NYC Health + Hospitals, which operates the city’s public hospitals and clinics, quickly felt a similar strain on his work-life balance—but his was due to never having the option to work from home. The week after he returned from a vacation during which he’d gotten engaged, New York City shut down—a reality his team had been preparing for. The real curveball came in April, he said, when Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the city’s Test and Trace Corps in partnership with NYC H+H and requested the organization hire more than 1,000 new contact tracers in the span of a month.
Tasked with managing hiring, onboarding, and supporting more than a thousand new employees, Grecco and his team never stopped going into the office. He also worked on the ground at the organization’s hospitals to assist with emergency management issues, and as a result, he didn’t see his two children for roughly eight months to avoid putting them at risk of contracting COVID-19. “I think that, for a while there, to be perfectly honest, I was angry about it,” he said. “You hear people taking these ridiculous chances and [going to] house parties and you’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I just want to see my kids. Can you just stay indoors? Stay indoors for three weeks, everybody, and let’s see what happens.’”
Though Grecco found himself feeling isolated from his family and bogged down with work, he didn’t think that his team was misunderstood or mistrusted by employees; instead, he felt that the perception
was that they were “here to help.” Early on in the pandemic, his department intervened “on more than a few occasions on behalf of aggrieved staff, and word spread that we weren’t going to tolerate abusive management,” he said.
Although Grecco’s assessment of his team’s reputation is a positive one, the tension between HR and the rest of the company remains. If an employee is considering reporting a situation, they may not feel comfortable actually doing so with someone in human resources—and therefore HR team members may be blind to employees’ skepticism or negative experiences. To have open discourse, there needs to be a strong sense of trust—not just between employees and HR workers, but between employees across departments and levels—which has been even more difficult to foster during the pandemic. “As we navigate our current landscape, we need trust to serve as our foundation in order to create teams comfortable grappling together with the unknown,” wrote Sue Bingham, the founder of the consulting firm HPWP Group, in a piece for the Harvard Business Review. “So much has been written about the need for organizations to improve communication, recognize employees, and practice transparency, but real change has been slow.”
As spring turned to summer 2020—and as demonstrations against racist violence and police brutality began happening across the country—Bremen, from Willis Towers Watson, said HR’s focus shifted to creating or improving company policies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“For the first time, really, we’ve seen companies get into the mix,” he said. “In the past, you would not see companies take leadership roles on social issues.”
It’s worth noting that companies didn’t really have a choice. Increasingly, investors are pushing companies to be transparent about the diversity of their workforces, while consumers are urging them to take a stand. Companies have fired employees for racist or discriminatory conduct or have had members of senior management resign—including in human resources, as was the case at Adidas, when a top HR executive left the company last June after 83 employees wrote a letter to the company’s board calling for an investigation into her conduct.
In the case of Lila, from the software company, her department’s focus immediately shifted to supporting the company’s employees of color. “I feel like everyone—at least everyone on our executive team—pretty much dropped what they were doing and was like, ‘OK, let’s figure out next steps, because this is something we need to address with our folks,” she said. “We need to let folks know from a senior leadership level, as a team, we see you, we hear you, we understand and know that there’s deep issues surrounding race.”
But not all HR departments responded swiftly—which is something that David, an HR consultant at a global financial services firm who asked to have his name changed for privacy reasons, observed last summer. At the same time he was advising his clients on how to navigate the pandemic, he watched his own company’s HR department and senior management stay virtually silent about George Floyd’s murder for approximately one week. At that point, he emailed the head of his office in New York. “I told him, ‘I know your hands are probably tied—I know that the company is probably preparing something or another,” he said, “but it’s been days. You need to say something.’”
Although David characterized his team’s culture as inclusive, he said he had a “really hard time believing” that the company supported Black Lives Matter. “At the end of the day, even though I work for what is essentially an HR consulting business, the rest of our business is a large financial services business,” he said. “It’s a more traditional, conservative business run by older white men.”
Though they may be muzzled from sharing their thoughts on company policy with co-workers outside their department, several people who spoke to me echoed the feeling that their companies were reactive, not proactive, in supporting employees of color. Some, like Emma, an HR manager—and the sole HR employee—at a small e-commerce company, even got direct pushback from senior management about addressing racist violence with employees at all. When she discussed potential responses with her CEO, she said, he didn’t want to have any workplace discussions about what was happening. “None of it resonated with him,” she said. “There was no sympathetic or empathetic response there. He also just didn’t understand why people were protesting or why people cared so much.”
When Emma, who identifies as a person of color, appealed to him personally, his perspective didn’t change. “When you’re literally explaining from this absolute place of despair in your own personal life—explaining to someone why they should care about something that’s so heartbreaking to you and just having them just literally not care at all—it was frustrating.”
It was during a period Bremen described as lasting from fall 2020 through the first quarter of 2021 that discussions around workplace reopening took center stage in HR departments. “Well-being and DE&I [diversity, equity, and inclusion] were totally wrapped into those,” Bremen added. “It was, ‘How do we reopen while keeping people safe? How do we reopen while being fair and inclusive and equitable?’” Plus, he added, “You have a lot of people who are very anxious about returning to workplaces.”
Each HR employee I interviewed who struggled with some combination of designing, implementing, and participating in return-to-office programs found that the situation presented unique challenges. Lila said her team was hesitant to set a date to return. “We don’t want to freak people out,” she said. “We also don’t want to keep pushing that date back. We also have people that are all over the place, because we’ve actually told people, ‘Hey, we are remote, you can go work wherever you want for now, but you need to come back here once we announce we’re coming back.’”
In her mind, though, the sooner her company can return to its office, the better it’ll be for her role. “We’ll hopefully be back in an office at the end of this year, and that environment is so much better suited to win people over, in a way,” she said. “I think I also have to realize that there will be people that appreciate our efforts in HR and understand that we’re listening and trying to put out policies and programs that better our people and business, and then others that don’t give us much of a thought or are skeptics.”
Conversely, Jane, who asked to have her name and employer redacted but who works as a recruiter at a financial services company, has been working part-time in the office for several months. At first, she said, she had a “fairly negative reaction” to her employer’s return-to-office policy.
But her company managed the situation by creating a schedule so employees could alternate days in the office and maintain six feet of distance. It also mandated face masks, prepackaging food individually, and cleaning bathrooms “constantly.” COVID-19 testing was made available in the office so employees could be tested one to two times each week.
Jane still ended up contracting the virus earlier this year, and was surprised at how much her symptoms affected her well-being. “I was really struggling to focus,” she said. For the first time, she said, she felt “stupid” approaching her manager about her health. “I didn’t know if they would identify with (1) my actual physical condition, and (2) are my emotions valid? Do I tell him this? It was weird.
“We’re generally happy-go-lucky people,” she said of her team. “We work with candidates; we’re working in recruiting. It’s our job just to be very excited and happy and peppy, but it’s been a challenge to be in this virtual environment and feel like we’re making genuine connections with the candidates we ideally want to work with full-time.” She reiterated the feeling in other, more certain terms: “I feel like I can never sign off,” she said. “I feel like I’m not making a meaningful impact at work.” Not everyone I spoke to felt that their specific job made the pandemic experience harder. “If anything, sometimes I feel it’s easier,” said Jane, explaining that front office employees were encouraged to go back to the office first. “More uncertainty rested on them, initially.”
When asked who HR employees themselves consult as resources, senior executives such as Grecco said they tended to seek out career mentors (in his case, from other city and state healthcare organizations). For younger, less senior employees, their peers—and, if they felt comfortable, managers—were the first source of support.
“I have a really good manager,” said Lila. “You need somebody to get on your level and be like, I know it’s not just about work; it’s about you as a person—and like, ‘Are you OK?’”
Jane said she’d likely talk about any concern with her HR peers first. “Usually, everyone’s kind of feeling the same thing,” she said. “And then I would probably talk to my manager about it, but I think, honestly, our managers are—I think everyone’s kind of feeling it. So, who’s the person that says enough is enough?”
I asked her if she had any ideas about who that person might end up being. “That is a really good question,” she said with a short laugh. “I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Follow Avery Stone on Twitter.