Redefining HR’s priorities in a Covid-19 world

Now is the time to totally rethink work while the arguments for change are fresh in our minds and those of employees, say Mara Swan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

The future has always been uncertain, but today we feel more certain about that than we ever did. The physical and mental wellbeing of people, organisations and entire societies is under enormous threat, dramatically changing the priorities of business leaders. There are clear implications for HR. It must redefine its focus areas to shift its attention to what we think are the most critical needs:

Stabilise and heal the workforce

The workforce will need to heal from the emotional toll of this abrupt change. Although it is impossible to predict the level of harm and damage, comparisons to the 2008 financial crisis, the 1929 depression and even WWII seem adequate at best, and insufficient at worst. CHROs will need to help employees (and their families) deal with the health and financial issues this crisis has created. HR in general will need to provide more support because employees will not be able to focus on work until they feel they and their families are safe and that mental and financial health issues are being supported and addressed. 

Employees remaining after mass layoffs will have additional issues, including survivor guilt, which will need to be addressed. These will be deeper and broader than we have ever seen. We may see more involvement with staff who were laid off since governments may not be able to support them in ways they have in the past, and if we don’t our current employee base may not be able to heal. There will be a strong need for a clear debrief on how we handled the crisis, including feedback from employees on what worked and what didn’t. This will require direct and caring communications since many companies may have wanted to do X but could not afford to, and helping employees understand that this will be the only way to maintain – or recover – the minimum levels of trust needed to keep people engaged. Clearly, organisations will also need to reassess their policies and practices around short-term disability and pay to see if they are robust enough to resist not just today’s crisis, but similar future crises. 

Recalibrate work and the workforce

Any crisis reframes one’s priorities, and the current crisis is forcing HR to work with line management to determine on a go-forward basis what work really needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and when. As painful as it may be, there are always lessons learned from any failures – in fact, it is generally harder to learn from successes because experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted to get. Some obvious learnings we are seeing already from the current crisis include: the ability to mobilise large parts of our workforce to remote working overnight because we have to. 

What worked? Who did it work for? Should we continue with it, even if things are restored to normality? Do we really need to have so many in-person meetings? Or should we have more? Do we really need our people to travel so much or does video conferencing work just as well?  What are we missing out when we remove physical interactions between people, and how can we make up for it? And what contingency or emergency measures ended up working better than our original systems? 

In the early days of the pandemic, a colleague of ours lamented that if people are asked to work from home, they may like it so much (and be so productive!) they may never want to return to the office. This was clearly a first-world problem we can no longer afford to have. But it still highlights many of the common dynamics that force organisations to resist and avoid changes, even when they are unavoidable. A total rethink of how we organise work, where we do the work, who does the work and how work needs to be done (now, while it’s fresh in our minds and in the minds of our employees) is more indispensable than ever. Engaging the workforce in providing input and perspective on this may be one step towards enabling the healing of the workforce. The best business leaders know – and HR is no exception – that one should never let a crisis go to waste.  

We should also look more closely at the workforce – who has fungible skills? Who can work in a more agile manner? What skills were most useful during the crisis? How did our leadership perform and hold up under pressure? Did our leadership models (and competency framework) remain valid in the face of this unprecedented circumstances? 

Reconnect and enable the workforce

Gradually, HR will need to refocus the workforce on post-corona recovery and growth. There may be no light at the end of the tunnel yet, but there’s no question that we will see the light and come out of this, and the only way to make up for some of the pain is to bounce back stronger, better and more adaptable than ever. Chief people officers will need to find streamlined ways to enable employees to grow as the business recovers. This will require HR to rethink its traditional practices of talent acquisition, talent development, performance management, pay practices and employee motivation and communication, and focus less on process and administration, and more on what helps the business grow.  

Although some of these arguments suggest that it may be time to give some of our traditional practices and systems a rest, perhaps even an indefinite break, we should also acknowledge that many of the recent management changes and emerging ideals underpinning the evolution of HR and talent management were clearly headed in the right direction, to the point of explaining why certain organisations – those that were faster to implement them – are better able to adapt to this crisis than their rivals. 

Today, an imaginary conversation between the archetypical business leader who is sceptical about HR, and the technically sophisticated HR professional who is determined to unlock human potential in their organisation (or at least reduce the degree of wasted talent), would probably conclude with the latter saying ‘I told you so’. What the sceptic and change-resistant business leader may have regarded as tired HR clichés or management fads (for example, VUCA, agile, remote and flexible work, leading virtual teams, leadership in unprecedented times, resilient leadership, disruption and digital transformation) have suddenly become the key differentiators between organisations most likely to adapt to the current crisis, and those that won’t. It is surely reassuring to see that so many of the recent strategic imperatives for upending old management strategies were spot on. 

Mara Swan is EVP global strategy and talent at ManpowerGroup, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University