In this even more VUCA world, HR has never been more vital

As the coronavirus situation continues to develop, people professionals must adapt and respond quickly, says Opemipo Koshemani

If you had asked most HR professionals a few months ago to list the top five global events likely to impact on the workplace, I doubt there would have been mention of a global pandemic. Yet in the last few weeks Covid-19 has affected businesses more significantly than any other event. There have been travel bans, countries declaring a national emergency, educational institutions closing down or moving to online teaching, tighter border controls and world sporting events cancelled. In the UK, companies have issued employee directives to work from home, conferences have been postponed, cancelled or taken place virtually, and stores have seen shortages of certain products as people stockpile supplies. All these factors impact on employees. 

In the current climate, VUCA seems more appropriate than ever. Introduced by the US Army War College, VUCA describes the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, following the end of the Cold War in 1990. The coronavirus crisis has dramatically amplified our VUCA world. 

  • Volatile. On 31 December 2019, Chinese officials confirmed dozens of cases of pneumonia from an unknown cause, and then a week later, on 7 January 2020, the outbreak was identified as a new coronavirus. Since then, thousands of people have been infected worldwide and Covid-19 continues to present health experts with a fast-moving situation. 
  • Uncertain. The next phases of the outbreak are uncertain. The void of information has led to global trauma, which is evidenced by panic buying.
  • Complex. Because of the global spread, there are so many interconnected factors that it is difficult to fully analyse the widespread impact of the virus and its effect on various sections of society. 
  • Ambiguous. Covid-19 is exceptional and unprecedented. The last epidemic that came close to the scale of what we are experiencing was the SARS outbreak in 2003. It lasted for nine months and more than 8,000 people were infected. Covid-19 has already infected almost 200 times that number and counting.

How can we add value as HR professionals?

Work with the organisation’s leadership on communication. Uncertainty about the extent of the pandemic and its impact on us produces anxiety. We can work with our respective leadership teams to ensure clear communication is disseminated about what the organisation is doing around mitigating the impact of the pandemic, working practices and enabling safe working environments for people. 

Review relevant existing policies to address sickness absence, caring for relatives and dependants, and the procedures for reporting these back to the workplace.

Rethink business as usual. A lot of BAU has to take a back seat to crisis activities for a defined period of time. But some BAU becomes even more crucial, such as paying colleagues correctly and making people available who can respond to pay-related queries to reduce stress at this critical time.    

Redistribute work where possible. Instigate regular conversations with leaders about the temporary redeployment and reskilling of employees. We need to be creative about how work is distributed across teams in our organisations and maximise capacity. 

Focus on remote working. Lots of challenges and nuances are involved here, which HR understands – so we can work with leaders as they navigate them to ensure the workforce remains engaged, motivated and healthy. Uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic and social distancing adds to anxiety. We can mitigate this by producing clear and appropriate guidance about self-isolation and remote working and strengthen managers’ capability to manage remote teams.

Collaborate with others. Some of these initiatives will touch upon aspects of our colleagues’ roles and so we can work with other functions to cover more ground and bring different perspectives. We can collaborate to train people up quickly and reskill them to perform business-critical functions and also develop guidance on managing general wellbeing. We can also leverage expertise within our networks, including behavioural scientists and risk and disaster management experts, to understand the potential impact of the pandemic on behaviours and our operations.

As the situation continues to develop, we must adapt and respond quickly. The situation is unprecedented and there is no blueprint for devising solutions. Solutions are, by their nature, context dependent and this situation will require us to stretch ourselves and get comfortable with ambiguity to develop a best-fit approach for our individual organisations. We need to think creatively to define solutions as we work with our leadership teams through this period. There is a real opportunity to think beyond the usual parameters and develop new ways of thinking – HR can drive that conversation. 

Opemipo Koshemani is HR business partner at UCL