From Current Reality to the Road Ahead for the HR Function

How HR teams are supporting their organizations through the crisis, and the opportunities they have moving forward.
Christine Miners
June 16, 2020

It is no mystery that COVID-19 has turned our worlds upside down in every aspect of our lives. Since the start of our lockdown in March, we’ve connected with as many of our HR clients and colleagues as we can to understand just how upside down we really are. It’s official. The HR function is in high demand, perhaps greater than ever, and people are running to keep up while experiencing and processing a range of emotions as a result.

In this piece, we talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the HR function, what HR teams can do to maintain resilience through the current situation, and how they can help their organizations emerge stronger on the other side.

Trying to keep up

Demands on HR have never been greater, and teams are feeling it. They’ve had to develop new workplace policies for working remotely or maintaining the safety of the employees who have to continue coming into the workplace. They’ve had to keep up with the constantly-changing public health guidelines and determine how these guidelines should be put into practice. They’ve had to reevaluate their priorities to put the pandemic response at the forefront and maintain sensitivity. And, although working from home has brought time savings from no longer needing to commute, HR teams aren’t feeling like their schedules are any lighter. If anything, their calendars might be even more packed because things that used to be addressed in a quick hallway conversation end up getting scheduled as a formal meeting in a remote work environment.

Being the caretaker

HR is expected to maintain poise, be calm, and be the caretaker of the people. Through this crisis, HR has been drawn upon heavily to fulfill this role and has been there to support leaders through some very tough business decisions. And, while HR takes care of everyone else in the organization, it seems as if no one is taking care of HR. Team members recognize the critical role that they play, but they are also feeling isolated from their peers. Internally, they might be grappling with questions like:

  • How do I redefine my effectiveness? What will my role look like in the future?
  • Where should I be focusing my efforts for the best outcomes?
  • How do I help others navigate ambiguity, when I am also uncertain about what is next?
  • How do I best take care of myself and others?

Noticing the positive

Despite the pressure, HR teams are also noticing the positive changes that have emerged as a result of the crisis. The pandemic has been a powerful learning opportunity for leaders, teams, and organizations as a whole. For many, it’s like being thrown into an intensive on-the-job development program in leadership, change management, crisis resolution, communication, and agile work practices.  And many leaders are rising to the occasion, while new leaders are also emerging.  There is an overwhelming sentiment that COVID-19 has also brought the people focus back into organizations. HR leaders have been the stewards of the “humane” for a long time, but it hasn’t always been easy to bring this out in leadership teams and to help them translate this to an ongoing approach to leading. Now, things are changing rapidly. Leaders are emerging as caring and empathetic, taking the time to listen to their people and ensuring that there is a sense of connection. In many organizations, the impact of this change in leadership style is noted through employee engagement and pulse check data.

How HR teams are responding

A recent Future Work survey of 350 HR leaders identified three key trends that have emerged in organizations as a result of the crisis. First, as organizations have transitioned to remote work, they are investing more into supporting effective remote work practices. They are providing training, coaching, mentoring, and employee resource groups to help their team members be successful in this environment.

Second, where the “future of work” has traditionally focused on disruption of jobs, automation and changing workforce demographics, wellbeing has quickly propelled to the top of the list. Whereas organizations used to see wellbeing as the primary responsibility of the employee and any support from the organization strictly as a perk, organizations are quickly taking ownership of employee wellbeing and turning their attention to planning and investing in this critical new priority.

Finally, organizations are taking this as an opportunity to redefine their business. They are adding new skills, redefining the services they are offering, and taking another look at the assumptions they have been making. In many cases, COVID-19 has forced organizations to make decisions they have been hesitant about for a long time and take bold leaps they would not have taken otherwise. For example, one organization we work with has grappled for years with radically changing how they provide service to their internal clients through a large redesign of their structure and work processes. Although this change was seen as critical for the organization, senior leaders have been hesitant. They questioned whether the organization was ready, and whether there would be enough buy-in from the clients they serve. When the crisis hit, the need for this transformation became imperative. The organization moved quickly to overcome years of indecision and implemented the new structure almost overnight (two days actually), enabling the team to process thousands of inquiries quickly. And guess what? Not only do the employees who were restructured love it, but the business does too.

In addition to these three themes, we are also seeing organizations begin to make “simplify” their new guiding principle for prioritization and decision-making. For years, “do more with less” has been the rallying cry inside organizations as they drive towards greater efficiency. This has begun to shift to a new motto: “do less with less.” With budgets cut and a greater focus on worker wellbeing, instead of asking for more of people, organizations are starting to say good-bye to every committee, meeting and routine that they did not need. Organizations are reexamining what truly adds value and reducing noise, so they can be more purposeful in how they spend their resources.

An opportunity to reset

Just as the crisis has become a reset opportunity for the business, it’s also an opportunity for HR to reset. Moving forward, there are a number of strategies that HR teams may wish to consider. 

Don’t let the change be temporary

We are at a moment when organizations are placing a greater emphasis on employee wellbeing and leaders are demonstrating greater care for their people. The permanence of these changes cannot be taken for granted. HR teams need to help leaders see the business value of maintaining these changes by demonstrating the connection between these practices and business outcomes. These aren’t just temporary practices to get through the crisis. They need to become permanent practices that will continue to underpin the success of the business moving forward.

Adopt a beginner’s mindset

HR is at the forefront of the transformations that are happening, and organizations need HR’s help to step back and reimagine the organization of the future. Instead of solely relying on their expertise and existing best practice, HR teams need to adopt a beginner’s mindset to see a broader range of options. As Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen Monk has written, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Build a strong narrative

HR teams won’t find all of the answers today and make all of the decisions tomorrow. Transformation requires some deliberate reflection to build a new story of change that, as Harvard professor Marshall Ganz has proposed, connects three narratives: self, us, and now. First, HR leaders need to build their personal narrative by considering what they value, how the crisis has changed their perspective, and how they want to show up moving forward. Next, they need to think about the “us” perspective: the shared experiences that are giving the organization strength, the common values that will guide things moving forward, and the new norms that will be necessary. Finally, they need to consider the “now” narrative: how the organization is transforming in light of the crisis, the assumptions that need a rethink, and the key areas of focus to drive the transformation. By taking the time to think about these three domains, HR can create a new narrative of change that will energize the entire organization.

Take care of yourself

Supporting the kind of transformation that is happening in organizations right now is hard work, and being able to sustain it over the long term requires self-care. The following practices and thinking habits can help:

  • Recognize there are limits to what can be known – you won’t have all of the answers about what the future will bring, and that’s OK.
  • Make decisions with mindful intention – take a pause to think before addressing the urgent, no matter how big of a fire needs to be put out.
  • Courageously collaborate with others – share your concerns and listen to theirs’. Problem-solve collectively and maintain openness with a “beginner’s mindset”.
  • Identify your highest-impact activity and do it first thing each day – keep in mind that your highest-impact activity may not necessarily be work related.  It could involve meditation, breakfast with your children, or a virtual walk with a friend.
  • Identify your “sweet spot” activities and do them more often – make time for the activities that get you fully engaged.
  • When you’re overwhelmed, practice RAIN:
    Recognize the feeling
    Accept it without judgment
    Investigate the true cause
    Nurture yourself to adjust your thinking – you are not your emotions

There is immense potential for the road ahead and the HR function is an important partner to the business in translating this potential to business outcomes.  By taking the time to reset and reframe, HR stands to be the guidepost that organizations need right now.

Curious about other ways you and your team can reset and re-energize? Check out our new program, Resilience From the Inside Out. You’ll learn a five-step framework for maintaining resilience in the face of challenge and emerging stronger than before.

Christine Miners is an experienced talent management expert and passionate about making an impact with her customers through keeping it simple, tangible and practical. With more than 20 years experience leading talent management functions, Christine is energized by working with individual leaders, teams and organizations to broaden their perspective and translate new thinking to actions and plans that work. As Managing Director, Christine oversees all aspects of Verity’s leadership, coaching and talent management services.

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