HR’s role in supporting business
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a hugely disruptive impact on businesses throughout the world. All major economic indicators are showing a downturn, and companies are struggling to maintain essential services. It is arguably the gravest situation we have encountered as a species since the Second World War.
In a crisis, people need effective leadership. This presents a major opportunity for HR professionals; in the pandemic's context, who else is better placed to show leadership and help their business and their employees to steer the most effective path through these turbulent waters? However, experience shows that often the HR function is not equipped to play a leading role in troubled times, and it is often left to other departments. To avoid this happening again, HR professionals need to understand, and take responsibility for, their role, by defining the critical issues facing businesses and offering tangible, actionable solutions.
Three critical challenges to overcome
While companies may have been wrestling with the issues caused by COVID-19 for a few months, the very nature of the pandemic and its shock waves makes it hard for anyone to predict what will happen.
However, there are, for most businesses, several common themes running through the problems they are facing.
First, almost all organisations are facing a threat to their revenue. For those in hospitality and non-essential bricks and mortar retail, it is near total; for more service-based sectors, the impact may depend on their exposure to directly affected industries. The fact is, whatever they do, all businesses must revise forecasts, review plans and decide based on the strong possibility that revenues and profits will be down in the coming months, if not longer.
Second, many operations have gone from being centralised and office-based to completely remote, with employees scattered and trying to replicate work from their homes. While remote working has proven productivity benefits, the rapid rate of change required has put huge stress on all aspects of organisations – from technology support, to management structures, to internal communication. Where once a business could rely on its own infrastructure, now it must rely on the domestic broadband and personal IT skills of its workforce to function effectively.
Third, no matter what sector they work in, every single individual is facing the same storm. Businesses are now made up of confused, scared and unsure workers, who are now wrestling remotely not only with their day-to-day work, but concerns about their families, how they manage home-schooling, caring for their mental and physical health in lockdowns and, increasingly worried for their job security. It is hard to avoid talk of a global recession that could eclipse 2008 – assuming it happens, such a downturn would undoubtedly bring redundancies, with the International Labour Organization estimating that nearly half the global workforce is at risk of losing their livelihoods.
It all adds up to an uncertain, panic-driven environment putting an immense strain on employees.
How do businesses mitigate these challenges?
One of the key phrases of the last couple of months has been ‘new normal’. This is the concept that even after the pandemic has passed, life will not revert to how it was before. We’re seeing that, from a business perspective, with corporations such as Twitter announcing they will not be pushing staff back to the office. While this may not be an option for some businesses, it underlines that forward-thinking businesses need to be considering what the future will look like.
That includes understanding that the concept of new normal means new ways of operating at all levels. Not just deploying different technologies but implementing processes that focus on supporting employees.
Ultimately, concerned workers will only be productive if they feel backed by their leaders. That means everything from regular catch-ups that focus more on emotional wellbeing than status updates, to clear, timely and targeted communications.
HR’s time to shine
This is where HR can come in. Without the nuance and body language of face-to-face communication, HR needs to be educating and coaching all levels of the business on the need for more empathetic communication, that shows sensitivity to the demands being placed on employees.
An HR professional can be part employment lawyer, part talent scout, part learning and development facilitator, part internal communicator, part executive coach. Even in large-scale organisations that have distinct functions and teams for many of those roles, HR can and should be the link between all of those points, coordinating efforts to empower senior executives to engage employees.
Prepare for the future
There is another reason businesses need HR to step up into this leadership role. While their focus should be on keeping workforces engaged, they also need to be part of business efforts to shift from surviving to thriving in the new normal. That means having in place the processes and systems to attract the right talent their companies need. Whether temporary or permanent, being able to staff up quickly and successfully will be a key differentiator for organisations looking to accelerate as lockdowns lift.
Turning disruption into opportunity
The current situation is tough. The new normal is categorised by constant flux, making it hard for anyone to do more than the bare minimum needed to keep businesses operational. Yet as the storm clears, the businesses that are best placed to accelerate are those that have been able to engage and retain their talent, while staffing up where required. With this as a critical factor, HR has a significant role to play in supporting their companies to not only survive the pandemic but be better placed to thrive in the months and years to come.