HUMAN RESOURCE LEADERS TALK COVID-19
The current Covid-19 pandemic is clearly affecting everyone in our society - both personally and professionally. Organisations are faced with the challenge of keeping their people safe, maintaining productivity and adapting their business models to navigate these uncertain times. At Fifth Frame, our Purpose revolves around the concept of "putting people first." We believe through this crisis Human Resource leaders are particularly in the firing line, as they are required to inform and coach the business on how to look after their people through the organisation's immediate response, whilst also thinking ahead toward the future. This is why we created a space for Human Resource leaders, from both the private and public sector, to share insights around how they are responding to the crisis and to raise questions and concerns. Given the pace at which the world is changing these are set-up as a fortnightly rhythm with the working group. In the lead up to each session we gather input from participants on topics they would find most useful.
See below a snapshot of each working group conversation.
RESPONDING THROUGH PEAK DISRUPTION
WORKING GROUP ONE - 07 APRIL 2020
The first session was held in early April. At this point most organisations were two weeks into responding to government COVID-19 restrictions, and doing the best they could as disruption escalated.
The mood at the session was positive, participants felt like their organisation was now operating in a new mode and were gearing up for a potentially prolonged maintenance period. There was a great deal of pride on the Zoom call, as many participants were impressed with their own organisation’s responsiveness, how leaders had stepped into pastoral care roles and the workforce was leaning into flexible and agile ways of working.
The questions participants were starting to grapple with at this stage were common, irrespective of Industry:
are we doing enough to ensure the safety of frontline workers?
how do we help leaders lead in these difficult times?
what to do with the mental health challenge for our people?
how to maintain productivity in the workforce?
how to use this opportunity to change our organisations or cultures for the better? And,
what does the end game look like, how long till we get there and what's our plan to come out ahead?
It was clear from this first session that, whilst there is no clear playbook for these times, sharing the collective wisdom of some of Australia’s best HR leaders, irrespective of their competitive organisational contexts, could help everyone to grapple with these challenges.
MAINTAINING PRODUCTIVITY AND GATHERING LESSONS LEARNT
WORKING GROUP TWO - 21 APRIL 2020
Prior to the second session, we asked the working group what topics they would like to tackle. It was evident that Human Resource leaders were in the midst of a balancing act, requiring them to both support their people to deliver during this time and also start planning for their recovery as business restrictions relax. Most participants were candid that whilst they are likely to suffer financial damage they are focused on learning from the current situation and are already planning for how they can emerge leaner and better.
Two topics were explored.
TOPIC ONE: LOOKING AFTER TODAY WITH A FOCUS ON PRODUCTIVITY
Overnight, workforces have been required to change how they work, how they interact and in some cases deliver tasks outside traditional roles and individual’s comfort zones.
To maintain productivity, immense pressure has been placed on leaders to be decisive, visible, empathetic and responsive to changing circumstances. Pressure associated with any crisis is inherently tiring and it is likely the impacts of this will extend over many months and reshape many organisations future shape and trajectory. This requires leaders to keep a close eye on both their own and their team’s resilience and wellbeing, and be guided by organisational Purpose and Values.
From a Human Resources perspective, Business Partners are playing a more hands on role with leaders to:
Support the identification of capacity in the business
Redeploy resources both internally (combined with retraining) and externally by partnering with other organisations
Provide coaching and specialist support around challenging out of the ordinary activities (e.g. standing down staff)
And, deliver activities traditionally devolved to the business to free up leader’s time.
All this support is being provided, whilst Human Resources build new processes, update systems and rapidly upskill in specialist areas to respond appropriately.
Overall, the sentiment from the group was that senior leaders and Human Resources are stepping up to the challenge and working well together to tackle people-related issues as best as they can.
TOPIC TWO: PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE WITH A FOCUS ON HOW WE APPLY LESSONS LEARNT
It was unanimous across the group that organisations will look different post COVID-19. This means organisations need to start reflecting on lessons learnt and carving out time to update their strategies and transformation plans.
Learnings came in two buckets. Firstly, what we've learnt to allow us to prepare to do a better job next time we face a crisis situation. And secondly, what is working better in our organisation now that we need to nurture and continue so that it becomes an enduring characteristic, not just a by-product of the current situation. In particular improved speed of decision-making, reduced bureaucracy and stronger collaboration across silos were highlighted.
In addition, we heard that every organisation needs to start formulating their bounce-back strategy. The best advice from the group was to make sure you have identified a separate, senior team, who aren’t distracted by day to day crisis management to focus specifically on your road out of the crisis. Where possible, this planning group should remain focused on opportunities to (re)activate organisational purpose and reimagine the existing business. Going back to purpose, can provide stability and (re)align people around why you exist as an organisation.
GATHERING EMPLOYEE INSIGHT AND REDEFINING WORKPLACE
WORKING GROUP THREE - 05 MAY 2020
The weight of the third working group conversation was largely focused around employee listening, rethinking the role of the workplace and planning the modified return to work.
This is the right time to gather information from your teams about what you now know about your organisation and its ability to react, move quickly and do things differently that you didn't know two months ago. A large proportion of working group participants have established an approach to pulse survey their staff to check sentiment and gather feedback and ideas. Despite administering short surveys (~5 questions) participants have noticed a trend that employees are taking extra time to provide thoughtful insights to help organisations plan their responses.
During this time, there is so much listening organisations could do, which means it is important to identify focus areas to listen for and to solve problems, not just raise a laundry list of problems that can’t be solved. This information can also provide vital input to planning on how your organisations will come back as an improved organisation.
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF THE WORKPLACE
As COVID-19 forces organisations to embrace working from home, debate has emerged around the purpose of physical workplace premises moving forward - for client interactions only, a training venue, safe space when needed or occasional working space. Organisations are also using this as an opportunity to fast track new ways of working (e.g., agile, flexible working) more permanently, although probably not hot-desking.
PLANNING THE MODIFIED RETURN TO WORK
Leaders are already starting to field requests from members of their team inquiring when they can return to work. There is no guarantee that a vaccine or treatment will become available in the coming months or possibly years, which is why careful consideration around the approach to returning to work is required. A few factors organisations should consider include:
Proportion of staff that can return at different points across the transition (e.g., what roles / type of work should return first)
Practical operational challenges - reviewing floor plans to allow social distancing and hygiene aspects (e.g., kitchen spaces)
Level of ownership provided to leaders to determine the right approach for their team based on guidelines
Managing the mental health and psychological safety of employees
Fostering team connectivity and productivity when there is a spread between work from home and office
Other elements that may be out of an organisation’s control that restrict access (e.g., transport, premises lifts)
In addition, despite the introduction of the Australian government COVID-19 tracing app, a handful of working group participants highlighted that their organisations feel a responsibility to introduce their own contact tracing procedures (e.g., leveraging security cards and wifi data on employee movements). This ensures they can remain proactive around COVID-19 outbreaks within their employee population.
PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST
WORKING GROUP FOUR - 19 MAY 2020
Conversations with working group participants highlighted that there are six core issues HR leaders are currently grappling with:
How to make the current situation/ model sustainable; maintaining productivity and helping people maintain boundaries whilst prior relationships degrade over time and in an environment that supports individual tasks over teamwork or collaboration.
What people processes that were dropped in the original response are people starting to think about re-starting, for example: high-potential programs, leadership development, goal setting, performance assessment, remuneration reviews.
Supporting leaders to help them engage effectively with the organisation to maintain employee engagement and connection.
Return to work strategies including phasing of return, expected numbers, use of shifts, office access (lifts), transport to work and health/ temperature checks.
Interplay of current and future turnover and skills shortages in managing the return to work scenario.
Finding time to get "onto the balcony, not just on the dancefloor" and developing an aspirational long-term vision for the organisation and a 12-18 month plan to get there that goes beyond work-from-home and flexibility.
DURING THE WORKING GROUP, THE CONVERSATION LARGELY FOCUSED AROUND ISSUES 3 TO 6…
Issue 3… Supporting leaders to help them engage effectively
Expectations of leaders have increased over the course of the pandemic. The group shared reflections they saw across their own leadership teams including:
Leadership engagement and alignment has dialed up.
There appears to be a genuine desire to be a good leader in the current context and more consideration of what this means.
There has been a shift in the focus of capability development for leaders - with an interest in building capability in using technology to enable virtual engagement with large teams.
There is an opportunity to build on, and carry forward the genuine care demonstrated by leaders during COVID-19 and embed that behaviour in day-to-day post pandemic.
Issue 4… Return to work strategies
Overall a phased approach is being taken to returning to the workplace, driven by consideration of productivity, employee needs, and government guidance.
Examples of how organisations are approaching this include:
Understanding different cohorts of employees - including use of public transport, and physical office environment/ distancing measures.
Exploring drivers of productivity (or barriers to productivity) for those working from home - for example office set-up and access to technology.
Balancing business needs - for example leaders wanting to get employees back to the office and proactively preparing for a potential second wave.
Ambition around return to work ranges widely from everyone back by August to a more cautious end of year approach.
Issue 5… Interplay of current and future turnover and skills shortages in managing the return to work scenario.
Some of the challenges and approaches shared included:
Redeployment - organisations are making effort where possible to redeploy the workforce.
Understanding key talent needs in the future, and working through how to retain these individuals, and keep them engaged.
Defining people principles to guide a people centric approach to hard business decisions to “do hard things in a good way.”
Issue 6… Finding time to get "onto the balcony, not just on the dancefloor"
This was seen as the most challenging issue for the group - specifically:
Freeing up time and mindspace across leadership teams to think through the longer term opportunities and implications.
Planning for the future is slower and harder to get going than the immediate return to work matters.
Leveraging data and customer demand modelling to think through the reality of recovery and trying to predict what will happen, so that decisions can be made.
Balancing two perspectives: “the nuts and bolts” - new ways of addressing both work culture whilst meeting customer needs.