3 Tips to Keep HR Strategic in Times of Crisis

Across sectors, HR and people teams are commonly on the front lines of any organisational change or crisis response strategy. So, it’s no surprise that when facing global crises like COVID-19, this function must deliver proactive strategic planning while supporting the organisation’s response plan.

Responding to the impact of COVID-19 means addressing the immediate needs, health, and wellbeing of employees. In most countries, public-facing work continues, with healthcare workers, drivers, and chefs called on to keep operations running. And in other companies where remote working was previously the exception, it has now become the norm. As the pandemic alters the notion of what it means to be “at work,” organisations must also rapidly evolve how they engage and communicate with employees.

Just like the government, businesses must make decisions incredibly quickly, many of which profoundly impact the workforce. In the midst of all this change, we caught up with a People Strategy Director at a global technology company to discuss the importance of the people team in times of crisis.

  1. Translate the News

Governments are delivering updates in real-time through daily press conferences, social media, and more. HR and people teams have a responsibility to translate this information into practical advice for employees and business leaders. HR and people teams should be focused on helping employees understand fundamental questions: What does this mean for me? Where can I go for support?

Business leaders should place people data at the heart of business decisions, and it is vital that decision-making be driven by customer and employee needs. For example, data-driven insight on staff members with disabilities, dependents, or caring responsibilities will help you to formulate tailored responses that better support these employee populations. An overarching view of locations, contract types, and benefits (such as sick pay) can help you understand current standard processes and automated pay changes, and what may need to change in the current climate. Remember, as a people function, the physical, mental, and financial wellbeing of the workforce should be your ultimate objective.

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  1. Use Behavioural Science

During times of turbulence, forging trust with employees and helping them cope with the 'new normal’ will support their productivity and mental health. It will also bolster employees’ confidence that their organisation supports them in this challenging and unusual time. This trust will also be critically important as ways of working evolve in response to the pandemic. For example, many organisations suspicious of remote work in the past no longer have an option due to government self-isolation policies.

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In this climate, it’s a great time to apply behavioural science techniques that will help you deliver messages that resonate with employees, while promoting engagement and productivity. A few of the behavioural science techniques and biases that we recommend include:

  • Rewards and Recognition. It is even more important in a remote world that we continue to recognise employees. Do you have mechanisms to recognise strong virtual working efforts and etiquette?
  • The Cognitive Fluency Effect. Individuals are more likely to remember messages that are 'short, sweet and easy to repeat.' Apply this principle to your pandemic communications to ensure that new guidance is memorable and resonates with the workforce. Focus your messaging on business action and the impact to your employees as a result.
  • Chunking. Breaking down tasks into smaller chunks will make them less daunting. Arm employees with proactive suggestions on how they can structure their days to make remote work seem more digestible. For example, tell employees to prepare as if they were headed to a physical work location. Or advise them to take time out of their days for a walk. These tips will help foster new routines that make remote work more seamless.
  1. Predict the ‘Big Shifts’

From virtual religious services to the exponential increases in e-commerce and reduction of travel, the pandemic has forced habit changes overnight. As internal projects and programmes are delayed, business partners and HR leadership have an opportunity to design a more impactful future workforce. Some key questions to drive future workforce planning include:

  • Operations. How can you increase contingency if a part of your business is down? What activities can be shared across locations and what activities are indeed business critical? Consider the time, cost, and environmental impact of the reduction in travel, and the corresponding effects on business output.
  • Future Skills. How would transitioning the workforce to 100 percent e-commerce or online operations impact the skills that exist in your organisation today?
  • Rewards and Incentives. Are performance measures and rewards still practical in light of economic changes, or should we be driving a new set of behaviours? This is the perfect time to start predicting these shifts in behaviour—both employee and customer.

Above all, it’s important to maintain a long-term mindset. For businesses seeking long-term growth and improvement, structural decisions must bear the future in mind. This is the time to reflect, predict, and reorganise to suit the future.

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Confronting COVID-19, HR must play a critical role in helping business leadership and employees navigate times of crisis. While the people function plays a key role in near-term operational communications and risk mitigation activities, it must also maintain a continued focus on the strategic thinking that will enable the business to get back on track—and emerge stronger—post-pandemic.

People teams, this is your time.