Amplified HR: Responding to Now While Driving the New Normal

While we’ve all seen and felt the market volatility brought by COVID-19, its impact on people is equally profound and necessitates a reimagined strategic lens. As HR leaders confront the challenges of workforce safety and productivity, they must simultaneously redefine operating models, processes, and ways of working to maximize operational efficiency for a new reality. In this climate, the entire C-suite is looking to their HR leaders for answers. As an HR leader, your elevated charge is to reimagine a people strategy that will drive business continuity in a climate of heightened uncertainty. Equally important, you’re also being called to design a new normal that will carry your organization into an unknown future.

Now a critical player in the organization’s strategic plan, the HR leader’s role had been gaining momentum even before COVID-19. But now, HR leadership has an eager audience across the C-suite as organizations urgently seek answers to questions around workforce analytics, scenario planning, cost optimization, ways of working, culture, community, and workforce models. In this high-stakes climate, HR leaders should deploy a Workforce Optimization Center of Excellence (CoE), arming them with vital support so they can focus on bringing an even more valuable, future-focused perspective to the organization.

Today, it’s never been more urgent that organizations deploy a Workforce Optimization CoE to refine and amplify HR excellence across the enterprise. HR excellence in crises requires a thoughtful, comprehensive response that balances workforce scenario planning, employee care and engagement, and operational efficiency needs from a centralized, command-and-control structure backed by a strategic mandate: The Workforce Optimization CoE. In our work with one leading mass retailer, we’re applying these principles to develop and revise HR policies, processes, and procedures in support of the pandemic response. Our multi-disciplinary team is working through a backlog of HR topics such as remote I-9s, returning to work processes and procedures, remote terminations, benefits, daycare options, and new background/drug screen procedures. We focused our approach to uphold business continuity, nurture employee care, promote safety, and define ways of working in the new normal—all elements that position the retailer for post-crisis financial and operational performance.

Backed by similar operational support, organizations, with the HR leader at the helm, should focus on deploying the optimal set of modular workforce components that adjust for value, both to weather the immediate crisis and to set the stage for differentiation in a post-pandemic new normal. It’s up to HR leaders, supported by the Workforce Optimization CoE, to be an active force in executing and maintaining this adaptive workforce strategy, acting as an embedded partner to design, drive, and prioritize critical efficiencies—ultimately cementing HR’s rightful ownership in crafting the future of work.

The Workforce Optimization CoE is essential in establishing new ways of working and performance frameworks while keeping employees healthy, engaged, and feeling supported. Ultimately, it’s an approach that marries fundamental HR capabilities with strategic accelerators to multiply HR’s impact across the organization. Its core functions include:

  • Workforce Analytics: Applying cross-functional data to monitor, manage, and plan for overall workforce “health” and strategic progression.
  • Cost Optimization: Leading and maintaining cost optimization action planning for workforce initiatives like reskilling and automation, with input from business unit partners.
  • Uncertainty Planning: Monitoring economic indicators to conduct always-on, short-term and long-term scenario planning. ​
  • Ways of Working: Designing and driving work processes and remote work policies that empower local or dispersed teams, promote transparency, and optimize performance. 
  • Culture and Community: Designing and deploying programs that create whole-self belonging, build connections, and engage a complex workforce.
  • Workforce Models: Applying adaptive employment models across different lines of business and regions; developing strategies, performance management, and reskilling plans for those models.

Activating the Workforce Optimization CoE: Five Fundamental Considerations

Bringing together the above core functions of the Workforce Optimization CoE, we've identified a few essential actions that will accelerate its value:

  1. Gather diverse perspectives from across the organization. Use the Workforce Optimization CoE to establish a consistent channel for two-way communication between HR and other functional teams. Regular feedback from your workforce (including managers) can provide vital insights to help you design for a new normal, whether it be recasting cultural norms, redefining processes, or realigning performance benchmarks. They can also let you know whether new programs are working well.
  2. Articulate a vision for HR leadership. The HR leader needs to be a different sort of leader as a result of COVID-19. You’re being invited to new conversations and need to define how you want to show up in this highly visible and uncharted space. This vision should acknowledge the elevated roles and responsibilities of the HR function and incorporate best practices gleaned from outside coaching and cross-industry perspectives.
  3. Seek opportunities to scale impact. COVID-19 has reshaped workforce norms, and as a result, HR needs to scale its impact—quickly. HR can’t be all things to all people, but it does need to be a catalyst for change across the organization. Serving as a hub of information and resources, the Workforce Optimization CoE should also provide supplemental capacity and support for scenario planning, analytical decision-making, models, and optimization at scale.
  4. Tap into the Workforce Optimization CoE as a support lifeline. From immediate business viability concerns to long-term durability questions, the Workforce Optimization CoE can serve as a vital lifeline offering outside perspectives, advisory, and coaching support to help you prioritize workforce improvements and efficiency initiatives while remaining compliant.
  5. Drive organizational viability with a balanced view towards eventual stability and post-crisis adaptability and durability. The Workforce Optimization CoE can support you today with the capacity to respond urgently to the dynamic and uncertain market realities impacting your workforce while readying you for the next horizons of stability, adaptability, and durability. When employees return to the office, acknowledge that the transition will not be business as usual. Getting people back to work does not mean they are coming back to the same environment, team, or customers. HR leaders need to develop and model grit, embrace the new reality, design ways to support people in the new reality, and find ways to optimize through adaptive workforce models

While COVID-19 has fundamentally redefined how businesses operate in a matter of days, there is one lasting truth: employees are your organization’s most valuable and defining advantage. As an HR leader, you should consider how a Workforce Optimization CoE can help you reimagine the makeup of the workforce, identify more efficient workforce models, activate new capabilities, enable continuous improvement, and drive engagement—perhaps propelling some agendas you have been thinking about for years already. The organizations that emerge durably from COVID-19 will be the ones who demonstrate care for their people, think creatively yet efficiently about the future of work, and harness the moment to drive lasting transformation.