How COVID-19 is resulting in HR leaders having to change business process
The 2020 pandemic has radically changed work as we know
it. The workplace had already been transforming over the past
few years, but the recent crisis pushed expectations over a cliff.
Business leaders and especially HR professionals can no longer
talk about the future of work as though change is on the horizon.
The future of work is here now.
But many organizations are struggling to keep pace. The rapid
and sudden increase of remote work, shifting roles, competing
home and work obligations, and a hyper-focus on workplace
health and safety have forced businesses to rethink everything.
What are the priorities? How can teams do more with less? How
does HR balance productivity with employee well-being?
In short: how do organizations attempt business as usual when
everything is profoundly unusual?
Business as usual isn’t an option. As the pandemic forces
organizations to reevaluate their legacy operating models, a
single truth becomes apparent: organizations that prioritize
people concerns will flourish; those that don’t will wither.
As HR leaders orient business processes to a true people-first
paradigm, three guiding themes have emerged: the need for
empathy, resilience, and empowerment. Taken together, these
themes encompass six trends guiding HR leaders through
changing times. This report will explore these findings.
Trend one: Prioritizing health, well-being, and psychological
safety in a people-first culture
“Eighty percent of respondents to this year’s Global Human Capital Trends survey
identified well-being as an important or very important priority for their
organization’s success, making it the year’s top-ranked trend for importance.”
Empathy may be the strongest indicator for whether an organization
thrives or fails after a pandemic. Ensuring the well-being of employees is
critical today, and the onus is on HR to ensure employee safety. But how
can a company integrate individual well-being, which is quite personal,
with broader, companywide policies?
Deloitte analysts suggest that the answer may be to change how
organizations perceive employees and their challenges. “We believe the
answer is to focus on the individual in work, not just the individual at work.
To create a sense of contribution that translates into true organizational
performance, organizations should expand their focus from programs
adjacent to work to designing well-being into the work itself.”2
Helping employees mitigate unnecessary stress is crucial. Normalizing
common challenges such as childcare struggles, video conference and
technology snafus, and shifting work/life balance may be the keys to
supporting happier, healthier, more productive employees. Importantly,
remote employees need to feel that their contributions are appreciated,
even as they struggle to balance home and work obligations.
“Unfortunately, many remote workers experience feeling ‘out of sight, out
of mind’ or, even worse, feeling as if their work and dedication are being
questioned since they are not physically in the office each day,” says Olivia
Curtis, wellness specialist for G&A partners, a professional employee
This added stress leads to employees feeling burned out,
limiting their overall effectiveness. HR leaders and font-line managers need
to communicate early and often with employees who may be at risk.
Additionally, leaders need to communicate clear priorities and encourage
employees to take care of themselves.
“To promote more effective coping, leaders need to set
priorities. The top priority right now, of course, is to help
people focus on what matters most: health and safety.”
Trend two: Inclusion and belonging become critical to an
interconnected, high-performing culture
“Seventy-nine percent of organizations say fostering a sense of belonging in the
workforce is important or very important for their success over the next 12 to 18
months, but only 13 percent say they are very ready to address this trend.”
Leading organizations recognize the connection between employees’
sense of belonging and organizational performance. With guidance from
HR, these companies are working to increase personal and emotional
connection between team members and across teams.6 This connection
is especially important for distributed and remote teams. To work together
effectively, team members need to trust each other, especially when casual
check-ins may not be possible. Creating and fostering an environment where
employees feel valued is key to building a high-performance culture.
But organizations need to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)
initiatives are solving real and pressing problems. “This is not a time to press
ahead with ‘nice to have’ initiatives or systemwide transformations,” advise
agility and leadership experts Elaine Pulakos and Rob Kaiser. “Put these on
hold while the company is in survival mode, and reevaluate your priorities.”7
Instead, companies should focus on tightening up the relationships between
individuals and their work, individuals and teams, and everyone’s unified
contribution to upholding company values and hitting company goals.
Creating a sense of belonging will have long-term effects for companies,
affecting everything from turnover to market reach. Savvy organizations
are building bridges of trust with their employees sooner rather than later.
“Leaders are guiding employees through a moment in time that they
will remember forever,” says Nick Petschek, principal at Kotter, a change
management firm. “Will they look back on this period of time as one
that renews trust in their organization, or will they look back and see an
organization that made a hard time even worse?”
Trend three: Rethinking reskilling— investing in critical skills
versus critical roles
Keeping workers relevant by renewing their skills has long been table stakes,
but it may not be enough in the future. Few organizations are good at
predicting what the market will need months down the road, let alone years;
reskilling workers to fill new roles will forever be a game of catch-up.
To better prepare for the unpredictable, organizations should shift their
focus from individual roles to organization-wide skills.
HR can facilitate this shift by motivating employees to think outside
their role and traditional career paths. A new working model may allow
employees to flow between projects in accordance with their abilities as
opposed to their title or organization.
“Encourage employees to develop critical skills that potentially
open up multiple opportunities for their career development,
rather than preparing for a specific next role. Offer greater career
development support to employees in critical roles who lack
Companies should consider critical skills as those that will be useful no
matter how an employee’s role may evolve, such as digital, higher cognitive,
social and emotional, and adaptability and resilience.
Trend Four: Transitioning from business efficiency
to business resilience
“An HBR article on agile teams and stability found that businesses who build
resilience and agility into the way they work and make decisions had better
financial performance- specifically 150 percent higher ROI and 500 percent higher
return on equity.”
Pre-COVID-19, organizations optimized their processes for efficiency. This
required them to tailor their processes to specific market conditions. While
those optimizations may have allowed organizations to go to market faster,
they also created rigid dependencies. The processes only worked if the
market remained constant. Any change rendered the process less effective.
To remain competitive in rapidly changing markets and circumstances,
companies should optimize for resilience instead of efficiency.
Resilient organizations are better able to respond and course-correct as
market conditions vary. Training workers in the soft skills, including better
communication, teamwork, and empathy, may better enable organizations
to respond quickly in times of tumultuous change
To maximize resilience, leaders should lean into germane DE&I initiatives.
“Diversity of ideas can greatly enhance solution development. Put together
a cognitively diverse crisis management team that will have more ideas
about potential solutions,” suggests Harvard Business Review.14 But leaders
should avoid the temptation to apply a one-size-fits all solution. Meeting
the crisis head-on will require a holistic approach. “Beware of treating the
crisis in a one-dimensional manner – as a financial or logistical problem
only, and staff your crisis team accordingly.”
Harvard Business Review writer Lily Zheng concurs. “We are in two crises
right now, an economic crisis and a people crisis, and organizations that
acknowledge only one risk exacerbating the other.”
Trend five: Flexible, blended work environments that
utilize distributed authority
“Forty-six percent of employees say work-life balance is important to remain happy,
and 87 percent of human resource professionals and leaders say that employee
satisfaction has increased due to flexible work programs.”
“A Gartner, Inc. survey of 317 CFOs and Finance leaders on March 30, 2020
revealed that 74 percent will move at least 5 percent of their previously on-site
workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19.”
Remote work programs have been on the rise for years, but the 2020
pandemic brought the necessity of such programs into stark relief. As teams
learned to adjust to extended video conferencing, flexible working hours,
and changing priorities, a new challenge arose: how to grant autonomy
to disparate individuals and teams while protecting the bottom line and
The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the need to shift power structures in many
organizations. While many still implement a top-down hierarchy, distributed
organizations need a different business model. Especially in times of
rapid change, decisions need to be made quickly, but many teams lack the
authority to do so.
Post-COVID-19, organizations that distribute authority and build flexibility
into their decision-making will have the upper hand. Josh Bersin notes that many HR teams are not designed for agility. Rather, they are designed as
service delivery functions. But the pandemic has laid bare a key truth: HR
teams do much more than deliver services. They facilitate change, foster
and evolve workplace culture, and architect the work environment—both
on-premises and remote. If HR teams are truly to lead their businesses
into the future, they need flexibility and autonomy.
The need for distributed authority extends to the entire organization.
Teams need to coordinate and respond quickly to changing conditions.
According to McKinsey analysts, “Leaders should foster collaboration
and transparency across the network of teams. One way they do this
is by distributing authority and sharing information: in other words,
demonstrating how the teams themselves should operate. In crisis
situations, a leader’s instinct might be to consolidate decision-making
authority and control information, providing it on a strictly need-to-know
basis. Doing the opposite will encourage teams to follow suit.”
Trend six: Adopting AI and forward-looking data to
turn teams into superteams
“Fifty-nine percent of organizations say the redesign of jobs to integrate AI
technology is important or very important for their success over the next 12 to 18
months, but only 7 percent say they are very ready to address this trend.”
As workplaces take up the mantle of humanizing work, many are looking
for ways to decrease menial or rote tasks. Integrating AI into teams to help
human workers focus on more impactful or sensitive work can produce
transformative business outcomes. This blended result, which Deloitte calls
“superteams,” allows the business to transform and create new value while
employees focus on reinventing their careers as they navigate a swiftly
changing talent market. 21
Coupled with the adoption of AI, teams need to make better use of data
to make predictions and gain forward-looking insights on workforce and
market trends. This is especially useful for organizations implementing
a distributed authority model. Teams can analyze data and move quickly
rather than waiting for a centralized team to make decisions for them.
Integrating data into the decision-making process can also reshape how
leaders direct their businesses. Deloitte analysts suggest, “Organizations
should begin to ask fundamentally new questions that can inform bold
decisions around critical human capital risks and opportunities, even
as uncertainty about the future of work, the workforce, and the
The trends brought to light by the COVID-19 crisis are not entirely new.
Some, such as remote work and diversity initiatives, have been making
steady progress over the years, gaining urgency in the new economy.
Others, such as the pivot from optimizing for efficiency to optimizing for
resilience, are not only new, but perhaps counterintuitive. The ways in
which the 2020 pandemic changed the working world might leave some
professionals scrambling to adjust.
Amid these changes, however, leaders can rest assured that putting people
first and humanizing the workplace will continue to pay dividends. The
culture created by focusing on people and their needs will produce
long-term upticks in productivity and perhaps improved market perception.
“This pandemic has shown how critical it is to embrace our humanity, be
understanding and caring — and that holds true for companies, too,” says
Kathie Patterson, CHRO of Ally Financial. “Make sure ‘human’ is prioritized
in Human Resources….When you get culture right everything else falls into
place and there is no better time to let that shine than right now.”
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