Boese: The biggest post-pandemic HR challenges

By: | May 1, 2020 • 8 min read
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. Boese will speak at the 2020 Virtual HR Technology Conference scheduled for Oct. 27-30. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at sboese@lrp.com.

I’m not sure if it is too early yet to be thinking of the post-pandemic world, the so-called “new normal” or whatever phrase gets coined to describe the changed environment and workplaces that we, collectively, are going to concurrently inherit and create.

Once the innumerable sacrifices made by so many workplace heroes—which are impossible to adequately express or describe here considering their enormity—allow the rest of us to return, rebuild and reinvent work and workplaces, we have to allow that, in many ways, we will be in unfamiliar and uncharted territory. But thinking about the post-pandemic world of work is what I, and I suspect many of you, have been doing—either because business and people challenges demand this kind of forward planning, or it just comforts us to recall just how good things were (or at least seemed to be) for most of our workplaces just a couple of months ago.

But no matter your motivation for considering how the future will play out, I would caution you not to get too nostalgic (if it’s even possible to be nostalgic for early February), lest we become complacent in the expectation that this “new normal” will emerge at all like the “old normal.” I don’t think there is much chance for that at all—at least not for a really long time.

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No, I am pretty confident that whatever is coming next will look, feel and respond to our actions and decisions in really different and hard to predict ways. My colleagues and I at H3 HR Advisors have been carving out time each week to research, exchange ideas and begin the process of articulating how we see work, workplaces, HR and HR technology adapting in the post-pandemic world. We are also staking out some signposts that we think the clients we support, and the people they support, can use to best navigate this new normal, including key areas they—and we’d argue all—organizations need to focus on. I’d like to share some of these early ideas here, and after you have read through, I’d love your thoughts.

Enhanced Customer Focus and Increased Business Agility

It’s pretty clear that every organization of any size, located anywhere has been impacted in some way by the coronavirus. Certainly, the headlines make it clear that a significant majority of these effects have been negative.

Many businesses have been forced to close entirely by country, state/region or local mandates: restaurants, salons, gyms, bars, concert venues, casinos, etc.—anywhere that either requires lots of personal or close interaction, or that, by design, brings large groups of people together in one central location. Others have been allowed to remain operational, but under significantly altered parameters: limited opening hours, forced limitations on customer interaction, etc. These are restaurants that have been limited to take-out orders only or retail stores that are only able to sell a subset of their products, ones that have been deemed “essential.” Other businesses are still technically “open” but with social-isolation and stay-at-home orders still in place for millions of consumers; these organizations have seen rapid and dramatic decreases in demand for their products and services. Airlines, car dealerships, real-estate agents fit into this category. And, finally, there is an important group of organizations and workers whose ongoing efforts have been truly amazing and even agonizing these last two months: hospitals and other healthcare organizations, pharmacies, grocery stores, food-delivery services, and public servants like teachers, police officers, firefighters, EMTs and more. These people and their organizations have been profoundly impacted and perhaps forever changed.

Also see: Ally Financial’s COVID-19 strategy: Embrace employee benefits

From an HR and people-management perspective, each type of these organizations and each one of them individually naturally presents their own set of unique challenges and problems. But if I had to think of one essential or fundamental element and concept that links them all together, or rather links their ability to respond to rapid changes and uncertainty, it is agility.

The ability, capability, culture and mindset that allow you to quickly and effectively transition your organization’s direction, attention and people to changing conditions is of primary concern in relatively stable conditions, and it becomes an essential element of business survival in times like now. There are so many elements of agility that I am going to take the time to consider them more deeply, and break them down in future columns, but for now I am focusing on the first, pre-condition of agility: understanding your customers, (internal or external), and further, understanding how their customers’ needs are changing.

 Time to Take Employee Wellbeing More Seriously

There is, has been and will be a pretty substantial market for workplace-wellbeing programs, technologies and services. Organizations have been investing in this area for at least 20 years (although if you were investing in this area back then, it was just called “wellness” and mostly consisted of passing out pedometers in the office). We have a perfect storm of factors that will impact the wellbeing of every single person in your workforce, and every person you may hire in the near future. There are the actual physical impacts of the coronavirus (and we right now have no real idea about long-term health effects for people who recover from the illness), as well as the acute mental-health issues that illness, grief, fear, uncertainty and social isolation can contribute to or even cause. Finally, there are the many people who have suffered incredible financial losses and what is certain to be lingering damage due to job loss.

While just about every organization has been investing in wellbeing programs aimed at improving physical, mental and even financial health of their workforces, let’s be honest: We didn’t have to treat these with utmost urgency and care. After all, just a few months ago, times were really good, the economy and most organizations were humming along nicely and unemployment was at a 50-year low. Sure, lots of workers were not physically in tip-top shape, obesity is pretty high in most societies, lots of people have ongoing issues with hypertension and diabetes, but still, how much time were we spending pre-pandemic on trying to get employees to eat better and exercise more? The same argument can probably be made for the other components of wellbeing. Sure, we invested in them, we had formal programs, we might have a dedicated HR-technology solution for them, but on the list of HR and organizational priorities, ask yourself honestly, where did employee wellbeing really rank?

Going forward, wellbeing—heck, just basic “safety”—is going to have to be the most urgent HR-leadership demand, at least until we can get to a place where more people feel comfortable riding an elevator with another person. Everything about wellbeing you’ve accomplished in the past has been stripped away, and HR leaders have to rebuild it all—while simultaneously taking care of yourselves and your family. HR is starting with a default position of “It’s not safe to be in the workplace.” Think about that, and I think you would agree that wellbeing is the primary challenge right now.

Modern Leadership Needs to be Reevaluated

Of the three important business and organization dynamics we are thinking about at H3 HR, certainly the most apparent and obvious one centers on leadership. We are all seeing the news and assessing how organizations’ leaders are reacting, responding and communicating to their stakeholders about the current set of challenges. Most particularly, we are looking long and hard at how organizations are treating their (usually) self-identified “most important asset”—their people.

Look, I certainly understand that, for any organization—especially large, complex organizations—it can be very difficult (and possibly unfair) to sit on the sidelines, with imperfect information, and raise judgements on CEOs whom we don’t know, and take a stand on actions that we can’t possibly determine with certainty were correct or justified. But we will hear and read what they say and do, and fairly or unfairly, we and the marketplace will indeed form opinions and make judgements.

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Everything we previously thought was important about leadership is probably, mostly, still important. But in a post-pandemic world, the classic design or archetype of a successful leader will have to be re-imagined. Sure, it is easy to say that our leaders need to be strong, resolute, clear and honest. Those are givens. How high or low on your current list of most important leader attributes would you place empathy? How about humility? Or perhaps even vulnerability? I would argue that these traits, and probably a few more, are more important in times of intense and acute stress and business challenges that we used to think. But in the new normal, there will be much more required from our workplace and societal leaders. And that includes HR leaders.

It’s still early in all this. These are what we see as the important things to focus on moving ahead. In future pieces, I plan to expand on each area, and dig into some of the tools and technologies that will play a part in supporting HR in these efforts. And as I said, and you know, this is all new, different, strange, maybe even scary. I do think that, like in almost any trying set of circumstances, the best opportunity for organizations and individuals to succeed and thrive will be to identify the most important areas of focus, be as disciplined as you can manage these areas and, finally, reserve some time, space and energy to keep yourself and the people you care about healthy. It is cliché to say, “We will all get through this together,” but that doesn’t mean it is not true. And cliché doesn’t mean you don’t mean it—I mean it, and I think you do as well.

Good luck to all, be safe, be well.