Post-pandemic HR: Time to toss the playbook

Replace it with 'radically frequent attention' to team members and skip overinvestment in the tables stakes of HR.
By: | June 29, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Never before have we experienced such a dramatic shift in the world of work. Unemployment skyrocketed to over 20% within a few short weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak. Much of the work of many employees who are still employed has shifted from in-office to virtual. And those who are working from offices, stores and healthcare facilities are challenged with getting work done in a new physical and emotional environment. Even as employees start to return to their workplaces, it will not look, feel or act the way it did. We’ll be sitting and standing farther away from our co-workers and customers. We’ll be figuring out how to cover the tasks and projects that need to get done, but with fewer hands to do them. And our organizations will be confronted with ensuring the company is sustainable in the midst of an unknown and uncertain market.

Related: 27 million have lost employer-sponsored health coverage

Amy Leschke-Kahle of The Marcus Buckingham Company. Photo by MarisaQPhotography.com

HR leaders are sitting right in the center of it all, and I can relate. Having led talent, HR technology and HR analytics for several Fortune 500 companies, I thought nothing could surprise me. But now HR is confronted with challenges and questions that we never imagined. Who do we lay off, and who do we furlough? What message does it send to our organization when we lay off people and still have positions to fill? How do we create space for employee wellness when the size of our organization has shrunk and we still have just as much work to get done? These are questions that our “now practices” seem inadequate to address. Perhaps it’s time to pivot to “next practices” in HR that will support the next generation of normal by thinking about the work we need to do as HR in two distinct buckets: people operations and talent activation.

A New Framework for How We Think about People at Work

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Let’s talk about people operations first. HR takes on responsibility for all things people, including talent acquisition, learning and development, employee relations, and so much more. As important as all of these functions are, it’s most crucial to ensure that truly necessary processes such as compliance and compensation are fully completed and documented. These are table stakes. Without them you won’t be in business. They are therefore worthy of our investment of time and money. But they are not worthy of our overinvestment.

Over the last two decades, organizations have invested heavily in technology. The investments have optimized standard processes and shifted productivity and … our approach to work has remained relatively stagnant. Adding cute videos and games to compliance training doesn’t make it better; it just makes it longer. Annual performance reviews (most organizations still do them, even though they say they want to change) don’t produce good data or better performance—they simply drain not only budgets, but emotions, too. Why all the effort for bad performance data linked to complicated compensation models that leave employees wondering why their colleague got a 0.5% bigger merit increase than they did?

Related: How to engage workers during ‘the new normal’

Overinvesting in table stakes processes doesn’t buy us anything other than a smaller checkbook. Once we meet the requirements, there is nothing more to be gained by spending more money or more time. In other words, we need to invest just right, just enough, in people operations. That’s not to say that we should stop any new work there. This is actually the perfect time to rethink what we do to maintain workforce proficiency and compliance. As resources become constrained, we should be examining all of our people operation processes and remove unneeded tasks and initiatives that are taking time and energy beyond the basics.

That allows you to save your overinvestment for talent activation—those approaches and tools that are designed for the organization and team leaders to help get the best out of that most precious of resources, your employees. And yes, we need to simplify and remove waste here as well. Those complicated career pathing projects never did produce the results we expected, and they certainly won’t produce them now. We need to resist the urge to over-engineer and replace ineffective approaches with something just as complicated. Instead, we need to create space for team leaders to double down on the practices that help employees create extraordinary performance.

Read more: Talent Management

What are those practices? Research on the world’s best team leaders reveals that radically frequent attention between team leaders and team members is the precursor, the rocket fuel to extraordinary performance, extraordinary productivity and extraordinary quality. The great news is that individual attention from team leaders is actually doable and scalable with the right organizational mindset and tool set. The data from real-world organizations show that employees who receive weekly attention from their team leaders are two to three times more likely to be “all in.” This is not to say that extraordinary work can’t happen without team leader attention, but it’s much harder to show up “all in” at work when we don’t feel seen and heard. There is no more important work to do than to instill and embed the ritual of attention in our organizations.

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There is no playbook that tells us how to get through these extraordinary times. But we have no choice but to get through them anyway. If I were wearing my HR hat again right now, I’d want someone to remind me that you don’t have to overcomplicate things. That, in fact, the framework that fuels optimization and acceleration is simple. Invest just enough in the critical few things that will ensure people operation proficiency, and then overinvest in the mindsets and tool sets that will activate your organization’s unique differentiator, your employees’ talent.

Amy Leschke-Kahle is vice president of performance acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company.