Steve Boese: Coronavirus and the challenge to HR everywhere

By: | March 23, 2020 • 6 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.

In my last column, I wrote the following:

“I really hope that by the time I have to draft the next monthly Inside HR Tech column the assessment and analysis of the technologies and companies in the HR tech market and how organizations are leveraging HR solutions to help them achieve their business and talent strategies will be top of mind again.”

Well, that is obviously not what has transpired in the last month. If anything, the disruptions to life, work and people from the continuing coronavirus pandemic are much, much more profound than certainly I, and I imagine many of you as well, could have imagined. And with little evidence, at least here in the U.S., that the situation is likely to improve soon (or even not so soon), we are all left to work through a set of circumstances the likes of which, let’s admit it, we and our organizational structures and processes are almost completely unprepared to navigate.

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It is now almost certain that the coronavirus pandemic will be the defining event for a generation, maybe two generations. There are very few transformative events in a lifetime, the ones that serve as markers or that delineate history and memory and even cultural identity. These events often compel us to recall and describe the world with a new “before” and “after” framework. Some of these events stand out and endure in our collective memory simply because of the incredible uniqueness and even unexpectedness of the moment. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Neil Armstrong setting foot on the surface of the moon in 1969, and I’d even add the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. We remember and continue to reflect on these events because of their acute emotional impact, and for the fact that, when they occurred, our world, in fact the world, seemed to pause.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent fallout from those events have been the global crisis to which the current pandemic has most often been compared. I think in part that comparison is apt. Both situations were, for the most part, completely unsuspected by the average person; both have shaken to the foundation our general sense of safety and security (certainly here in the U.S.); and both are particularly unsettling due to a sense of ominous uncertainty that surrounded them.

Immediately after Sept. 11, most of us wondered, perhaps even expected, more and similar kinds of incidents. Where would the next attack happen? What places or locations should I avoid? When will it be safe to get on an airplane? When will we begin to hold large-scale events like concerts and baseball games again? And on and on. Until, at some point, that feeling began to ebb, and it became clear that additional or ongoing significant attacks were unlikely. And life, more or less, went back to “normal,” or the new normal as it evolved. We eventually felt safe, but for those of us who experienced those years, there was, and remains, a small, deeply held realization that things would never be the same as they once were. As an aside, just because it popped into my thoughts, while Sept. 11 was not that long ago, there is already an emerging group of young people who have no personal memory of that day and those events. My college student son was all of 8 months old on Sept. 11, 2001.

Let’s shift the focus to today (and, for the record, I am drafting this piece on March 20, 2020). The coronavirus pandemic, while sharing some of the effects of Sept. 11 (surprise, sudden and dramatic impact, lingering doubt and insecurity as to how long and how deep its impact will turn out to be), is already driving several other, different and, honestly, even more unsettling effects on our world and our workplaces.

It is expected that when new data from the BLS is reported, the pandemic might be the single most devastating job-loss event in our lifetimes. Estimates as of today vary widely, but there have been reports suggesting that as many as 5 million workers will either be laid off outright, or placed on an indefinite furlough without pay. The official U.S. unemployment rate as of February 2020 was just 3.5%. I read one headline this morning suggesting the rate might approach 20% as a result of massive, widespread economic disruption. All of us in HR and in HR leadership have been wrestling with the incredibly tight labor market for much of the last eight or nine years. In about one month, the pandemic will completely flip that script and change the HR and workplace narrative for who knows how long. Instead of our primary focus being divided across filling open roles, retaining good performers and developing a deep leadership bench, many of us will be forced into making hard decisions around staffing levels, reducing workers’ hours and cutting costs wherever and however possible.

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While Sept. 11 was awful, here is just one bit of context to help understand how the comparison of the pandemic to that incident is not a perfect one. At the end of August 2001, just 11 days before the attacks, the unemployment rate in the US was 4.9%. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and with businesses of all kinds facing significant pressure and disruption, as well as the general uncertainty in the world, unemployment began to climb. But the rate only reached a post-Sept. 11 high of 6.3% in June of 2003. By August 2005,the rate had fallen back to the pre-Sept. 11 level of 4.9%, and continued to fall from there, bottoming out at 4.4% in May 2007 (after which it began to rise once again as the financial crisis was beginning). By most accounts, the workplace and labor-force effects of Sept. 11 were relatively mild and relatively short.

The workplace and workforce impacts of the pandemic, even the most optimistic ones, suggest much more adverse and troubling times for workers and organizations. It is already happening in the most directly impacted industries—airlines, hotels, restaurants, sports organizations—and it’s certain to trend worse for at least a few months, perhaps many more. As HR and business leaders, all eyes will be on us to help our people navigate these unprecedented times and uncharted waters. Before the pandemic, it could be argued that no role in the organization was more important than HR, since having the best, most engaged, most empowered people was the only way to succeed in a competitive world. I’d argue that now, HR, and your work, is even more important.

I will close with a quote from author Paulo Coehlo:

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying we are not ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”

Good luck to all. Be safe, be well and please take care of each other. It has never mattered more.