HR is Not Letting the Pandemic Crisis Go to Waste

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The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped our society and economy for the better part of three months now. The effects have been devastating and virtually every conversation we have, perhaps outside of those with our live-in quarantine partners, begins with a reference to the pandemic’s impact on our lives and livelihoods. It’s an all-encompassing and unprecedented global catastrophe.

All employers have been scrambling since the pandemic started. Many essential employers are struggling to keep operations running under increased demand, while others are managing disastrous reductions in revenue and profit. The common challenges for all employers, regardless of business conditions, are predominantly people focused. Given this fact, the human resources function is playing an outsized role in managing the impact.

The old trope of HR being a non-strategic cost center is long outdated. Most HR leaders today already play a key role on their organization’s leadership team. However, the pandemic crisis has put into full relief the value that a strong HR organization has for any employer, as well as the consequences of not having one. HR leaders are currently managing issues as diverse as downsizing and restructuring, alterations of benefits and retirement plans, return to work plans, developing remote work polices, changes to the physical plant, and employee health and safety. HR leaders and their teams are managing their employers’ most critical challenges, and probably working longer hours under more pressure than many of their peers.

Some things that either we have learned or have been confirmed for HR since the start of the pandemic include:

  • HR functions are made up of a group of compassionate, hardworking and committed professionals.
  • The CHRO is a critical and essential advisor to the CEO and senior team in leading during a time of crisis.
  • HR has the stamina and endurance to maintain a grueling schedule.
  • The function is thinking creatively to innovate new ways of doing things. This was especially evident when moving rapidly to working virtually as many communities instituted stay-at-home orders, and now in planning for a safe reopening.
  • HR has become the Chief Reassurance Officer, giving employees and teams the confidence to adjust to a new reality.
  • CHRO’s are vulnerable too. HR leaders need to find ways to regroup when they feel they have hit a wall. Leaders cannot be effective if they aren’t able to take care of themselves.
  • The most effective HR functions have adapted to change on a daily basis and are good at it
  • HR leaders are thinking outside of their functions to offer input on operations, finance, and technology needs to manage all of the implications about how work is impacted.
  • CHRO’s have been very effective at reaching out and networking with their peers to share best practices and learn from one another.

The contributions HR leaders have made to their organizations have been invaluable in managing the crisis in an efficient and compassionate manner. The activity to date, not only for CHROs but for all leaders, has been tactical in nature. It has been difficult for leadership teams to plan beyond a few weeks as the situation on the ground changes on an almost daily basis. While HR leadership has provided as much strategic input on decisions as other C-level functions, it is the operational excellence capabilities that have truly stood out.

However, at some point, employers will begin to concentrate more fully on the long-term implications of the COVID crisis and how their businesses will operate in a post pandemic environment. When that inflexion point comes, employers will do well to continue to lean into their HR leadership’s strategic capacity in the same way they are currently utilizing their operational capacity. 

As employers confront lasting changes in how and where their employees work, how they interact with their customers and clients, and whether current revenue decline is temporary or permanent, they will need HR to facilitate conversations on a wide range of strategic topics. Leading effectively in the areas of succession planning, organizational design, workforce planning, and talent management, may significantly influence an organization’s future success. These are all areas where HR’s expertise will make a critical difference. Hopefully, the enhanced credibility that HR has gained through the pandemic will allow the CHRO to be a leading voice in not only the crisis but the recovery.

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