COVID-19 has upended the world of work. Organizations are struggling to stay afloat and see their way through. And yet, they know they need to be talking about and planning for the next phase. SmartBrief sat down for a conversation with HR consultant Bryan Otte about preparing for the post-coronavirus business landscape. Otte, based in Washington, DC, was formerly chief human resource officer at SmartBrief. He now advises companies on HR crisis strategy and execution.
This pandemic caught many organizations on their heels. Most did not have a game plan. How do they manage this crisis successfully and move toward the exit?
We need to do both at the same time. We are in an unprecedented time in history and we have to acknowledge that, for many, it is a panic situation. In New York City, people are working and living in what seems like a war zone. For others in, say, Wyoming, it doesn’t feel much different at all. But all can relate to the feeling of just getting through each day intact. Add on top that HR leaders are scrambling to right-size their companies and support those who remain, all while dealing with their own basic functions of life, and you have an extremely stressful and fluid situation.
First, HR leaders should ensure they actively participate in the strategy going forward. Regular meetings between department heads to formulate one month, three month, and six month strategies are necessary. Since we don’t know when these circumstances will end, or what the business environment will look like when it does end (however we define that), senior leaders need to share input and develop plans that may change on a weekly basis. HR has a critical role to play here. For example, do we need to move some of our workforce into new roles to adapt to changes our clients are dictating? Perhaps the company will de-emphasize sales prospecting in favor of servicing current customers. Can we re-deploy our sales team to concentrate on ensuring that our current customer base is satisfied and will stick with us? HR needs to bring to the table how these kinds of shifts in the workforce will impact the company from a retention, morale, and compliance perspective. But mostly, HR leaders need to advise how these kinds of moves will impact the business overall.
Second, and just as important, let’s make sure that whatever moves the company makes, we give our employees the transparency they need to buy into our (changing) strategy. Daily check-ins, virtual happy hours, and rewards and recognition during this time are key to keeping the workforce connected, but we have to be sure we communicate our strategy clearly for getting through the pandemic, even if that strategy evolves frequently (and I would hope that it does). Your workforce will stay with you as long as management explains its rationale, even if the moves it made earlier haven’t worked out. Every day we must earn and keep the trust of our workforce.
Let’s bring this back to the HR desk. What kinds of exit strategies should they be considering now?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that HR leaders may feel alone. After all, people who work in HR like working with people. And even in companies with a naturally remote workforce, HR leaders don’t work in a vacuum. They still make sure to touch base with their workforce in person, at least occasionally. That simply is not an option right now, as over 80% of the country is sheltering in place. HR leaders need to make an extra effort to connect with their workforces in an environment that’s exerting enormous pressure on the culture of work. We have technology to do that, but how we use that technology is key. Obviously, deep one-on-one connections that deliver empathy and concern for an employee’s well-being goes a long way — for both parties.
Second, HR leaders need to make sure they are up-to-date on the ever-changing legal landscape and how that affects their workforce and the company at large. For instance, local orders can have an impact on employees and their access to worksites and this can vary from place to place. Determining which businesses and individuals may be considered critical can be a challenge. In addition, federal leave laws have changed and local leave laws may be revised as well. And both the new leave laws and loan rules of recent federal legislation will require coordination between HR, tax and payroll. Finally, for the many companies downsizing, we need to understand the legal and policy obligations on all levels. Compliance is critical, and now more than ever, HR needs to be the key resource for employees and company leaders alike.
Third, I think HR leaders now should have some idea of what their company is going to look like when this is over. Very likely, the company will be smaller. Pick a number. Will it be 30% smaller? 50%? So far, over 38% of businesses have resorted to layoffs or furloughs, and shared services, like HR and accounting, likely will be thinned out. Besides a radically different-looking organization, goals and budgets will be upended, with employees remaining fearful of losing their livelihood, not to mention contracting the virus in a subsequent wave. Being an HR leader in this environment is an enormous job. But this is where HR leaders can really shine by playing a strategic role in setting the company up for success.
Where should they start?
I would look for ways HR can make a difference before things ramp back up. An example might be in HR itself. With thinned out HR ranks, perhaps the company should consider partnering with a Professional Employer Organization and outsourcing some of the HR function –payroll, benefits, and, critically, legal liability. This doesn’t have to be a big lift. In some cases, a conversion can take less than four weeks.
Here’s why this appeals to me. First, what’s left of HR is going to be needed in the trenches, helping employees ramp back up quickly. And don’t forget that the organization will likely go through even more changes once business starts to come back, so HR has a critical role to play here.
Second, companies will search for efficiencies (think cost-savings) anywhere they can get them. PEOs make their case by pooling clients and offering healthcare coverage often at far better rates than many mid-size and smaller companies can get on their own. Why is that important? Because I think carriers are going to see a surge in expenses this year, and that may be reflected in 2021 rates. Let’s try to get in front of that. Finally, PEOs assume certain risk and liability for companies, and in an unsettled environment with provincial and federal laws in flux, there may be great value in that. Let the PEOs figure out how — and take the risk for applying — the laws that correspond to your situation.
Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?
Companies large and small alike probably have no better idea than anyone else when things will go back to “normal,” but I advise companies to prepare for the new normal today — and HR can help provide the light at the end of the tunnel.
Can HR get us there?
HR leaders are taking their role very seriously. The ones who are thinking a few steps ahead and considering what the landscape will look like when this is over will be the ones whose companies benefit most. But we have a lot of work to do.
Now is the time for us all to work together — to make and reinforce connections, to share tips and traps, to be sounding boards. Now is when we think about what will be demanded of us when we emerge from this nightmare. It’s going to be a lot of work. But emerge we will. Together.
Ready to start planning?
Kanoe Namahoe is the editor for SmartBrief on Workforce.