As various states across the US are working toward reopening, the reality is sinking in for human resources and operations leaders that we need plans in place for how even the basics of work have changed. I’m sure when things finally do settle down, the days of social distancing, managing personal and work lives with a pandemic, working early mornings and late nights, and carrying insurmountable stress won’t be missed – but they can definitely be learned from.

One of my early memories that stands out is from March when COVID-19 was on the rise and I was speaking at a conference. I chatted with some of the attendees and asked, “How is your company handling this situation?” What I learned was that no one had a good response in preparing for this extreme level of economic suppression. And now here we are a couple of months later all having to adjust our business procedures, again. What’s important in moments like these is that we reflect on the lessons we’ve gained from situations out of our control like an economic downturn and create an action plan so we can avoid those sleepless nights in the future. In this post, I’ll sum up some of these lessons and link to some more in-depth resources we’ve created from an HR, operations, and employee perspective.


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HR lessons learned

If human resources weren’t recognized as a strategic partner before the crisis at their organizations, they are now. Businesses across the country didn’t know how to handle day-to-day tasks as disruptions escalated. Items like filling emergency shifts, making tough calls about furloughing or laying off employees, maintaining a healthy culture, and providing support resources for employees who may be suffering from anything COVID-19-related were all new, and HR was asked to shoulder those burdens. Judging from my conversations with HR professionals, these are a few areas HR can enhance in the days to come based on those experiences:

Employee well-being and safety comes first, and requires an action plan

This isn’t a new concept, but recognizing a shift in the needs of both employees and the business around mental and physical well-being is imperative. To keep the business running we must ensure we have an action plan that not only identifies key employee roles to stay operational, but also recognizes employee value by providing for their safety and giving them confidence in the processes we’ve put in place to protect them even if they still have to come onsite.

We can be more agile about training, reskilling, and upskilling our employees

The first step here is recognizing the need for proper training, upskilling, and reskilling and then pursuing it. I’ve never met an employee who doesn’t want to learn more and find some satisfaction in their job, and providing opportunities to perform different roles and tasks is a great way to do that while also covering gaps you may have right now.

As my colleague Julie Develin mentions in the article linked above, “It’s important that we identify core competencies and work with our managers to establish employees’ goals with our business goals.”  Continue to evaluate, discuss, and identify what employees want to learn and create a plan that optimizes that against critical business needs when difficult times strike.

Create remote work policies if possible and manage the experience

Let’s be clear – this isn’t viable for every business. An easy way to quantify if it’s an option for yours is leveraging HR data to track employee behaviours and the activities they tackle in their positions. And if you decide there’s opportunities for them to accomplish these tasks while working remote, you need to help them thrive. Many organizations have now proven you don’t have to be in the office every day to be productive.

Mental health should never be a stigma, and we must continue the discussion we've started

It’s important that we provide information to our employees on how to understand the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety, burnout, and declining mental health in general. Beyond that, we need to have a plan that’s easy for employees to understand and lays out what actions they and we can take to ensure harm is avoided. I'm sure we've all encountered some new and creative ways to help one another cope as we've all worked through this crisis. Let's use those to our advantage to have a healthier workplace in the future.

Operational lessons learned

For operations leaders, the many business disruptions they’ve overcome and continue to address have revealed many opportunities to collaborate with HR. Here are some ways to bring new perspectives around opportunities to communicate with and support employees to what in the past were looked on as purely quantitative day-to-day activities.

Nurture employees through operational processes

This is a great time to be empathetic and real with employees. Recognize that measuring productivity may look different moving forward. Consider where your productivity gaps are and determine if flexible scheduling will solve these issues. Self-service plays a critical role in shift swapping, shifts being covered, and managers having insight on avoiding burnout. Nurturing starts with trust, and if you use the right technologies to give your employees options around when and how they work, you’ll build that trust while at the same time keeping your business goals moving forward.

Be present, be visible, and overcommunicate

It’s empowering for employees to know their peers, colleagues, and managers are willing to have meaningful conversations and be transparent about changes taking place. We’ve learned how important having flexible options for notifying employees about process changes is, but even if you’ve put mobile, email, call tree, or other communication plans in place just being willing to get out from behind the desk and have conversations in person can make those plans have an even more positive impact.  Make sure your employees feel heard and seen.

Educate around labour costs and how they align with productivity

We have to make allies of our employees when it comes to the importance of controlling labour costs, managing overtime, and accessing data to understand productivity. This is a great opportunity to leverage an HCM system to not only provide reports on who is a top producer and compare it with others in the department/position but also expose some of these results to employees if appropriate to educate them on what approaches work best to boost efficiency and productivity.  If one employee produces more in less time, find out why and make it a repeatable process for others.

Employee lessons learned

Our employees themselves have learned a lot about how to cope with incredible amounts of stress, remain resilient, and succeed in non-traditional work environments. HR and operations should come together to evaluate the takeaways their people have from this experience and use those conversations to build stronger future approaches.

People are resilient but still want and require leadership/guidance

Employees have moved to a new level when it comes to trusting one another and showing empathy for colleagues.  As Alanna Fincke and Linda Natansohn say in “The 7 Habits of Highly Resilient Employees,” “While we cannot change the world around us, we can change the way we respond, adapt, and arm ourselves to tackle challenges and setbacks and show up in life.”  As leaders, we need to make sure we’re setting an example in terms of passion and resilience and reinforcing these positive cultural outcomes for employees so that the stress we’re all going through together brings our organizations closer together instead of driving us apart.

We are capable of working remotely and succeeding

Give your employees the chance to speak up and share how the sudden shift to remote work impacted your organization’s culture both positively and negatively. Investigate how they were able to create structure for their day-to-days, especially while manoeuvring around children and other family care responsibilities, so you can replicate some of those techniques in more traditional environments and bring the best of what your employees discovered back into the workplace with them.

If you didn't think you needed technology before, you know you do now

Explore with employees how leveraging technology helped with transparency and your ability to overcommunicate, as well as which communication channels worked best for them. I was on a call the other day where a company didn’t have an emergency plan in place if they needed to contact all employees. Not to instill fear, but it was the harsh realization that a change had to be made so they could put employee’s well-being first. Leverage your employees’ insights into your technology to communicate even better, eliminate bad processes, and limit the stress they’re experiencing.

Conclusion: Even adversity is an opportunity

Over the past 6 weeks, across the world, I’ve witnessed people coming together.  I’ve watched companies step up to manage through uncertainty and achieve greatness. Let’s use this moment before things start really shifting again to reflect, improve, and achieve something even greater.  When it comes to being an employee-first organization, what you do now will impact what happens when we return to a work situation that looks more normal.

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Published: Tuesday, 27 October 2020