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How HR leaders are rewriting the rules of work in a pandemic

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that business is all about people. The virus has destroyed lives, jobs and industries; the lockdown has transformed the way we work, communicate, learn and innovate. Whether we’re working from home with a laptop and broadband connection, or onsite with protective equipment and stringent distancing measures, every one of us is having to adapt to a different normal. 

Matters of leadership, workforce engagement, productivity and skills are suddenly at the centre of organisations’ strategy formulations. This is a turning point for HR leaders, who have been thrust into the eye of the storm. The skill and sensitivity with which they adapt their working processes to sustain communication, collaboration, capacity and culture will set the tone for the future of work.

People come first

As the crisis unfolds, the health and wellbeing of employees is a hot topic. Compassion and empathy have sprung up in critical boardroom discussions around business continuity, from safety procedures to flexible working policies to furloughing decisions. As organisations move out of survival mode to contemplate what’s next, HR remains at the nexus of these conversations, shifting the focus to employee engagement and productivity. All decisions point to one end goal: driving the workforce forward during this strange period of social distancing and virtual working, so that the organisation can survive – and, with a bit of luck, emerge stronger than ever. 

For many HR leaders, this is their moment. The crisis has accelerated a transition they have been toying with for years as technology and social forces reshape the workforce. The case has been made. Remote working, distance learning and social collaboration tools are no longer nice-to-haves; they are essential to getting the job done. 

What many initially thought would be short-term adjustments are quickly being ceded into longer-term planning. We have to face the reality that many employees will never return to their traditional workstations – whether because their job becomes obsolete or because virtual working, for their role, proves to be so much more effective. The way HR leaders handle this challenge will influence the mental and physical wellbeing of the nation.

Reimagining work

Working practices are being remade before our very eyes. Initial conversations about how to sustain communication, collaboration and culture in a virtual operating model are giving way to ideas about new ways of working. The first step is to make sure boardroom ambitions match the reality on the ground.

According to the recent IBV report Beyond the Great Lockdown: Emerging stronger to a different normal, while 75% of executives say they are helping their employees to work in new ways, only 38% of employees feel their organisations are giving them the remote working support they need.

The skill and sensitivity with which they adapt their working processes to sustain communication, collaboration, capacity and culture will set the tone for the future of work.

HR needs to fill this gap by harnessing examples of good practice and replicating their success around the business. This could be as simple as identifying the teams that are embracing virtual tools with gusto, and sharing their approach more widely. It could also mean pairing up less confident managers with digitally savvy employees for some reverse-mentoring,or asking them to produce simple video tutorials.

Smart managers are realising that some things can actually be done better through virtual tools. Many employees find it easier to articulate their thoughts through messaging tools and online polls, or can express themselves better in the focused environment of a video call. As they find their feet, those managers should set standards and demonstrate good leadership to their teams when designing online meetings.

Ripping up the rule book

HR leaders are having to write workforce policies for scenarios they might never in their careers have anticipated, and for which there is no playbook. Many employees will transition to working permanently from home, while others will return in difficult circumstances. It requires dedicated thinking around logistics, around health and safety and around who is truly essential to the business.

It also throws up some big challenges around fairness. HR leaders must account for wildly diverging circumstances such as family obligations, physical and mental health and the availability of transport. Many are realising they may have to rethink the concept of workplace equality and instead build policies designed to meet the individual where they are. 

HR people must adopt – and disseminate – a new clear, honest communication style that addresses both the known and the unknown about the current climate in order to nurture a sense of calm among employees. And, importantly, they must invite a two-way dialogue, inviting evidence and opinions upon which to base successful policies.

The technical term that underlies this theme is “adaptive challenge”, a complex problem where there is no clear solution or path to navigate. And one of the most effective ways of addressing an adaptive challenge is to “give the problem to the people”. Share it with employees and work out how best to listen to their opinions. HR can help establish the critical dialogue and feedback loops through which organisations can learn their way through the crisis

Skills for the future

Skills and capacity planning will be fundamental to HR people as they look ahead. They play a key role in assessing what roles and skills their organisation will need in order to succeed in a future where some historical certainties have dissipated.

Reallocating and reskilling employees will almost certainly be an imperative as many physical activities move online. There will also be difficult decisions to make as furlough schemes end and business priorities realign. But while redundancies will be made and growth plans put on hold, many organisations are still having to attract and recruit talent – and are finding this can be managed very effectively through virtual channels. 

The era of adaptability

Examples of good practice are cropping up from all industries. EY drafted some basic rules to make the working day more manageable for everyone, such as limiting meetings to 45 minutes and establishing a protected lunch break. IBM’s Working From Home Pledge went viral for its gentle commitment to putting empathy at the heart of professional interactions.

The degree of success with which organisations adjust to this different normal depends, in part, on how agile and digitally savvy they were to begin with. Many are thanking their lucky stars that their workforce is flexible and motivated, as long as they have the tools and connectivity.

The crisis has accelerated a transition they have been toying with for years as technology and social forces reshape the workforce

But many more traditional firms are discovering that their people and processes are more resilient than they anticipated. Last year, IBM’s Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap Study identified that the most sought after skill by business leaders was the “willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change.”

2020 is showing us what that means in practical terms, with as employers finding that, when we give people the tools they need and trust them to perform, they rise to the occasion.

(Trust, incidentally, is a prime factor here. The companies that are conspicuously responding well to this different normal are those with a high trust culture: willing to trust their people to remain and engaged and productive rather than track the hours they put in or whether or not they’re online.)

The different normal may well be here to stay. Permanent shifts are happening in every industry as organisations reassess their priorities. Some companies won’t survive this. But from the evidence we’ve seen so far, that will be more a result of economic realities than of a willingness of people to adapt, to evolve, and to work smarter against the odds. 

Working smarter and adjusting to the new normal are no longer a want but a must have for businesses. Tune in to the 'IBM Talks: Emerge Smarter' webinar series to learn more, and discover more about IBM Talent & Transformation Services here

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