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HR’s biggest Covid-19 challenge is yet to come

Featured, Business Processes 4 Jun . min read

The Covid-19 crisis has tested HR leaders like never before. Globally, hundreds of millions of people have had their work lives upended. The rule book is being rewritten. It’s safe to argue we are facing the greatest professional challenge of our time.

The good news is that in New Zealand, HR leaders have stepped up. To date, AskYourTeam has surveyed more than 26,000 Kiwis working from home during the lockdown. In key areas of trust, communication and flexibility we’ve seen impressive results.

Compared to pre-Covid-19, during lockdown respondents rated their workplaces higher on average for measures including, being trusted by managers to work productively, knowing what is expected of them, having the resources to work effectively, and staying connected with teammates and managers.

We’ve also seen closer alignment on these issues between leaders and the people who work for them. In some cases, the gap between how leaders and workers rate their organisations on these measures has halved. These results are a reason for us to be proud of our work as HR professionals. But the next phase of this crisis will be more unpredictable and challenging.

Here’s why

Lockdown can be thought of as a ‘honeymoon’ in the lifecycle of the Covid-19 crisis as it relates to work. There have been serious practical challenges to overcome, but the shared threat of the virus has had the effect of pulling us closer together. Our jobs have given us a collective anchor and a sense of belonging as life outside has changed. 

We can see the same trend mirrored in the country more widely. Colmar Brunton, for example, has found three in five New Zealanders now feel a greater sense of national pride than they did pre-Covid-19. But social scientists are warning the next phase will be characterised by a significant loss of this cohesion. And I think they’re right.

The current catchcry that ‘we’re all in this together’ will ring increasingly hollow for people worst affected by the coming economic recession, with mass redundancies, mandatory pay cuts, dislocated working environments and the inevitable pressure to do more with less. This pandemic will affect some greatly, others lightly. The effects clearly will not be felt together.

HR will be at the forefront of these emerging faultlines, and it’s almost impossible to predict when and where they will rupture. The news is full of predictions about everything from unemployment numbers to the demise of specific industries, but these often say as much about the hopes or fears of commentators as much as they do about our real future. Covid-19 kills people and jobs, but it doesn’t kill cognitive bias.

This also means there is no reliable guide for us to navigate this next phase of the crisis. What we are able to do is to help organisations be as cohesive and resilient as possible, and prepare them for any further disruption.

Our lockdown study offers us six principles to keep in mind in this era of uncertainty

Act early.
This means communicating well before changes take place and preparing people for upcoming decisions so they are not a surprise. The New Zealand Government took this approach in response to the pandemic and as a result, trust and approval ratings among the public have remained consistently high. Even if no decisions have yet been made, involving all your people as early as possible in the process will help them understand why changes are being made.

Set clear expectations.
Uncertainty is going to rise and clear expectations around workload and productivity can create a counterbalance to this ambiguity. Team members should have clear guidelines about what they are expected to do each day and each week so they know when they can turn off their computer and deal with the other list of issues they’ll inevitably be facing.

Make trust your new currency.
Command and control leadership has truly met its match in Covid-19. With more people working remotely than at any time in our history, people are being trusted to deliver on objectives without the hands-on management they may have experienced working in the office. People will not expect this trust and autonomy to be lost as they return to the workplace, and empowering them with greater decision making over their work will be essential.

Check-in regularly.
Communicating often and openly is critical in a crisis, and our survey has shown people are valuing connection with managers and teammates more than previously. Some people enjoy working from home and can be productive, while others struggle. Pay close attention to people’s wellbeing and be visibly responsive to what you hear - nothing creates a sense of involvement more than people hearing that their leaders are acting on their opinions or concerns.

Create shared moments.
In remote working environments, there are fewer chances for the day-to-day bonding that happens in the physical workplace. Scheduling time to come together online for non-work-related connection is essential to recreating these building blocks of workplace culture. It is no coincidence that virtual work drinks are so popular these days: they are a great opportunity to laugh, cry, or just vent your emotions with colleagues.
Adapt for the long haul.
We’re hearing from senior leaders that they are preparing plans to operate remotely for months. It’s clear remote working is here to stay and will more than ever become an integral part of the way we work. Investing in remote working now and making it a realistic option for as many people as possible is going to help organisations remain resilient in very uncertain times like these.

NB: This Blog is adapted from the article published in the HRNZ Magazine Winter Edition.



Chris O’Reilly

Chris co-founded AskYourTeam as a way to make it easier for leaders to ask their teams the most important (and the least-asked) question in business: “How can I help you do your job better?”