How can HR measure its success during the coronavirus pandemic?


With the world changing around it, HR might be fearing for its own position within the firm but actually…

Words by Dan Cave | Design by Matt Bonnar

Everything is changing and HR isn’t immune. As stated in a recent BCG article on people priorities during the coronavirus pandemic, an article which acts as a call to arms for outstanding HR performance as much as anything else: “Companies all over the world are in crisis mode. No one can predict with any confidence how the economy will evolve over the medium term. It’s not just a matter of [HR] reacting effectively; we must also accelerate up the learning curve and rapidly draw conclusions that will enable us to improve the business sector’s resilience in the future.”

Whilst this all sounds good – who would disagree? – there are questions over what this evolution and ‘effective reaction’ for HR might be, noting that on how it does both is likely how the function will be viewed during this crisis. Dan Schawbel, New York Times bestselling author and career coach, implied that if HR is to navigate the crisis well, it would require increasingly savvy and business-centric thinking. Writing in a LinkedIn post which has received a lot of attention in the HR community, he explained that "HR is desperately needed right now" to “meet the needs of this new work paradigm”. The implication being that HR can show its worth during this crisis. (Indeed, a recent Economist article The coronavirus crisis thrust corporate HR chiefs in the spotlight, on the role of those at the top of a company hierarchy during this crisis, argues that HR leaders are right now the executives best placed to add value to the business and its people, and their value should be judged on how well the business weathers this current storm.)

 

The people in your company are the ones who will pull you out of a financial slowdown

What should HR focus on?

In Schawbel’s thinking, HR’s value – and whether HR is successful or not – can be judged on how well the function gets the core parts of HR right. Whilst he acknowledges that HR is at risk during the pandemic – “they are the last to get hired and the first to get fired” – there are things that the function can be doing that will showcase its work as being of central importance. These include focussing on the business’ relationship to talent during this time; whether that be new people, through interviewing and hiring, or on how it engages current staff through L&D, compensation and benefits, and the implementation of new ways of working. As he sees it, if HR can get a handle on these right now “[it] will be in a better position in the aftermath of this pandemic and be able to handle the obstacles we can't foresee in the future.”

Dave Ulrich, Professor at University of Michigan’s School of Business agrees. “HR deliverables of talent, leadership, and organisation become even more pivotal [during this time],” he wrote in a recent Linkedin post. According to Ulrich, during this dramatic shift in which the productivity, mental health, engagement and health of the workforce will be challenged – a quick Google showcases countless well-researched articles on these subjects – HR should be measured on how it delivers talent to the business, how well it can provide psychological safety and purposeful work to the workforce, how it delivers a sense of community, how it delivers learning and growth and how it creates the ‘right’ culture during this time. “HR’s role in a crisis is ever more critical because the stress of a crisis magnifies actions and creates lingering memories, he adds.

 

Balancing the organisation and the individual to be successful

In effect, Ulrich is arguing that HR will be judged on how it balances the paradox of attending to the individual but also to the organisation. “HR’s legacy is to be caregivers to all employees,” he explains, noting that this must be held alongside organisational survival. So, what does this mean in practise. For some, it will be about ensuring productivity and engagement by crafting a culture of transparency and individuality, although that might be temporarily remote. Harriet Shurville, Chief People Officer at Iris, a London-headquartered advertising agency, explains how her firm hosts weekly Zoom calls for their people whereby they can put questions to the CEO in order for him to provide information around newly emerging practise and anxieties. Furthermore, they allow employees to host DJ sets, parent-led bedtime stories for kids alongside a positioning of HR as an emergent comms hub for the firm, for employees to access whenever they want. “It’s on HR to ensure this two-way comms stays open, as well as ensuring we’re communicating key messages in the right manner. That’s been a really big focus for us,” she tells HR Grapevine.

They are the last to get hired and the first to get fired

 

Creating positive people experiences

For Zoe Walters, who has lead HR at Condé Nast, Adidas and Diesel, success for HR during this period, much like Ulrich, will be about how it creates a positive experience for people. “I believe it's about experience, measuring experience like we do from our consumers like net promoter score NPS based on one question to the employee: how likely are you to recommend to others to work for your employer?  This will give HR clarity on its fans, ultimately, this is proof whether people are your ambassadors and supporters.” The follow on being, as contemporary HR thought states, that this should then deliver tangibles like retention, productivity and better engagement and positive employer branding for the firm.

Walters continues that this shouldn’t mean putting aside all of the things that high-functioning HR departments are currently known for – diversity, inclusion and future talent pipelines – just because this is a crisis. “This is the moment where I believe a company can be truly diverse and inclusive and build community, its future talent pool. Maybe not for this moment they will hire, people who are given attention in this moment are more likely to remember during this historical time and be open to coming to work for the org,” she adds.

And whilst HR might have to challenge to get these aspects right – getting a voice with the board is an ongoing HR concern – it should push, because people – including them, engaging them, making them productive – will get business through this crisis, and that is ultimately how HR will be judged. As Josh Bersin recently blogged: “If you focus on your people in a competent and ethical way, and you listen to their needs, you can drive up trust, teamwork, and resilience. The people in your company are the ones who will pull you out of a financial slowdown.”


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