Mapping out the current crisis into discrete periods can not only help you plan, it can also make positive changes permanent.
Nothing motivates a human animal more than a threat to its life. And nothing motivates a human community more than a shared threat. The COVID-19 pandemic is a pertinent example of this. Business ideas that have been waylaid by inertia for years have been implemented in days. Excuses, such as resource limitations, have been overcome just as quickly.
“A public service agency we were working with early on managed to get 86 per cent of its workforce working from home in a couple of weeks. Which is just mind-blowing: that an organisation that arguably might not have had the best technology was able to do it,” says Jane Gunn, partner in charge, People and Change, KPMG.
When people talk about the ‘silver linings’ of the pandemic it’s usually cultural shifts, such as remote working, to which they are referring. But it’s helpful to break down the crisis into discrete periods, because what organisations are doing right now is not what they were doing a month ago nor what they will be doing a month from now.
The KPMG report Our New Reality: Predictions after COVID-19 labels those periods as:
- Reaction – where the primary focus is on limiting damage
- Resilience – managing things when the virus has been contained (arguably where Australia is now)
- Recovery – the post-vaccine period where companies can truly survey the damage and plan for what’s next
- New reality – what the world looks like when the pandemic is truly behind us
The advantage of this framework is its focus on the future. Thinking ahead is how you embed positive changes, rather than letting them slip away.
But from an HR perspective, it’s useful to get a little more granular to account for the immediate workforce impacts of the virus, and the different ways they should be handled. Below is a framework adapted from several others, including KPMG’s and McKinsey’s.
- A growing crisis – when no impacts have been felt, so the organisational focus is on planning.
- Escalating problems – initial business impacts are felt, and actions are being taken.
- The tipping point – the worst moment of the crisis, where the most significant impacts hit. It’s here that businesses fail.
- The journey out – a mixture of planning for a post-virus world and reacting to remaining business disruptions.
- The new normal – the post-virus world, where the planning from the previous stage bears fruit.
It’s important to remember this is not necessarily a linear progression. For example, if a second wave of infections comes that’s worse than the first, then Australia is not in the stage it thinks it is. Or at least, it will be flung back to a repeat of an earlier stage.
Also, not every organisation will be at the same point in the timeline. Businesses in the worst affected industries might not have experienced their tipping point yet. They will also likely experience a longer journey out of the crisis than businesses in less affected industries.
HRM spoke to Gunn about the things HR can be doing during each stage of the crisis to help their businesses survive and thrive in this calamitous time. Importantly, the conversation touched on the challenges faced when the recovery takes shape and the motivation to make positive changes – the threat – begins to dissipate.
1. A growing crisis
This is where Australia was in the first days of March. In the community, it was at this moment that supplies at supermarkets, most famously toilet paper and pasta, suddenly ran out (read HRM’s story on what the early days were like for HR professionals).
Very few people had been infected and most businesses were yet to feel any significant impacts, but everyone knew there was devastation of some sort on the horizon.
For businesses, this stage was all about planning. HR professionals in the entertainment, hospitality, and restaurant industries were mapping out workforce impacts and examining whether or not they would have to use stand down orders, and what that would look like.
Other HR professionals were trying to figure out how widespread remote working would work from a logistical and managerial point of view. That included hiring and onboarding remotely as well as communicating uncertainty and job insecurity.
When it came to wellbeing, companies were looking to do what they could to help panicked staff, and whether their EAPs and other support programs were ready for increased usage.
If the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, businesses will now already have a lot of the systems in place to adapt. The major difference, particularly for organisations in heavily affected industries, will be figuring out whether they actually have the resources to continue to hibernate.
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2. Escalating problems
In Australia, this is where consumer behaviour began to change dramatically across the board, and the initial social distancing restrictions were put in place. The difference between it and the previous stage is really the difference between being plans and action.
At this point, organisations were examining and applying for government programs designed to relieve the worst effects of the pandemic, in particular JobKeeper. And HR was reviewing how modern award changes applied to their organisations.
HR was also adapting management procedures, learning and development, rewards and recognition and its other specialties to manage the crisis. Remote working, now a reality, was actioned and implementation challenges tackled.
This was the sad period where many organisations were forced to let staff go, and unemployment spiked.
3. The tipping point
The health and business impacts of the pandemic diverge here, at least for Australia. Arguably the tipping point for infections was in early April when daily cases dropped from 460 on 28 March to 107 on 6 April. But the social distancing that made this possible affected all organisations and made it impossible for some to operate at all.
Depending on the organisation, the tipping point might not yet have arrived. Required cost savings have been actioned, and JobKeeper applied for, but external business circumstances (including loosening restrictions) and the ability to open up new revenue streams will determine which organisations survive and which don’t – and which ones have to undertake further workforce restructuring. For HR, a key contribution for this stage is anything they’ve help set up to that contributes to innovation. That could be through things such as implementing an agile philosophy or through smart, responsible restructuring.
From a wellbeing perspective, organisations are (or will be) managing the effects of grief, isolation, video conferencing exhaustion and, in organisations that made staff redundant, survivor syndrome.
Gunn says in this period and the previous saw leaders adapt to the circumstances. The sense of community, and that everyone was in this together, made a lot of leaders open up.
“Leaders have learnt to connect with people differently on a human level. And that’s been really important in motivating people through this time,” she says.
“People have been in each other’s homes virtually, meeting each other’s children, meeting each other’s dogs and cats, so I think being quite deliberate about a certain level of openness is critical. We don’t want to go back to the old ways where leaders were seen as untouchable. We want that authenticity and that vulnerability to stay.”
She says leaders will need to play an ongoing, explicit role in managing the wellbeing, resilience and adaptability of their people. To do that, she says, “Leaders need to put their own mask on first. They are the role models for their people.”
HR professionals can help guide and coach leaders and managers with this. To be an effective role model, Gunn refers to a typical breakdown her organisation uses. It suggests four areas to focus on:
- Physiology – this is how you eat and move. This isn’t about shame or commanding people, it’s about role modelling healthiness and having conversations. In a time when liquor sales and sedentary lifestyles are skyrocketing, this is important.
- Productivity – this is all about time management and the risks of presenteeism and burn out.
- Recovery – this refers to stress management, especially giving yourself a break and what that looks like.
- Psychology – how you manage the way you think and how you manage your emotions.
“We encourage leaders to do a check-in and ask their people, ‘How are you going in these four areas of your life?’” says Gunn.
The other broad leadership trend has been a willingness to trust employees more, and give them more autonomy and discretion when it comes to meeting business objectives. Part of this, says Gunn, is that people saw the futility in pretending they could be a top-down leader in a time of uncertainty.
An obvious world example is US president Donald Trump announcing an end date to the lockdown, ignoring that the virus was outside of his control. In contrast, Gunn says she has seen a lot of leaders getting better at communicating purpose.
“I think our leaders have learned a valuable lesson about leading in ambiguity. They have realised, ‘It’s okay that we don’t know the answers. Let’s work together. Let’s ask people. Let’s give them agency and autonomy. Let’s truly co-create a way of getting through that is going to work for all of us.’”
4. The journey out
If Australia isn’t already at this stage, the hope is that it’s coming soon.
On a practical level, there are things workplaces are planning and actioning to navigate through this stage. In particular, that means figuring out workplace health and safety requirements in an environment where the virus has not been eliminated. That includes pondering difficulties with the commute and getting across legal issues regarding what can and can’t be expected of staff in terms of out-of-work behaviour.
Almost all organisations are being careful to not venture outside government guidance as they prepare for some of their workforces to return to the office.
“That means distancing measures are in place and that there are protocols about elevator usage and minimising the number of people that come into the office,” says Gunn.
Gunn has been using the language of ‘priority groups’ to refer to those who should come back in the first stages of returning to work. “These tend to be people whose roles have been more difficult to do practically and people who’ve personally found it difficult to work from home.”
The size of each organisation’s office is determinative, but in general, only 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce can return to the workplace in this first phase, says Gunn. This percentage will increase as government advice changes.
The other side of ‘the journey out’ is planning for the next stage. One of KPMG’s predictions is quite a common one to hear – that remote work is here to stay.
“We don’t think it will be all the time, we don’t think it’s for everyone, but an awful lot of people have seen the benefits of working from home and they don’t want to go back to the traffic, the frustration and the time that gets wasted in offices,” says Gunn.
The shift to more remote work has been anticipated for a decade, but it seems the pandemic has finally changed the culture.
“I think we were in a situation where office working was our default as a result of habit, not because it made sense,” says Gunn. “And our change management efforts had not been able to shift that in a way that a crisis has been able to shift our thinking.”
Even as cultural change happens, businesses should be aware of those who don’t find remote working ideal.
“We’ve seen people for whom it is really hard to work at home. I think it’s the minority, but it’s people who don’t have the infrastructure set up and perhaps people who are particularly psychologically motivated by other people – it’s harder for them to work from home.”
Many organisations have already been taking the pulse of their organisation and sending out surveys to determine who benefits the most from remote work, and who is finding it stultifying.
“We’re probably going to end up with a spectrum of different ways of working,” says Gunn. On one end of the spectrum, some businesses will return to the traditional model where remote working is considered more of a privilege and is given if staff need it.
“On the other extreme, we think small headquarters will be set up, and people will only come in for very specific purposes. For example, collaboration and face-to-face learning.”
5. The new normal
How this stage will look is still very much up to what people do and plan today. What we must prepare for is that at some stage the appetite for change, and the drive to do whatever is necessary, will fade. This is a good thing because it means the health crisis is behind us, but it will make post-pandemic changes harder to implement.
KPMG predicts that the insistence on the nine-to-five workday will go the way of the dodo and that real estate and office infrastructure will be rethought. But will that happen?
Will leaders slowly return to the older peremptory style of leadership once the crisis gets further away? Will the management structures of tomorrow grow to become more hierarchical? Will remote working be widely available, or just the way we got through a pandemic?
To make ‘the new normal’ the best it can be, a mindset change is required, says Gunn. She refers to VUCA, a way of thinking developed in the US Army War College that has since become a strategic leadership approach.
VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It describes a military situation where things could change in a moment, you don’t know in what ways and it’s not clear how you should respond, which is a fair description of the current circumstances.
“Rather than having certainty and saying ‘I know the answer’ it’s about understanding and teaching others to understand that situations are often ambiguous,” she says.
Even before the current crisis, rapidly changing technology, increasing automation, climate change and an increasingly disruptive business environment made such a mindset valuable. The pandemic just made it crucial. Maintaining it even as we move beyond recovery might just mean we all get to experience better ways of working.
“As we go into recovery, leaders are going to have to step up again,” says Gunn. “We are going to have to be really conscious of what kind of culture we want to create, and deliberately put in place ways to do that.”