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When People Matter Most

How HR executives have stepped more firmly into leadership roles during the COVID-19 crisis

  • 2 April 2020

When a crisis centers on people, Human Resources leaders are at the heart of almost all the mission-critical touchpoints. From enabling a remote workforce and communications, to ensuring employee wellbeing, to maintaining culture and engagement, HR executives have had to transform their organizations overnight (quite literally in some instances). While there has been a push for HR executives to move from leading a function (administrative) to leading people (transformational), in the past few years, COVID-19 accelerated the need for people-first strategies. Egon Zehnder gathered more than 70 leading Human Resources executives, almost all with the additional responsibility of sitting on the Executive Committees of their organizations, representing 13 countries and 9 industries at the beginning and end of March to find out how they are navigating the coronavirus pandemic and how they continue to set their organizations up for success once the crisis is over.  

In the two weeks between our calls, much changed. Countries that previously had few cases of the virus found themselves with hundreds and thousands of infected citizens. At the same time, countries in Asia were beginning a slow return to normalcy with shops and restaurants opening. This led to executives thinking of the COVID-19 crisis in four phases: emergency response, crisis management/business continuity, reactivation, and recovery, with many global companies simultaneously in several phases of the crisis at once.  

While the executives at our virtual gathered were in different phases of the pandemic, there were several themes that resonated with the HR community: 

Rewriting Duty of Care 

In this new normal, companies are in a role that goes beyond just being an employer. Leadership teams are working to enhance employee support on both a personal and community level. “We are rewriting our duty of care, enhancing incentives and enhancing insurance coverage,” said the HR leader of a multinational consumer company.   

Remarkably, the duty of care is bringing companies together, even with competitors, creating stronger collaboration in responding to community needs, mirroring the enhanced partnership between the private and the public sector. “The scientific community has all come together,” explained an HR executive. “There is no room for competition, [we are all] trying to find a solution, either therapy or vaccine.” Companies are also increasing their support for communities.  “We had a budget of $10 million to support communities in this crisis; we have just increased that to $35 million,” said the HR leader of a multinational pharmaceutical company. “We have just approved a leave to allow our people to volunteer,” added another executive. 

Sharing Best Practices Across Geographies, Industries, and Functions 

Many companies have created cross-functional crisis teams to address the pandemic, and as companies move through the four phases, these teams are documenting best practices of what has worked well in their business line and region. One company created global sharing channels where teams in China share their experience with the rest of their operations. As a practical example, they are passing on their know-how about progressive ways to check on employees’ health and working with external providers to come up with a reporting system to track confirmed cases, suspected cases, or quarantine cases, in a similar manner to how they tracked the cases early on via WeChat in China.  Documenting and passing on “playbooks” have prepared parts of global organizations that were in an earlier stage of the crisis to prepare better for what is to come.

Authentic, Timely, and Consistent Communications 

Leaders must focus on honest and empathetic communications to steer their organizations through this crisis. They must demonstrate composure while also showing authenticity. “It is time to show honesty; there are tons of unknowns and we do not know how things will play themselves out,” said a global HR leader. Best-in-class companies are talking to their employees on a daily basis, with senior executives—often the CEO and the Chief People Officer—together holding town halls broadcast around the world.  Companies have set up phone lines open 24/7 where employees can phone in with any question, providing clear resources for issues ranging from emergency response to mental health support.   

Recognizing Frontline and Remote Employees  

All of the leaders who joined in our conversations were cognizant that white-collar and blue-collar workers have been impacted differently in this crisis. One global company set up a new policy that would protect the salaries of temporary staff and field sales teams for three months. They also identified employees who may be more at risk, deploying company doctors to provide services and support those that are most vulnerable. “We are recognizing the ‘heroes’ on the frontlines,” an executive at a multinational pharmaceutical company shared. “At the same time, there is a sense of ‘one-ness.’ We even have our EVP of manufacturing training to go on the shop floor if needed.” 

Digitalization Accelerated 

Companies have been technically transformed almost overnight, with regional lockdowns and social distancing forcing companies to rely on technology to continue operations. Both customer touch points and employee touch points have moved to digital platforms, with consumer products companies accelerating their direct to consumer efforts or healthcare companies utilizing technology to reach patients and customers. “From an HR perspective, we leveraged the chance to continue to reinvent the function,” explained the HR leader of a retail company in Asia. “For us, it’s how to ensure the stores have enough staff to operate during the recovery. How do we leverage the digital to use cloud hiring system?”  An even stronger partnership between the IT function and the HR function was forged that potentially lays the foundation of what is to come, as many believe “there is now no turning back.” 

Tracking Sentiment: A New Way to Approach Culture 

Once the initial crisis response is in place, organizations are now turning their attention to engaging their employees and addressing a major question: How do you keep your finger on the pulse of a largely remote workforce? Leveraging technology beyond the traditional employee engagement survey, companies are looking to use technology to gauge and respond to employee sentiment. HR leaders believe that the data and insight they collect can help them as they reflect on company culture going forward. “We are tracking sentiment a lot,” one global HR leader said. “People will think differently about their companies after this—positively or negatively.” This may well be a point in time where HR leaders, together with the rest of the leadership team, have an opportunity to refine their organization’s culture around a common purpose, deeply rooted in society, where inclusion, trust, and accountability emerge as core values. 

An Opportunity for Development and Succession Planning 

HR leaders shared examples of how they are retraining and reskilling their employees to respond to immediate needs to serve customers and communities. “Our [field] representatives have shifted to digital visits from in-person visits,” explained the HR leader for a multinational pharmaceutical company.   

Others have quickly shifted to utilizing this period as a stretch assignment for their top talent.  Across organizations, it is often this top talent who are being earmarked to focus solely on future planning, not being dragged into crisis management, offering an unplanned yet considerable development opportunity. “We have been very formal in what we do for the short term and long term,” the HR officer of a multinational company said. “We have carved out resources and asked certain people to think of the long term.”   

Some organizations are revisiting their succession planning efforts after observing some executives emerge as unexpected leaders, while some others, who were on the succession plans, disappointingly did not step up in a way that the organization would have hoped.  Assessing for agility in unforeseen circumstances is emerging as a dimension to include consistently in talent management conversations.   

There are also many “micro development moments” emerging. “We are identifying critical leadership skills and deploying [short and targeted] leadership programs, which people are soaking up in a meaningful way,” explained the chief people officer of a software company. “We are watching our great talent mentor those at peer level and below.” 

Rethink and Reinvest in Your Organization’s Future 

While there is still a significant daily crisis to manage in multiple geographies, as the chief people officer of an online company put it, “Very quickly we need to think about how we can engage leaders to start thinking about tomorrow, going out of defense mode into offense mode.” 

Many believe that their organizations will not look or operate the way they did prior to the pandemic with companies investing in different scenario planning on an ongoing basis. “It is not the time to think of the bottom line,” suggested one HR leader. “It is time to reinvest.” One of the most obvious is that remote working will likely be embraced for the long-term as both a cost-savings mechanism and an example of the environmental benefits fewer commuters creates. As one HR leader in an earlier conversation noted, identifying ‘futurists’ across the organization will help prepare the business for what may lie beyond the horizon. 

Take Care of Yourself to Take Care of Others 

The role of the HR/People leader has arguably never been more center stage. Agility that has recently been the focus of HR transformation efforts in many organizations has now had to be tested.  On the one hand, this meant more rapid deployment of HR technology for some basic functions. On the other, it meant that HR leaders had to step into eye of the storm in true partnership with the business leaders.  The need to invest in the people function was underscored to other executives and non-executives of companies in addition to reminding HR leaders to continue investing in themselves to lead in this uncertain world. Yet, at the end of the day, one message was clear: For the HR leaders to take care of their people, they need to take care of themselves, making time to reflect and refresh with empathy.  

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