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Human Resources

HR Leadership Lessons From the Early Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic

How leaders rapidly readied their organizations and the function to respond to the crisis and what is to come

  • April 2020

We are a world that is both united and divided during the COVID-19 pandemic. United in the sense of we are all adjusting to a “new normal” and the challenges—and some opportunities—that arise with a different way of living and working against the backdrop of genuine solidarity. Where we are divided is where our nations fall in the crisis bell curve—and how we have responded to the situation. In the more than 30 virtual gatherings Egon Zehnder convened with hundreds of Human Resources leaders between February and March 2020, we have seen the approach to the crisis evolve in four phases:

  • Phase 1: Emergency response

  • Phase 2: Crisis management/business continuity

  • Phase 3: Reactivation

  • Phase 4: Recovery

While different countries are in different phases, nearly the entire world has been through or is in Phase 1 right now. As organizations rallied to respond to the crisis, authentic, empathetic, and resilient leaders emerged to help employees and businesses find a path forward. Among those leaders—and often leading the charge—are HR executives, who are a critical part of the team. The need for HR executives to go
beyond functional leadership and emerge as true Chief People Officers has never been greater, and so many have been stepping into this responsibility with determination and empathy.

The leaders in our virtual meetings around the world shared how they have been readying their function and organizations for what is happening and for what is to come. We are grateful for the generosity they have shown in sharing their thinking and experiences with us and with one another.

Rewriting the Rules of Engagement Through Camaraderie and Collaboration

Businesses have united in ways that no one would have predicted just a few months ago. “The civil responsibility and common purpose this crisis has brought to our lives is unprecedented,” said global CHRO of a consumer goods company. Competitors have become collaborators as people come together to solve a truly global challenge. “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.”

Other partnerships between customers and providers have blossomed. The chief talent officer of a global consumer company shared that his company is considering offering temporary positions to the staff of a hotel chain that is one of their major customers since the hospitality industry took a major hit from the pandemic.

In addition, many companies have strengthened partnerships with local governments and are working more closely together. “We are looking to partner with governments to provide support for lower paid workers who either will not be paid because there is no work or who will not be able to go to work and be paid,” one HR executive explained. We also saw HR leaders connecting with each other to solve the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. During these times of uncertainty, business leaders across industries have been eager to share their experiences and learn from each other in both the HR function and in other roles. “I think it is crucial as Head of HR to have a solid external network of colleagues who are living the same experience,” one experienced HR director said.

Communication Is Critical

While internal communications is often an afterthought, the coronavirus crisis thrust it into the spotlight. HR leaders, working with the corporate communications team and C-suite, must determine the tone, frequency, and platforms to reach both a remote workforce and frontline employees who are working often in dangerous circumstances. In this environment of uncertainty, many companies are finding that more informal messages resonate more. “We doubled down on visual and short-form, less structured communications,” an executive from a major manufacturer said.

Companies are also using different channels to communicate than they normally would, with WhatsApp, WeChat, Ding Ding, and others becoming a primary way to keep in touch with employees across time zones and workspaces. “We fully leveraged chat programs on our phones, including messages from the CEO to all 50,000 employees,” one HR executive said. “We announce daily and weekly work plans immediately through our chat, and we set up a platform about how to relieve stress, explaining how we can support and help employees.”

It is also important to take some of the anxiety away from people as they use new-to-them tools and navigate working from home with different interruptions. “Leaders telling personal stories about their own struggles working from home has helped,” a chief people officer said. “It takes pressure off employees to be perfect.

While we are facing the daily hardships of the crisis, it is also helpful to have communications that are more light-hearted and allow for a bit of escape from reality. One HR director shared that the company’s internal communications run through the Yammer App and they organize online happy hours, games, and celebrations to keep employees connected.

Building Culture: Engaging Employees From a Distance

As the stewards for corporate culture, HR leaders must now find ways of engaging employees while they are furloughed, working remotely, or operate as the essential employees who remain on the job. How can HR leaders help to reassure employees and motivate them to continue their work amid a crisis? For those on the frontlines, it’s important to instill a sense of purpose into what they are doing, ensuring the safety risks they are taking are for a greater good and part of a solution. “What has gotten traction for us is when we delivered free pizzas to hospital workers or to school teachers,” said a chief talent officer of a food company. “You feel the upswell in engagement, and love and appreciation.”

HR leaders must particularly focus on those working in the field, showing care. One executive said, “It is very important for top management to engage with blue-collar employees through routine interaction and give the message of unity.” Another executive said that in addition to the measures taken at the factory/plant level, they also send hygiene kits to employees’ families.

What works well may also vary across different organizations. An executive from a start-up company reported efforts to maintain morale and avoid burnout with group video chat time and virtual movie clubs with a young audience of employees (average age: 27). Another HR leader emphasized efforts to unite employees around the same purpose as much as possible. “All of our leaders have daily coffee chats with their teams. We will bring a majority of our employees together in a single video call for a company meeting.”

Beyond giving employees the tools and access needed for remote work, HR leaders must also take into account employee wellbeing during this time of heightened stress. “When stores closed down, we reminded employees about the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), over and over again,” explained the CHRO of a retail company.

Lastly, how HR leaders track employee sentiment and its impact on corporate culture in this time will have a big influence on culture in the future. One big question remains: How do you create the culture you want post-crisis? Leveraging technology beyond the traditional employee engagement survey, companies are looking to use artificial intelligence and other tools 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."

Rethinking Succession Planning

One of the unintended outcomes of COVID-19 was the exposure of succession planning gaps within organizations. If top leaders fall ill, is there a plan in place for who could step in? In other cases, those who were on the short list as successor candidates may not have stepped up as expected, while others emerged as unexpected leaders. “I absolutely use crises to identify those whom you could trust to get things executed,” one leader said. “EQ and IQ come out during these times of struggle.”

An additional challenge is the lockdowns many countries have imposed, making mobility between regions and countries nearly impossible. “We are now looking internally at who can be a successor in each market and step in at least in the interim if needed,” explained an executive for a major pharmacy. “We have to plan for what will happen if we are shut down for months, so that we are not reactive.”

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.”

Fast-Tracking Digital Acceptance

While many organizations pre-crisis had the tools to employ more remote working opportunities and efficiencies, many hesitated due to the unknown impact on corporate culture and productivity. As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated, businesses found themselves embracing digital technology in only a matter of days. “It’s been a super acceleration on the way people collaborate,” said an executive. “Normally this would have taken months, but it’s now taken two weeks.”

Not only has technology transformed the business, but the HR function itself as well. Spring is peak recruitment time for soon-to-be college graduates, but with many universities closing their campuses for the remainder of the semester in-person meetings were not a possibility. Companies turned to online recruiting instead. One China-based company held a live broadcast for recruitment with 89,000 attendees—a higher number than the company engages with when they visit campus in person, leading the company to consider using this approach going forward. Another organization found investment fast tracked for its digital employee experience initiative.

Can We Ever Go Back?

There have been predictions that the COVID-19 crisis marks a turning point in our collective human history. Optimists believe that our lack of human contact will remind us not to take small gestures for granted, such as handshakes or hugs, and will ultimately make us want to do better for the world together. Cynics tend to believe that the world will go back to business as usual after a few months post-crisis.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. One of the most important things leaders can do it to be open to learning from this health and economic crisis. Fueling their curiosity, this is the moment for leaders in the people function to truly invest in both their own and the next generation’s leadership capabilities. A CHRO on one of our calls put it this way: “If you go through this moment in time and it doesn’t transform you into a better version of yourself, you have a lot of self-reflection to do.”

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