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The ‘New Normal’ Is Waiting: Are We Ready for It?

FTSE 125 HR Directors discuss the complexities of returning to work

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, the complexity and global nature of many businesses means that Chief People Officers (CPOs) are juggling a number of evolving situations simultaneously. Companies may have business units and locations in multiple geographies that are each at different stages of the pandemic. The events are “not linear, they are parallel,” a Chief People Officer said. “We need to figure out a new way of managing multiple cases; we are preparing for longer term parallel structures—we have to do crisis and normal.” In our calls with some of the UK’s most prominent people leaders during the last two weeks of April 2020, we heard that CPOs are starting to tackle the next big issue—what does a return to the workplace look like?

An Uncertain Return – though what “was” will likely “not be”

As of the beginning of May 2020, no company has a prescriptive action plan for a return to the workplace. Some are wondering if they want to be the “first mover” or a “fast follower.” For many, employee centricity, which has come to define the earlier phases of the crisis, continues to guide decisions. Other companies are thinking about a phased return, limiting the number of employees present on site with social distancing regulations, which in some cases is expected to be as low as 25 percent of normal capacity. A consistent theme is that if employees do not need to be physically present to conduct their roles, a return to the workplace will be optional for the time being. “We are giving our employees the ‘invitation’ to come back into the office if the local regulations are allowing for lifting of some of the restrictions,” an HR leader shared. “But we will not mandate it.” One executive spoke of three triggers that will guide the decision to come back into the workplace—the external, the internal, and the individual. For any of their employees to return, the organization will:

  • Require the government to advise it is safe to return to the workplace

  • Ensure its internal preparations and procedures are in place to allow safe working with social distancing

  • Ask if individuals feel comfortable returning

The return to the workplace conversation is intimately linked with the mental health of employees. CPOs recognize that the “social contract” has come to the fore with many employees feeling vulnerable and having to balance a number of significant demands. Companies are defining what they mean by a better work-life balance, putting more emphasis on investing in overall well-being.

In our conversations, there was a clear consensus that some aspects of working have changed for good. There will be new operating models, and some reshaping in the organization. Most significantly, digitalization has increased rapidly over the recent weeks and many organizations are seeing the dogmas of the past around flexible or remote methods of working evaporate. “We have proven we can run our organization virtually,” a Group HR Director said.

Tied to this shift in virtual working, some organizations are radically rethinking how offices should be used. One participant spoke of how their business expected to transition to the office not being a place of work by default, but rather a place that employees would attend for collaboration or only for specific reasons and quality person-to-person interactions. Opinions on travel have also been challenged, both in terms of client interactions and internal leadership. Businesses have discovered in the past weeks that many of these gatherings can run smoothly via digital solutions without the expense and current risk involved. While this may not be a foregone conclusion for some, it represents one of a number of examples of how CPOs are expecting the orthodoxy of their operating model to change.

However, for many businesses, remote working is still not an option. For those in travel and hospitality, retail, manufacturing, segments of healthcare, and others, grappling with how to run their operation in a socially distanced model remains top of mind. For many, this has prompted an array of actions from “battle pay” for those on the front line to carefully nuanced communications from the executive team. For consumer-facing businesses, there is also the added complication of providing a service for their customers, whose own needs and preferences are evolving, in this “new normal” in a way that keeps everyone safe. Companies are revisiting their customer experience and their employee experience simultaneously.

Increased Interest in Learning and Leadership Development

Indeed, the change has been particularly impressive for learning and development, where some organizations have seen up to a 300 percent increase employees engaging in online learning programs. Others are fundamentally rethinking the way they deliver learning in the future. Learning programs have expanded beyond the traditional curriculum and sometimes with less “bells and whistles” (recorded/ delivered with the equipment available in facilitators’ homes) to deliver relevant learning topics on time. An unlikely upside of this pandemic has been the increased hours employees are willing to spend on their own, self-directed development. The more nuanced, senior executive coaching will still need to be intimate and face-toface, however, the HRDs said.

Revamping HR Processes and Planning

The crisis has given insights into leadership agility. Some leaders have stepped up to the challenge while others have struggled. This may require some revision of current succession plans. At the same time, the typical employee turnover rates of companies may change, as employees will potentially opt for the certainty of their current job over the potential risk of a new opportunity. One executive asked the group about managing performance: Will it be measured to the same standards as before? How do we set targets with so much possible disruption? Should a more compassionate approach be taken? At the very least, should KPI setting be revisited? The CPOs talked about how different capabilities will be needed and different competencies will need to be assessed, with a focus on agility. For some, this is a useful, albeit unexpected opportunity to revamp HR processes and mechanisms, as well as how the people function operates, influences, and leads. “Every day there is a new angle that will have to change,” an HR leader shared.
 

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Augmenting Corporate Guidance with Local Leadership

Over and above the corporate pace-setting, the critical influence of local leadership has also come to the fore over the past few weeks. While authentic executive communications are more important than ever, a number of participants have harnessed the power of local leadership to great effect. The local leaders are a cohort who know their markets and individual situations intimately, and are in far greater contact with their teams than the organization at large. The frontline leaders being close, visible, and supportive has made all the difference for morale in one global company, according to a Group HR Director. They are now thinking of how to invest in the development and succession planning of their local leaders with more focus.  

Leading with and through Others

Against all the uncertainty, the Executive Committees appreciated the close and authentic collaboration with their Boards. This collaboration has also extended externally. For one, there has been stronger collaboration between businesses and unions. The CPOs on our calls believe this foundation is set to provide a different perspective on that relationship when things return to a greater sense of normality. They have also seen generous acts of corporate social responsibility in line with organizations’ values, ranging from manufacturing ventilators to the donation of PPE equipment.

Living Your Values in a Crisis

In the last two months, the most respected companies have “lived their values.” This has brought stakeholders in disparate parts of the organization closer together and strengthened the culture. The CHROs at our virtual gathering said that key decisions are being made from a values perspective, and communications reflect this. Employees are finding a common cause through the purpose their business serves, making culture more prominent and stronger. Despite the physical distance, “our company has felt so much smaller in the last few weeks, with people feeling closer than ever,” one leader shared. Several CPOs argued that talking about the design of a new culture when the world emerges from the pandemic misses the point. “We should not be evaluating or elaborating on culture or values, it is time to live them,” one said.

One executive said businesses’ actions today are a defining moment both for hiring and for retention. How true the organization stays to its values will be closely watched, balancing the needs of both the frontlines and the office employees. Employees will come back looking very closely at how they were treated during this time. As organizations chart their way, scenario planning consistently, conducting a “pre-mortem” was suggested as a method of ensuring the rudder continues to point in the right direction. This is particularly relevant as we reflect on how our leaders behave today. As one leader put it, “A couple of years from now, when we look at the way we showed up today, what kind of leaders were we?” We have heard the value of humanity in leadership, how authenticity made the difference when employees were feeling vulnerable and uncertain—as leaders step up to the plate, moving from “hero” to “human” is critical to successfully shepherding the organization into the future.

Many will say that they have seen more change in the last eight weeks than they have seen in the last few years. It is likely the next eight weeks and beyond will be similar. As organizations continue on their voyage of discovery, CPOs who lead with the truth, with agility, with connectivity, with compassion, with humanity will make all the difference.

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