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COVID-19: The future challenges and opportunities for HR

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This week, our CEO Jonathan Knight was scheduled to be at London Business School, co-directing the world’s premier executive education programme for HR executives, HRST, with his inspirational friend, Professor Lynda Gratton.

For obvious reasons, this is not happening. Instead, Jonathan has reflected on how the pandemic impacts many of the themes of previous programmes and what the longer-term implications of coronavirus are for HR.

Jonathan Knight“The HRST programme attracts an incredibly diverse group of highly engaged HR professionals from around the world. The community spirit that they form continues in vibrant WhatsApp groups. During the COVID-19 crisis, it has been fascinating to view their discussions as they provided each other help and advice as the pandemic spread around the world and then in some regions started to abate. From late February they were sharing guides for closing down physical offices, working from home and supporting staff. More recently all the discussion has been about returning to work and creating a safe environment for employees.

Like those in similar roles elsewhere, they have been on the front line of their organisations, handling the considerable people issues that the pandemic has created. They have had little time to think through what this means for their companies in the future. But now is the moment to think about the long term and learn from the pandemic experience. We need to start creating positives from this monumentally negative experience.

The first thing that the crisis has shown is the critical role of HR and IT, both often underrated pre-crisis by top management.

Without these two functions performing at their best, many organisations could not have continued functioning in the lockdown that was imposed in most countries.

The crisis has brought to prominence several themes and practices that we have been talking about for many years in the HRST programme and is testing them in real life.

The topic of employee wellbeing has generated increased discussion over the last few years. It is now top of the HR priority list. Ensuring the safety of workers, as well as customers, is step one of the return to normality. But broader wellbeing beyond basic hygiene is likely to remain core to the HR role. Linked to this is office design, which is where organisations may risk taking short-term measures which will quickly become outdated once the COVID-19 threat goes away. For understandable reasons, organisations are trying to ensure social distancing in offices, even returning to the idea of office cubicles, to keep employees safely apart.

Yet for those companies where work has continued successfully through home working, I struggle to see the benefit of incurring the health and environmental risk of travelling to work only to be distanced from colleagues in the office. In many professions and job roles, the only real benefit of going to an office, if work can be done at home, is to socialise and collaborate with others.

As working from home becomes more normal, offices will need to be redesigned for more social interaction rather than less, to maximise the benefits of bringing people together.

This issue is discussed more extensively by McKinsey in the article, “Reimagining the office and work life after COVID 19” (June 2020) and by Lynda Gratton in “How to Increase Collaborative Productivity in a Pandemic” in this month’s MIT Sloan Management Review.  Flexibility in our work (location, hours etc.) has finally arrived as employers are forced to trust their employees and realise that productivity for many has in fact increased.

The crisis has also emphasised the critical importance of communication and collaboration.  In the physical office environment, organisations were able to muddle by with poor and irregular communication. Information would filter through when people are physically together. In a virtual environment, regular and extensive communication is the glue that keeps an organisation together. Collaboration, driven by a shared purpose, is then what makes work happen. I have observed hundreds of people, physically together for the first time, working in teams in a simulation context. Ties are quickly formed but so are silos, and the dynamics differ greatly between teams as unconscious bias kicks in. Now observing this exclusively virtually, the ties might be looser and slower to develop, but relationships are more equal and the teams more task focussed.

HR has a reputation for embracing processes and procedures. In the fifteen years that I have been working on the HRST programme, we have been trying to convince participants of the importance of eliminating processes wherever possible, as many quickly become outdated in a fast-moving world. Simplicity is critical to be agile in today’s world. The pandemic has forced all organisations to become less bureaucratic. Suddenly, rules and procedures that had been set in stone are being abandoned or changed. Hopefully, at the end of this, we will have learned that companies are more successful when fuelled by engaged, motivated employees rather than rules and procedures.

In recent years, there has been much talk about the importance of purpose. 

The coronavirus crisis is testing whether this talk is matched by action. For some companies, the COVID-19 crisis threatens their existence and they are forced to take dramatic action to ensure their survival. But for many others, buoyed by massive financial support from governments, it is a test of whether they are really driven to support their employees, customers, suppliers and the community at large or whether they are in fact motivated solely by the interests of top management. We see some companies truly sharing the “pain” among employees but others where top management take no salary cuts, whilst furloughing staff and not topping up salaries.

Some companies are communicating well with suppliers and contractors, paying them as promptly as before, whilst others leave them in the dark and with unpaid invoices. Some companies have made extraordinary efforts to help their communities and countries in easing the crisis whilst others have been quick to take government financial support or contracts to make a quick profit or use lobbying muscle to obtain preferential treatment as the lockdown is eased. Within the next couple of years, there will be numerous case examples for business school professors to study as proof of whether purpose and fair process is a winning long-term formula.

Finally, the issue of women and leadership is often discussed on our programme and yet the poor representation of women in senior management ranks continues.

The issue is obviously based on principles of fairness as well as a failure of organisations to benefit from the talent they have in their female workforce. But we may also be seeing evidence that female leaders are better at responding to a major crisis such as COVID-19. At a country level, many have already observed that the governments that have most failed in their handling of the epidemic (US, UK, Brazil, Russia, Mexico etc.) are all led by populist men whilst many countries that have managed the crisis well are led by women (Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, Norway, Finland etc.).

There are exceptions on both sides, and I hesitate to make generalisations without scientific proof. But I put forward the hypothesis that women leaders are better able to manage the complexities and perhaps the particular attributes of this type of crisis. These successful leaders can empathise whilst being realistic, almost brutal with the facts, and less obsessed with their own egos. They have a command of the detail, interconnections and implications of an incredibly complex and uncertain situation. It will be interesting to study over the next few years whether this hypothesis can be proven in the corporate sector, where unfortunately the sample size is smaller and the industry will be an important influencing factor.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on our world.

It will certainly change the way we work and the role and responsibilities of HR within organisations. Many of the changes will be an acceleration of trends we had already anticipated and provide proof for some of the hypotheses we have put forward. For companies, it has highlighted how critical it is to lead and manage people well and how important the role of HR is. For those in HR, it has shown that success comes not from hiding behind rules and processes but in providing flexibility and support for people as they respond to uncertainty. For all of us, it will hopefully give us the freedom to shape a better, more balanced working environment.

There are many lessons to be learned from the response to COVID-19. Let’s make sure we benefit from them.”

Ososim is a global learning technology company that helps organisations bridge the gap between theory and practice. Working in over 85 countries with major global companies, as well as government institutions, leading business schools and non-profit organisations, Ososim’s digital learning experiences enable individuals, teams and companies to perform at their best. To find out more about our innovative, engaging learning experiences please contact +44 (0)1223 421 034 or email