Boese: 4 questions for business agility

In my last column, I set out to articulate what the team at H3 HR Advisors was considering the primary challenges facing HR and business leaders as they continue to deal with the coronavirus impact today and to plan for a still-uncertain tomorrow. One month later, while perhaps a few elements of the complex array of moving parts impacting work and business have become more clear, many—if not most—have not. And, while perhaps some of us are working more actively toward the restoration of the “normal,” most of us are probably not quite there yet.

You are likely reading this from your home, not your old office. You may have had two or three video conferences so far today, and you have still not been bold enough to venture out much past the grocery store and pharmacy. So, while some things have changed and some have improved over the last month, fundamentally, not all that much is different. And how we at H3 HR are thinking about the next six, 12, 18 months has not changed that much either.

Related: Strategies to manage coronavirus in the workplace

We still see the most important areas for HR and business leaders to be business agility, employee wellbeing and the evolution of leadership. Last month, I made the case for these three ideas, and in the next several months, I want to expand on each of these themes to try to encourage and provoke your thinking and planning as HR leaders in the months ahead. This month, I want to explore business/HR agility by suggesting four questions you can ask of your HR function (and the larger organization as well) to seek more agile approaches to your work.

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  1. How are you and your organization reacting to and supporting key stakeholders and employees?

A few weeks ago, I came across this quote from Richard Callender that I think succinctly describes the challenge and opportunity for organizations right now: “A single crisis under the glare of the spotlight is more effective at getting your message out about who you are and what your organization stands for than a hundred meetings or a thousand speeches.”

After the acute pain of the crisis has passed, it is human nature that the public’s attention—and that of your customers and employees—will shift. Despite this, they all will remember how the organization responded during the crisis, and their perceptions of the response will shape and define the organization’s reputation well into the future. For HR leaders, particularly those working with other leaders to consider reactions like layoffs, furloughs, salary reductions or scheduled hour reductions, it is imperative to keep top of mind that short-term solutions—even those that might immediately reduce direct costs but ultimately shortchange important stakeholders—may seem attractive, but in reality may cause more long-term harm than is currently realized.

If a short-term decision harms stakeholders unfairly, the negative impact on an organization’s reputation will register for a long time, perhaps forever, and it is possible that the damage will far outweigh any short-term cost savings. Headcount reduction, while often necessary in times such as these, lingers over the organization for ages and in a way that is often hard to directly measure. Coming back from these kinds of reductions is usually much more difficult than we expect.

  1. How are you using technology to stay connected to your team and customers?

The pandemic has naturally driven a quite frankly staggering response from the HR and enterprise technology market. Numerous tech providers in verticals such as video conferencing and collaboration, payroll and other administrative functions—as well as the nascent, emerging segment I will call “return to work” technologies—are releasing new capabilities, applications and even making their solutions freely available to the community. While this response from the technology community has been generally well-received and thoughtful, by this point (at least judging by the announcements and press releases I receive), the sheer number might have already become overwhelming. For HR leaders, who are all juggling a number of urgent priorities right now, evaluating new technology might not rise to the top, or near to the top, of their to-do lists.

Nevertheless, having the right set of technologies to maintain and enhance your group’s connection to your internal and even external customers, while always being important for HR,  is truly critical right now. In the short term, I would make sure you have a strategy, communicated action plans for usage and consistent access throughout the organization in the following three areas:

One, an easy-to-use, platform-independent and mobile-supported video conferencing and collaboration technology (like Zoom or Microsoft Teams). Next, ensure that your primary payroll and benefits administration technology and service providers are updating their platforms to reflect the latest and evolving legislative updates, making their internal experts available for consultation and keeping their knowledge base on their website and customer portals current. For a good example, check out Paychex, which has been ahead of the curve with system updates, timely information, and customer and community support resources. Finally, HR leaders at mid-size to large organizations, especially ones that plan to return employees to multiple locations, should consider and evaluate newly developed “return-to-work” tools and technology. These tools, currently being offered by such companies as Salesforce, PwC, Qualtrics and ServiceNow (and more), provide capability to check on the wellbeing and health of employees, to better understand an employee’s contacts in the workplace, and to provide HR leaders with an overview of the organization, their employees and the level of risk to the organization from any employee’s potential illness.

  1. What new goals have you set for your team and organization for the next few months?

Of all the important business and organization dynamics we are thinking about at H3 HR, organizations and teams updating, realigning and perhaps rethinking fundamental HR processes like goal-setting, performance management and employee development aren’t often talked about, but they will emerge as significant for HR leaders. During this first part of the organization’s response to the pandemic, and to the business and people challenges that it placed on everyone, most of us spent our time reacting, making quick pivots (to universal work from home, for example) and trying to support the organization in riding out the likely adverse impact caused by the widespread economic slowdown. The smaller numbers of organizations whose business has thrived in the pandemic (like Walmart, Amazon, CVS Health, Papa John’s, etc.) also have been focused on reacting and responding, just in a different way. Their response has bee geared toward rapid, mass hiring and a surge in customer demand. But in both scenarios, medium- and longer-term strategic thinking have been placed in the background.

But at this point, with some level of “reopening” underway in all 50 states in the U.S. and in many of the most affected countries around the world, we are moving closer to devoting at least some time, energy and resources to resetting organizational, team and individual goals for the second part of 2020. It’s almost certain that all of your planning assumptions that underpinned the original 2020 goal-planning and setting process have turned out to be either wrong or not meaningful. Sales and growth targets are out the window, hiring and expansion plans have been halted, perhaps even the organization has had to pivot entirely to make it through these last few months. Said differently, I doubt the HR leaders at Ford Motor Co. had a page in their 2020 plans that had the word “ventilator” on it. The point is not that things have changed so much and so rapidly and we have all been in response mode; we all realize that. The point is the organizations and HR leaders that are able to transition most effectively and swiftly to realign the organization and their people to our new reality will be the ones with the best chance of success.

  1. How will you reimagine and redesign your team and your organization once the pandemic has passed?

This question is likely to be, at least for the moment, the one we all have the least amount of headspace to consider—but, ultimately, it will be the one for which the answers will be the most enduring. Does our ability to pivot to a fully remote workforce in the short term mean we should remain a remote workforce in perpetuity? Do the new methods and tools we have adopted for collaboration and communication become the new standard moving forward? Does our enhanced attention to employee safety and wellbeing become ingrained in our organizational DNA, and are we willing to make the investments needed to support our teams more fully? And finally, and likely most importantly, will the openness, transparency, honesty, vulnerability and empathy exhibited by so many HR and business leaders throughout this crisis become fundamental pillars of our organizational cultures and of how we identify, nurture and select future leaders?

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I know it’s early days to be thinking about some of this, but I wanted to plant a marker now, in mid-2020, as learning and evolving from our experiences in the first part of this year is essential to shaping the new world of work into something better, stronger, more resilient and more caring than the one that has been so rapidly disrupted.

Last month, I ended the column with the point that we are all still figuring this out and that things were in the early stages of what is clearly now going to be a long game. And while I still think that is true, I also think the pressure on HR and business leaders is only going to intensify, and quite rapidly at that. Navigating the pressures you are bound to feel from all sides—employees, customers, community members, company leadership and even your own friends and family—will create what is likely to be the most stressful and important time in the recent history of the practice of human resources. This is the moment for HR, whether we wanted it or not. And I am confident at this time that the single most important leadership characteristic is humanity. That is what, in the end, HR is about, at least for me. That is also why I know, if you are reading this, you are ready to take on these challenges.

Good luck to all, be safe, be well.

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