5 ways HR can better equip leaders to navigate a crisis

HR leaders can play a pivotal role in equipping business leaders to reassure and motivate the workforce when navigating uncertain waters


The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the most radical societal and economic disruption that many of us are ever likely to face – and employers have inevitably been at different states of readiness to respond. But key to navigating the changes effectively are its leaders and managers, who have a crucial role to play in reassuring, motivating, and steering their workforce through today’s choppy waters onto the other side.

Here are five suggestions for how HR can offer support in doing just that by encouraging leaders to:

1. Award people matters equal status to financial ones

While for years, many leaders have attested to ‘putting people first’, in reality their focus has been on ensuring the financial health of the business. But says Joe Dettmann, partner at EY’s People Advisory Services, the situation should not be an either/or one. Instead it is now the time to assign people leadership the same status as operational and financial leadership – “but for real this time”.

“Of all the crises we’ve seen, this one is the most human at the centre, so it’s about how to get people through it - and HR obviously plays a key role in that,” he explains.

Put another way, HR has a key advisory role in helping leaders understand that, for the organisation to be sustainable into the long-term, people-related matters must be taken equally as seriously as financial ones. On the one hand, this involves HR acting as a conduit to ensure executives understand everything from the impact of change on the workforce to employee concerns and how best to address them.

On the other hand, it is about supporting managers at all levels in striking the right tone, not least because many employees feel uncertain and fearful, which makes them highly sensitised to their leaders’ responses.

A further challenge here is that when executives feel under stress, they tend to go into command-and-control management mode, says Professor Jane Turner, pro vice chancellor for enterprise and business engagement at Teesside University. But the problem with this kind of approach is that it can “disengage staff and damage trust when the aim is, in fact, to build trust and support innovation”, she explains.

2. Participate in self-development activities

In order to help equip leaders and managers with the people skills they now require more than ever to instil feelings of confidence and resilience in their teams, HR has a key role to play in delivering leadership development at the point of need.

But according to Hagit Jekobson, vice president of HR at Cloudinary, which provides cloud-based image and video management services, when doing so it is vital not to overload people with too much information but instead to offer them “targeted support based on their situation”. To this end, she has divided her company’s forty leaders and managers into three teams, who get together every two weeks for two hours using Zoom.

The first part of the meeting involves either members of the HR team or other experts providing attendees with guidance in areas ranging from how to support staff wellbeing to how to manage video meetings effectively. Online tools and information are also made available to reinforce this development activity.

The second part of the meeting takes the shape of a peer support group, in which managers can discuss any issues they face and how best to address them. Functional leaders are also encouraged to hold weekly or fortnightly team meetings to check on progress, while members of the HR function offer one-to-one coaching for any leaders and managers identified as having specific needs.

3. Keep what matters most at the forefront

Through difficult times we are tested against our purpose and values. People seek measured, pragmatic direction rather than false hope or grand visions, says Mr Dettmann.

“Grand visions of the future are hyperbole and are dangerous right now, but that’s quite different from purpose and values.” He adds, “it’s about bringing it back to what matters most - the blueprint of your purpose to your values, lived through everyday behaviours.”

Put another way, because most of the prevalent information around at the moment is “pretty dark”, the role of HR, and the leaders they are advising, is to act as a “signal through the noise to what really matters”, Mr Dettmann explains.

To this end, Ms Jekobson believes it is crucial that leaders are encouraged to be transparent with the workforce, share the reasons behind their decisions and acknowledge that they do not necessarily have all the answers.

She explains: “Transparency creates trust and connection with others, which helps improve individual and company resilience. When you have information about what is going on, you feel more in control, which means your resilience is higher and your contribution to the company will be higher too.”

4. Recognise how understanding staff sentiment informs the critical decisions needed today

If leaders are to make informed decisions around workforce-related challenges, it is imperative they have insights into what their employees are thinking and feeling. To gain access to such insights, HR helps to keep their “finger on the pulse of the employee experience”, points out Mr Dettmann.

In a situation, such as today’s COVID-19 crisis, however, he does not believe that simply relying on numbers or an annual employee survey will cut it.

Instead Mr Dettmann says: “Now is the time for qualitative listening and drawing out real stories as quantitative numbers don’t tell the full story. The downside is that qualitative input takes more time to analyse, but it’s in such narratives where you get the real substance and meaning.”

Other helpful tools include employee sentiment analysis as well as people analytics software, which makes it easier to understand wider workforce trends within company data. Leaders can then use this information to encourage and promote difficult discussions and respond more empathetically to their workforce.

As Professor Turner says: “HR’s job is to get in amongst it and understand the mood music. By gauging mood in this way and feeding it back to leaders, they’re acting as a vital bridge.”

5. Work together in planning for a post-crisis world

As life and work settle down into a new pace, leaders’ eyes will inevitably start looking towards the future. But while the focus for senior executives will be on operational matters, HR has a significant role to play in planning for how best to handle the people side of the equation in order to feed such insights into the overall business strategy.

To do so involves exploring the “now, next and beyond” and evaluating which old and new ways of working the organisation wants to keep and which it wants to discard, says Mr Dettmann.

Ms Jekobson agrees. She is already in the process of creating a plan based on “building blocks” that consist of three layers: how a gradual transition to the ‘new normal’ will work, what the first day of a new normal will look like and what has been learned from this current situation.

“One thing that’s clear is it’s acting as a great magnifier for all the things that are working well and not so well,” she says. “So, it’s helping us see what needs to be changed, what we should do differently and what we should take off the table, so it’s been a valuable experience in that sense.”

The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating change for HR leaders by pushing professionals towards adopting an ever-more strategic, ‘business partner’ approach. By having their fingers on the pulse of the workforce, they are in a prime position to act as key advisors and influencers to business leaders in all things people-related.

As such, they now have an opportunity to affect real change by ensuring people matters are at the heart of the organisation - perhaps for the first time – to ensure it survives and thrives into the future.

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