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How are People Teams responding to COVID-19?

By Dale Pearson

For many organizations, the success of their people strategy has been elevated to the status of ‘business critical’. 

By Dale Pearson

Coronavirus is disrupting organizations in innumerable ways. The vast majority of roles have been affected by the pandemic, and different functions are responding in different ways; marketers are rushing to keep their brands salient, Finance Teams are working through constantly-changing financial planning. However, the unique nature of this crisis has placed a particularly large burden of responsibility on People Teams: including HR, Talent, Leadership, and Learning and Development (L&D). As one HR Director put it: “When the 2008 crash happened, everyone looked towards their CFO for leadership, whereas during coronavirus, it feels as if more and more people are looking towards their CHRO.”

In many ways, People Teams are finding themselves in a daunting position. For many years now, they have championed progressive initiatives to largely ambivalent audiences – online learning, flexible working, agile leadership, collaborative mind-set, promotion of mental health and wellbeing. Undoubtedly, there has been progress in these areas, but usually because of a strong push rather than a strong pull. All of a sudden, the coronavirus crisis has created an overwhelmingly strong pull. For many organizations, the success of their people strategy has been elevated to the status of ‘business critical’.

So how are decision-makers in People Development responding?

Common Purpose, as a global leadership organization, works with People Teams around the world – specifically to provide leadership development solutions for their organizations. During this time, we have been keen to connect senior decision makers in this space so they can share ideas and hone their own responses. Through roundtables in Asia-Pacific (who have been dealing with the effects of COVID-19 since early 2020) and engagements in Europe and Africa, (where the effects of the virus have been more recently felt), we have compiled some of the common themes which underpin the responses organizations are taking.

The following article represents insights we have collected – by no means should it be considered as extensive or definitive. We hope it is helpful for business leaders and HR professionals as they come together to respond to the crisis and formulate their strategies ahead.

Coronavirus has the potential to create a mental health crisis and organizations naturally feel a huge responsibility to support their employees’ mental wellbeing. 

Physical and mental health, safety and wellbeing

Without question, the most immediate and common theme emerging from our conversations has related to health and safety – above all, COVID-19 is a health crisis and organizations are prioritizing the physical health and safety of their workforce. Clearly, the potential issues are wide-ranging – from what to do in the eventuality that an employee contracts coronavirus, to how to provide robust guidelines to maintain the health and safety of workers – especially workers who are unable to work from home.

Similarly, supporting the mental health of workers is of the highest priority. Many people are experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety related to the virus (and the potential economic consequences); at the same time, social distancing means that connectivity has been greatly reduced. Coronavirus has the potential to create a mental health crisis and organizations naturally feel a huge responsibility to support their employees’ mental wellbeing.

Some general priorities we have observed include:

  • Quality of communication: many People Teams are challenging themselves on the legitimacy of the advice they are giving. Is it verified medical advice? How can they ensure they do not inadvertently pass on false or misleading information?

  • Frequency of communication: how do you manage the balance? When does enough communication become overwhelming, and therefore counterproductive? How do you avoid noise and ‘communication fatigue’?

  • Maintaining connectivity: for workforces who are able to work from home, People Teams are promoting real-time employee engagement sessions through video conferencing, with an emphasis on senior staff becoming more visible and accessible at this time.

  • Responsibility of line managers: Without the community of an office environment, organizations are asking line managers to take increased responsibility for their team’s health, wellbeing and engagement.

  • Balancing top-down and bottom-up: many organizations are trying to strike the balance between global (or central) responses and the empowerment of local teams. Crises always bring out strong instincts related to ‘command and control’, but with the situation changing so rapidly from location to location, there is also a clear case for empowering local leaders who are on the ground, especially when they need to work closely with local and national governments.

The very act of ensuring staff have access to computers and internet is an ongoing challenge 

Business continuity in the short term

Clearly, there are industries for which COVID-19 has had a devastating effect – including aviation, leisure and tourism. However, for many other industries, demand has remained constant or, in some cases, increased – supermarkets, e-commerce and digital communication are all examples. Whatever the specific circumstances, nearly all industries are facing challenges related to business continuity.

  • Working remotely: in many cases, entire workforces are working from home – sometimes in working situations that are less than ideal. This has presented a multitude of challenges to maintaining basic levels of business continuity. Parents are balancing work with childcare. Families are working in cramped environments, needing to find ways to share space and equipment. The very act of ensuring staff have access to computers and internet is an ongoing challenge – particularly in poorer parts of the world. 

  • Shifting demand: many organizations are seeing demand drop for certain products and services but spike in other areas. As such, they are having to move people into different roles, or switch operational focus.

  • Supply chain disruption: COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every step of the supply chain, which is causing logistical problems for business continuity. For example, we spoke with a computer manufacturing company who is experiencing a surge in demand but is potentially unable to meet this demand because of disruption to both their manufacturing and distribution lines.

Naturally, many People Teams are consumed by short term challenges – ensuring staff are safe, engaged and are able to carry on working is the immediate priority. Existing policies related to home working and management are being severely tested, with some finding they need to either temporarily suspend policies or update them. As a short term response, many L&D teams are focused on curating quality learning content that will support their people to work through the crisis – including: managing remotely, personal resilience and mental health and wellbeing.

However, particularly in areas that have been affected by Coronavirus for a longer period, People Teams are beginning to look ahead and conduct future scenario planning – particularly with regard to leadership and people development.

Many People Teams are recognizing the need to support and develop leaders, at all levels, who can make difficult decisions and take on greater responsibility.

The resurgence of leadership

Many organizations acknowledge that current and upcoming challenges will require their people to work in a different way. Supply line disruptions mean that organizations are having to adapt fast or risk being left behind. As such, many People Teams are recognizing the need to support and develop leaders, at all levels, who can make difficult decisions and take on greater responsibility. Such models of distributed leadership require them to prioritize the following capabilities in in their people (and the mind-sets that underpin them):

  • Agility (or agile creativity): many organizations will require their people to switch their operational focus, either because they are short-staffed or because demand in the market is driving new opportunities. This is a particular challenge for people who are not used to operating outside of their comfort zone.

  • Sprint business mind-set: whereas agility is seen as crucial for leaders responding to a changing context, some People Teams are also beginning to explore ‘sprint business mind-set’, which requires leaders to embrace regular, short-term planning over more traditional three or five-year plans. 

  • Collaboration and Innovation: unprecedented challenges resulting from COVID-19 are requiring organizations to develop creative solutions. Some People Teams have begun to plan interventions to unlock innovation within their organization. 

  • Leadership within the wider system: COVID-19 is requiring many workers to co-ordinate with governments and local stakeholders. There is a renewed imperative to develop leaders who can operate outside of their organization, within the wider system. 

  • Empathy and people skills: the pandemic is contributing to increased stress and anxiety – at the same time it has taken away many natural support structures such as an office environment. As such, line managers and heads of teams are taking on more responsibility for the people they lead, and require the skills to lead empathically. What’s more, the added layer of having to do this virtually is proving challenging, even for the most emotionally intelligent leaders. 

There is a renewed imperative to develop leaders who can operate outside of their organization, within the wider system. 

Online Learning

We mentioned at the beginning of this article that this is a daunting time for People Teams, but also a huge opportunity. The doors on which they have pushed for so long have suddenly opened. This is particularly true for online learning.

Over the past few years, many organizations have developed sophisticated online learning portals. With the requirements to work from home, organizations looking towards online learning as a way to keep their people engaged. However, many anticipate that this will soon turn into a conversation about the effectiveness of online learning, and the potential it has to support strategic business needs. This is especially true of leadership development, which, like many things at this time, will have to overcome delivery disruption, in order to meet a renewed demand. We know that not all online learning is made equal, and this period has the potential to accelerate the development of quality online learning that creates positive impact within the organization.

Looking ahead

With so much uncertainty, it would be unwise to make hard and fast predictions about COVID-19 and the long-term effect it will have on organizations and the wider world. However, by staying connected, People Teams can find a way to move forward at a time when their organizations need them most. At Common Purpose, we’re committed to providing a space for decision makers in People Development to do just that. If you think we can support you to do this, don’t hesitate to get in touch.