HR’s mission in uncertain times – go beyond stats and get personal

Profile picture for user jane.keith By Jane Keith June 24, 2020
The sudden need to work remotely has brought the people skills of HR to the fore. IFS Chief People and Culture Officer Jane Keith shares some tips on managing through uncertain times

People with direction - individuals moving as a group in upwards arrow © Digital Storm - shutterstock
(© Digital Storm - shutterstock)

Human resource (HR) professionals often get caught up in operational detail and quantitative management. But now is the time for the profession to step up and address some of the more qualitative elements of the workforce. Uncertain times and new health and safety protocols mean employees need more support than ever. We need to move beyond abstract statistics and attend to how our people are feeling.

Getting this right can have a big impact on your company’s ability to drive results, maintain productivity and retain the workforce in the months and years to come. How each company embraces the change at hand will vary according to circumstances, but here are some of the ways we in HR at IFS have approached these uncertain times.

Leading remote teams

Flexjobs data show that remote work was already on the uptick, growing by 44% over the last five years, and is seen as desirable by both those currently engaged in it and employees as a whole. But that does not mean that the sudden need to work remotely during the pandemic has been easy. For IFS, like other companies, a significant number of employees suddenly find themselves working remote for the first time.

This is a disruptive change, and we should expect it to affect productivity. While on the one hand we want people to be as productive as possible, it’s also important to remind them that we recognize there will be some impact on their work in the immediate term. They will need to find new ways to collaborate. They will have to establish a rhythm to their day that had previously been defined by coming to and leaving an office. They may be lonely.

At IFS, we are trying to fill some of this void with virtual communications, much of it revolving around our internal social platform, Workplace by Facebook. Here, we have regular live-streamed fireside chats from our CEO, Darren Roos, where we have the type of real-time and candid question and answer sessions that are so important right now. Our business leaders host Coffee Talks, we’ve launched fun competitions featuring the children of our employees, all in the name of connecting.

Through it all, it is important for HR leaders to remain humble and vulnerable. Like everyone else, we are dealing with rapid change and a future that is hard to predict or model. We are in the same boat, in the same storm, together.

Vision given ambiguity

Establishing and communicating direction is hard enough when things are going well. On a day-to-day basis, much of what we focus on is achieving objective performance criteria and goals. But many of those goals and targets are now in limbo. In many companies, the nature of the roles people fill is in flux, the work rules we follow have changed – it is hard to lead others effectively when the destination keeps changing.

Again, a switch from focusing on quantitative management to qualitative leadership can help here. At IFS, things are certainly being adjusted and redefined rapidly in light of the pandemic. But the overarching culture remains consistent. It is a culture that is highly customer centric. IFS’s first customer was a nuclear power plant, and as our founders worked on the computerized maintenance management system that would later evolve into our enterprise asset management (EAM) software product, they actually pitched a tent on the grounds so they could work double shifts and achieve the mission-critical goals the customer set out for them.

There is a challenge here for managers who must, even in the midst of chaos, set out for their direct reports efficient processes and streamline tasks as much as possible. But there is also a role for leaders. While the managers in the organization ensure employees can achieve what they are required to do, the leaders must inspire people to do it. For us, management is about execution, and leadership is about culture, including our #standtogether rallying cry and our celebration of successful go-lives after being remotely managed in the midst of change. The managers are looking at the road and steering to get us to each waypoint destination. Leadership is finding the workaround for the detour caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Motivated and valued

Let’s be honest. During the pandemic, fewer employees are likely to change jobs than would normally be the case. Many companies have frozen hiring, and people may be more reticent to change jobs during a crisis due to perceived risk of a new position and organization.

Once the supply and demand shocks that this pandemic has brought wear off though, organizations could see an exodus of their top talent unless they pull employees in from arm’s length right now. Most organizations are not about to hand out financial incentives to stay with the company in the current environment, but most can, like IFS, can make other resources available, most notably development and education.

Training and development resources are attractive now because lacking a commute and many social activities, employees have more time on their hands to access online learning. Any slack time they have now can be a way for them to invest in their future ability to contribute to the business. 

Focusing on the unique value people can contribute to the company – through their talent, skills and any value added through training – breeds engagement. Now – not after the crisis wanes – is the time to make key people feel welcome, needed and vital. Otherwise we will be paying a premium to replace people who leave while consuming valuable resources and bandwidth trying to fill each position.

Back to the future

As some physical workplaces start to open, many of those now working remotely will return. Like other companies, we at IFS are managing a great deal of ambiguity as we define the best practices to follow given constantly changing guidance. To some extent some of this guidance will be local to the country or locality, but ensuring adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer and hand washing stations are available will be a universal. In some cases, office layouts, meeting places and procedures may need to change to accommodate social distancing.

There will be a great deal of information that must be relayed as employees return, and the company intranet is probably the right communication vehicle. This enables employees to access the information they need when they need it without being overwhelmed.

But these new hygiene and preventive measures will not be the only things different about the workplace we return to. We will be different; our priorities will have changed, and we may be a bit wiser.

The future of work, and the future of each company in this recovering economy, is yet to be determined. We cannot change the direction of the wind, but as HR leaders, we can trim the sails on multiple fronts. We can pull our people close so that we are more likely to hang onto them as the employment market rebounds. We can examine our leadership to identify anything we are doing that will contribute to employee attrition. 

The one thing that will be consistent in this workplace of the future is that people will be a part of it. Whether they are working remotely or in a brick and mortar office, they are what the human resources discipline is all about.