HR’s post-pandemic strategic plan – a critical, tough, but necessary effort

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer March 26, 2021
As we evolve towards a post-pandemic future, HR needs a radically new game plan and not some feel-good buzzwords.


Last week was the Spring HR Technology Conference. While I frequently speak at these shows, I didn’t this time. Besides being sort of 'Zoom-ed out' of late, I suspected there would be plenty of speakers covering pandemic, post-pandemic and other topics du jour.

I listened to several of the speakers and my hunch seemed right. There were clearly topical themes in abundance with many ideas on the post-pandemic world. In fact, there seemed to be no end to the number of point solutions being pitched. But, point solutions without an overall game plan can be wasteful, misdirected or wrong.

The HR strategy we need now

It might be time to take a step back and reflect. The business world, the job market, the education sector and each of us personally have been through some big changes of late. We need to step back, see the big picture, and then lay out a more comprehensive view/strategy for HR and the enterprises they empower.

In any good strategy effort like this, there are several steps one goes through:

  • 'As-is' analysis of technology, operations, personnel, processes, etc.
  • Competitive analysis.
  • An assessment of the art of the possible.
  • Definition of a to-be state.
  • A solid change management plan.
  • Etc.

So, let’s dive into the some of these and begin to formulate a new, full post-pandemic strategy that has some real meat on the bone.

The 'as-is' analysis

Let’s stipulate a couple of things right now.  The job of an HR professional hasn’t been easy of late and more, not less, change is coming soon. A partial list of current challenges includes:

  • A greater need for more diversity, inclusion and equality.
  • The need to cultivate greater acceptance of people of all manner of gender, religious and other characteristics.
  • Better long-term strategies for use of third-parties and contractors in the workforce.
  • A more enlightened plan to better utilize alumni.
  • A plan to actually deliver skills with newer advanced technologies.
  • An ethics framework for the use/disuse of algorithms, Machine Learning and AI tools.
  • A mechanism to train people into becoming highly effective leaders.
  • Tools to weed out undesirable people and leaders (eg: abusers).
  • Creating a great employee experience for more than the HR team.
  • Dealing with managers who do not live the desired corporate culture.
  • Determining how much office space the firm will really need post-pandemic.
  • Retooling on-boarding in a work from anywhere world.
  • Finally closing the gender wage gap.
  • Creating a thoughtful position re: employee monitoring technologies.
  • Deciding what sick-days, work-week and work-day look like in a work-from-anywhere world.
  • Developing a more relevant child-care policy in the pandemic age.
  • Creating a more fair, inclusive and productive recruiting environment.
  • Determining the firm’s policies re: use of genetic tests, facial recognition etc.
  • Tools that permit HR and the company to scale without adding headcount.
  • Methods and tools that prevent objectionable behavior from happening.
  • Techniques to repair the employment and brand damage the company’s pandemic actions created, (eg: layoffs).
  • Determining where the company will source advanced skills in remote work areas.
  • Sourcing of talent and skills that a digitally transformed firm needs.
  • Etc.

What’s interesting is that this list can also include a number of timeless, ever-present needs too. For example:

  • How do we deal with the accumulated technical debt that existing HR apps have acquired?
  • How we work around the antiquated ERP system our firm has?
  • When will we ever see HR people work on something besides transaction processing?
  • Can we identify anything material from a business case to make these projects justified?
  • What do we do with plants/divisions our firm recently acquired or intends to close?
  • Etc.

These needs are real, big and important. But right now, the tough thinking we need to do (on each item and in putting all of this into a cohesive strategy) is getting lost in the incessant drum-beating around hot-button catchphrases like:

  • The New Normal.
  • The Next New Normal.
  • Work From Home.
  • Resiliency.
  • Etc.

We’re so focused on these trendy phrases that more complete, considered HR strategies may be getting short-changed.

The 'as-is' state today for many HR groups may be one that is only somewhat functional and dangerously close to being dysfunctional. Those HR teams likely are:

  • Using older, out-of-date technology that was designed for HR personnel not employees, jobseekers, contractors or alumni.
  • Spending most of their time processing transactions and not guiding the business.
  • Working with some seriously ossified processes that don’t scale or flex.
  • One event away from a lawsuit.

This 'as-is' state, to be honest, was likely a liability to the company pre-pandemic and not much, if anything, has improved since then.   

Competitive analysis

When developing new strategies/plans, a review of the competitive landscape is almost always informative and instructive. For example, it’s good to understand what:

  • Upstarts (eg: venture-backed online-only firms) are doing differently from you.
  • Firms in related but different spaces (e.g: suppliers) are doing.
  • Academics are currently researching.
  • New business models that are being pitched to venture capitalists.
  • Process outsourcers can now provide.
  • Customer-intimate, process excellent (aka low-cost leaders) and operationally excellent firms are doing differently.
  • High-growth firms in your industry are doing.
  • Etc.

In doing this review, one can see, at a minimum, two things:

  • Where the industry is moving.
  • How your firm can be left in the dust if it does not respond to the new threats.

But there’s one big caution here. Too many firms think that if they can benchmark competitors today and spend the next couple of years trying to catch up with these firms then that should do it. It won’t. Competitors, especially good ones, continue to innovate. You can’t catch them if they continue to expand the lead they have on your firm. The competitive assessment can only tell you how far back/behind you are today. To get to competitive parity (or to get ahead of the competition) will take even more work.

Art of the possible & the 'to be' state

Yes, every pundit out there is saying we all need to be more flexible, agile, responsive and resilient. That’s the easy part. Saying those words is like telling someone with a weight problem that they need to lose weight. The tough part is translating that end-state goal into action items that will deliver that result.

Whenever I hear an HR speaker tell an audience that:

  • We need to do a better job of listening.
  • We must be more inclusive.
  • We have to respect others.
  • We should be more nimble.
  • We must embrace change.
  • Etc.

I want to come out of my chair and yell 'How?????'.  What are the concrete, surefire steps that will actually change a company’s culture? How exactly will you purge dysfunctional leaders? What is actually required to ‘modernize our workforce’?

That’s the HR strategy challenge today. How will CHROs and others go from unspecific platitudes to real change? And, there are a lot big changes needed today.

It’s really hard to develop a great strategy. What I’ve learned is that we often need a very detailed picture of what the future state will look like and then work backward from that. Most businesses start from today and plan forward but these plans often don’t work. The company’s leaders get involved in petty jurisdictional, political and budget fights. Resources don’t get shared and cooperation flags. Why? Because few actually know the grand overall vision and no one seems to get the need for urgency and focus.

You need to start with the vision and work backward to the present. In doing this, you quickly realize that you won’t have time to do everything and you really need to cut out a lot of non-strategic activity/projects that you’re involved with now. This process forces hard decisions and makes a lot of nice-to-have wish list items to get cut. The real art of the possible comes from figuring out what your firm can possibly get done in this limited time frame (and budget).

It’s often a surprise for many clients to see that a lot of what their team is working on currently isn’t part of the critical path. They aren’t working toward anything – they’re just working.

One technique I use with clients involves the development of a business magazine cover story set five years into the future. The article discloses the new organization, its capabilities and how the competitive landscape has changed. Then the article describes some of the tough calls the firm made as it prioritized some changes over others.

My advice to CHROs is to develop a real, actionable strategic plan and then get buy-in from the executive committee. You’ll need their support. But what must this plan contain? It must address, at a minimum, a number of constituents beyond employees (eg: contractors, alumni, jobseekers, suppliers, customers, etc.), the processes and technologies that each interacts with, and, the timely outcomes that are needed.

The change management plan

It’s not a strategic plan if people aren’t front and center. In a recent plan, we noted that employees:

  • Were survivors that have lived through a number of corporate ownership changes.
  • Thought/acted in incremental ways.
  • Were highly satisfied with things just the way they are now.
  • Weren’t all that curious about competitors, new technologies, etc.
  • Wanted to simply re-automate technologies and processes without reengineering anything.
  • Lacked skills in advanced technologies.
  • Retained a lot of the firm’s intellectual property in their heads and not in documentation.

Assessing the work force is different than assessing its readiness for change. Both assessments are needed and each will trigger its own workstreams.

Coming up with a plan and communicating it to the company won’t necessarily trigger meaningful change either. It takes championing, follow through, and sometimes, sacrifices. If your firm needs to change behaviors, attitudes or culture, you might have to loudly, publicly fire the most visible executive who isn’t living this professionally. Find the antithesis to what your firm needs and excise it.

You might need to show everyone that:

  • There’s no room for this kind of behavior anymore no matter who this person is or the other. contributions this person brought to the company.
  • This is serious.
  • There is no going back.
  • There won’t be any half-measures.
  • An unwillingness to change will cause adverse consequences.

If that sounds tough, it is. Big, transformational change is not a popularity contest. It’s not for the timid or gutless either. As an HR leader, you must assume the mantle of a leader (not an enabler). Yes, a major change program can be challenging as many people hate change and the greater the change, the greater the potential resistance to change will be. Know this and get ahead of it.

A key change management point is to assess the CHRO’s own political capital. The CHRO can’t drive major change if he/she has little or no political capital to expend. If the CHRO is lacking in this, then she/he must partner with another executive to provide needed air cover. It’s why the best efforts often have the backing of the CEO.

Major planning issues

One BIG difference in HR strategic plans (as opposed to IT strategic plans) is that the best plans can get derailed, FAST! Why?

If your new HR plan includes ambitions around soft-side matters like changing cultures, being more inclusive, etc., the effort will often face immediate challenges. For example, you could experience issues like:

  • Your firm’s top sales generator is not representative of the culture you want in the firm. Will the executive committee insist on keeping this person (and undermine your culture initiative) out of fear as to what will happen to the top and bottom line?
  • You learn the CEO, who is married, is having an affair with a co-worker. This conflicts badly with the values/culture the firm should espouse. However, the CEO is your boss. Do you turn a blind eye to it and weaken your change initiatives?
  • Your firm’s revenues are temporarily down and management wants to implement across the board pay cuts and eliminate the 401K match. They also want to layoff 15% of the workforce. This occurs right after you launched a major employment branding effort. Now, instead of giving the employment brand a shot in the arm, your firm looks hypocritical.
  • Operations management is always bugging HR for more and better skilled employees but they resist any effort by HR to bring in people from other sources (eg: different schools), different ethnic or sexual orientations, etc. In particular, operations leaders do not want people who are more skilled than they are. How do you create the workforce of the future if operations leaders won’t support this?

You must be prepared to do the tough, dirty work to prove change will happen. One thing I do for some clients is to identify who I believe their chief obstructionist will be and then suggest a role for them in the effort. It gets hard for the future troublemaker to derail a project when their career is at risk for doing so. Ask yourself, how would Machiavelli approach your situation?

A plan that can’t be implemented isn’t worth anything. When I hear speakers at HR shows describe laudable but lofty goals for HR, I really wish they had practical, realistic techniques to share with attendees to deal with issues like those above. The easy part of change is documenting it and putting it into a plan. The really hard part is making it happen.

It should not be a surprise then that some HR strategic plans will focus heavily on non-human initiatives. There will be efforts to upgrade HR systems, implement additional best-of-breed niche HR tools, etc. These are often technology or outsourced services efforts that HR leaders are reasonably confident that they can get implemented. It’s a cop-out of sorts: HR is only ‘fixing’ things (not people) that it can control.

In these chaotic times, enterprises need HR leaders that will drive transformation, not incremental, change.

My take

Meaningful change for HR will definitely require changes outside of the four walls of HR. It will be tough, and touch all manner of employees. It will challenge executives and maybe get a bit nasty. So, let’s cut out the ‘feel-good’ mantras of late and get focused on the big, meaningful changes HR should be leading now. For goodness sakes, the world got turned upside over the last year and HR needs to do its own full reset, too.

Build a great game plan now and anticipate the change journey you must proceed upon.

And remember, no guts, no glory. Good luck!

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