HR is playing a pivotal role in shifting people and work practices from the ‘old’ normal to the ‘new’ normal - whatever that is or will be. And that last caveat is one of the problems when it comes to planning around the COVID-19 - the pandemic has created uncertainty on an unprecedented scale, ripping up the old rulebooks en route, so that the notion of what is ‘normal’ is hard to pin down. There is no blueprint of how to behave and what to do and HR, along with everyone else, is forging new territory on a daily basis.
I caught up (virtually, of course) with Josh Bersin, a long-time HR commentator and thought leader and most recently founder and Dean of a global development academy for HR professionals, the Josh Bersin Academy, to discuss out how HR has coped with the pandemic, and more importantly, what it’s future role will be. So far, HR has more than risen to the challenge, reckons Bersin:
If you go back to late last year or the very beginning of this year, then HR departments were focused on employee experience, wellbeing and digital transformation - they were doing their jobs, but they were doing them on the sidelines, in a sense, to the CEO.
Then, they suddenly got thrust into the boardroom, to the CEO’s table, and were asked to do urgent things about sending people home, restructuring the workforce, starting daily communications, identifying how to track the virus, stopping travel and now figuring out how to redesign the workplace, redesigning the employee experience, redesigning the wellbeing program, supporting people at home, creating new benefits.
[HR] people that I talk to are just completely leaning into this. They are sort of liberated, because one of the problems HR people have is they’ve always felt a little bit insecure, like they were on the sidelines, and they wanted to be at the table and involved in the business conversations about what the company’s trying to do. Now they are in the middle of that.
Not only are they being asked to do a lot of things that they’ve never done before - I mean, how many people have studied public health? - but now they are bolted at the hip with IT, facilities, safety and legal so they are now part of a SWAT team of response and really stepping up.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the current situation has demanded quick thinking, action and creative solutions. In a way, the pandemic has released HR from the normal bureaucratic hoops it has to jump through to implement change and be able to truly innovate. As Bersin points out:
It’s OK to break the glass and just do what needs to be done without waiting for months and months and months of committees to get any decisions made. If you want to roll out a new tool or a new training program or put everyone online and do dance parties or a chef do cooking classes for people at home, all of that’s OK. So the creativity part of HR is coming out.
In fact all corners of the business have been given the chance to innovate and do things differently:
We used to define innovation as a business process - you have an innovation team, you have an innovation strategy...you innovate as a business initiative. Now what we’re realising is that everyone can innovate if they are just willing to flex and be curious about how things are done.
The pandemic is now at the stage where HR is creating a back-to-work playbook and an operations playbook. The minutiae of who comes to the office, the cafeteria, the elevators, the bathrooms, all that stuff has to be figured out by HR, together with facilities and others. But on top of the operational changes, the employee experience has been redefined by the move to home working. Bersin observes:
This is something where you can’t hire a consulting firm to do it for you, you can’t read a book on it. You have to learn from others. So one of the things we’ve noticed in our business is overwhelming demand for connecting to other HR people.
A huge appetite for sharing experiences and ideas on how to cope with the pandemic is making HR change, changes that were coming anyway, notes Bersin, but the crisis has sent them into warp drive:
I see this as a reset and an acceleration of many things that were already going on. It’s not like we’re stopping and re-starting something different. Every project that’s going on now is in some ways a slight redefinition of something that was already happening. Employee surveys, listening, communications, digital tools, fixing performance management, fixing careers...there was a lot of discussion for the last five years on the future of skills and the future of work and AI.
Now, the reality is everybody’s job just changed; it changed overnight. So if you need new skills, you need to get them pronto. It’s not a matter of sitting down and hiring a consulting firm and having them come in and do a six-month project. You need to get people up to speed in a week.
Agility is key and HR tech vendors are having to quickly adjust, adds Bersin:
Tools vendors have to quickly adapt their systems so they can do things that were never planned. So, for example, companies don’t want to send out a complete engagement survey, they want to send out a daily survey asking ‘Do you have a fever today? Is the office clean? Is there enough PPE?’ It’s the same tool, but used in a different way. Vendors are doing very innovative things to realign their tools to all these new issues.
I think most companies have learned that digital transformation doesn’t have to take two years. You can do things very fast if you have to. So they’ve now realised that you can create a SWAT team, we can experiment and implement something in a week or two and then we can iterate it and make it better and actually things work well. So I think there will be a lot more tolerance for the implementation of digital solutions for a while.
The tech vendors are going to have to carefully reposition themselves so that they look like they are easy-to-use tools because the systems that take years to implement are not particularly attractive right now...That’s a huge wake-up call - everybody’s realised that they don’t need a giant consulting firm in for five years to work out how to implement a digital tool.
HR’s in-house relationship with IT will also change - the closeness they’ve developed during the pandemic will remain, long after the current crisis is over.
There was a time when HR said, ‘We’re going to divorce ourselves from IT, we’re going to buy our own software and do what we need’. That’s all over now. HR is married to IT again and all these systems and processes are tightly integrated and that’s a very good thing.
In the second part of this article, Bersin discusses the future of work, the new qualities of leadership and the importance of learning.