Pandemic is a business transformation opportunity for HR

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The coronavirus crisis is driving business transformation, a major international HR conference heard last week. But to reinvent itself business has to remove obstacles including bias and racism. Adam McCulloch reports

A global HR conference last week heard that human resources professionals should make use of the Covid-19 crisis to shake-up the profession, challenge long-held principles and become more agile.

Well known academics, practitioners and authors such as Dave Ulrich, Josh Bersin and the UK’s Lucy Adams told the Wow HR forum – called Restart After Covid-19 – that the Covid-19 pandemic provided HR with the ideal opportunity to “step up” and become more business-focused, freeing itself up from ponderous procedures.

There were also warnings from the US speakers over the perceived rise of racism in the US and the current poor treatment of people of colour. One, Linda Sharkey, told attendees: “We cannot afford what is happening in the US today; it can’t go on; nobody can continue with racism and bias. HR must hold up the mirror to organisations. At our companies we must not tolerate toxic behaviour … it will affect everything.”

Another, Josh Bersin, stated, in response to a question, that the US probably had to see the back of President Trump if progress and recovery were to be made after the pandemic crisis. “Most Americans want to live in a healthy global economy,” he said.

“We want to believe the challenges presented by the pandemic and global warming will bring the nations together. Most businesses are very global. There’s no question that most individuals want a more integrated world.”

Global leadership specialist Sharkey said: “People are very on-edge in my country. We in HR have to play our part in showing people a path ahead. In times of massive change people need clarity, goals. We need leaders who can come together and provide some clarity for the way forward. We must come together.”

She rejected any view that unconscious bias didn’t exist and stated that it endures in every organisation. Truly great leaders, she emphasised, understood the dangers of their own bias and ensured that they adapted operations in other countries while maintaining their ethical code and integrity.

As an example, Sharkey used a situation from her own experience. “In the US we talk about work-life balance but in Japan they don’t so much. I worked for a company that tried to shut down the Japan office at 5pm and encourage everyone to go home. But people didn’t want to go home and wanted to carry on working. The wife of one employee came to me and said she was worried that her husband was coming home early. ’Is he in trouble,’ she asked. So we gave up on trying to enforce US hours.”

Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, David Ulrich, emphasised that HR professionals needed to use the pandemic crisis to move forward and that Covid-19, although a terrible tragedy, was an “incredible opportunity for HR to step up”.

The avuncular Ulrich is a highly influential figure within HR and has produced organisational models that have been adopted, and reinterpreted, by many large businesses. His main point to the Wow HR forum was that HR needed to see customers as being at least as equal in importance as employees. He said: “If we care about our people and don’t succeed in the marketplace then we have failed. Employee experience needs to correlate with customer experience. Simply caring about employees alone is never enough.”

He warned practitioners that “HR was not about HR”, it was about success in the market and that here, “value is defined by the receiver, not the giver”. Ulrich reflected that until January businesses were mainly talking about social, economic, and technological change – with a focus on the gig economy and artifical intelligence – “but the virus has changed the world in which we live”.

Covid is a terrible time but an incredible opportunity for HR” – Lucy Adams

The experience for business was akin to a bad accident leaving the victim facing a new kind of life. “We have to respond, recover and reinvent. We have to adapt to new conditions.”

Of the leadership traits that were most important coming out of the pandemic, Ulrich surmised, the ability to navigate paradox was vital. The question facing leaders was “can I care for our employees while regaining a place in the marketplace?”

HR had to provide the talent, leadership and organisation to allow this recovery and success. But first, we all had to harness an era of uncertainty. “We can’t just wait for things to be certain again.”

Lucy Adams

Lucy Adams

Former BBC HR director Lucy Adams, head of Disruptive HR, reinforced the theme of HR having a new opportunity to reinvent itself. Whereas Prof Ulrich represented an influential, established and evidence-based academic approach to the profession, Adams was all for ripping up the rule book. She told delegates: “We have an HR manual that tells us we need to set people objectives and rate them against objectives … and we have to do an annual engagement survey then send the results to an expensive consultancy and get results nobody understands. We put people in boxes and review these boxes. This manual doesn’t work anymore; maybe it never worked.”

Adams identified four key challenges for HR in the coming months:

  • it needed people to be more agile and move at pace.
  • we have a need for greater productivity – particularly given we don’t know how long this recession will go on for.
  • there is a requirement for far greater collaboration between employees, companies and governmental organisations.
  • extra levels of innovation will be required.

In stark terms, Adams attacked conventional HR for undermining people’s ability to use their own judgment. As an analogy she recalled being at one organisation where people were routinely told to go home if it started snowing. “Organisations were too protective of their employees,” she said.

“We don’t trust people to behave well so we design processes to ensure people behave well. As a result we get passive compliant behaviour but not innovative and agile behaviour. The more we parent, the more we create an environment that employees are less capable of coming to their own intelligent decisions.”

She implied that with people working from home, beyond overt supervision, and possibly taking on different roles without being told, those organisations who allowed their employees freedom to use their initiative would cope best in the coming months. At organisations where trust levels were high and the adult-to-adult relationship was working, all the KPIs were better, she said. “Covid-19 has led to lower levels of supervision – people have been left to get on with their work and have done incredibly well.

“We must not talk about going back to normal. We have to create a ‘better normal’. Covid is a terrible time but an incredible opportunity for HR.”

Global industry analyst Josh Bersin took the theme of opportunity for HR even further: “This is a business transformation disguised as a pandemic.”

He warned against employees exhausting themselves because of their desire to make lockdown working succeed. Resilience was a massive issue, he said, “a lot of us have not had holiday this year. There’s a lot of exhaustion in companies and a lot of stress. ‘I am tired’ was the statement most people agred with at one major survey of US firms,” he said, adding: “We can’t be leaders if we don’t know how to make people feel energetic, healthy and fit and safe. People must be encouraged to take days off.”

As for business transformation he cited as evidence the fact that telemedicine was being used 100 times more than before the pandemic and was working well.

Bersin predicted that automation had become even more important to companies as a result of the pandemic. “It’s being implemented much faster than ever before. We as people are more and more in the service industry. Soft skills, creativity and adaptability are now fundamental to every business.”

More than ever, innovation was vital in HR, Bersin said. “It’s no longer a profession, it’s a craft you learn while doing it. So during this crisis don’t go looking around for answers; you have to build your own answers.”

Bersin applauded the innovation shown by one company, whose canteen chef was now doing cooking lessons online, and helping employees’ wellbeing. Similarly he cited how some banks were now distributing bonuses more equitably rather than reserving huge payouts for top people exclusively.

It was important now for leaders to admit they didn’t know exactly how things were going to pan out over the next few months. He said: “Everybody wants to go back to normal … but it’s not going to happen. The new world is going to be different. I don’t know the answers. But we’re going to support you through it.”

It could be argued that trying to appear in control risks losing employee confidence in a situation where so much is unknown. “It’s OK to say ‘we don’t know’,” he said, before suggesting that the biggest pressures were currently on line managers who had to take on a mindset of wellbeing, taking time off, and talking about health with leaders.

Bersin concluded with an upbeat, defiant assertion: “The reason HR is such a magnificent profession is that we are in a position to deal with business and people. The balance between business and people is vital and that’s the reason why HR is such a noble, heroic profession.

“HR, facilities, finance, IT… they all merged together now. This is a stepping up year where we use all the stuff we’ve done on data and tech. This will be one of the greatest learning experiences of our lives.”

The conference also heard from Jaclyn Lee, chief human resources officer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who listed skills that HR needed to sharpen. These were the ability to grasp data analytics, and fully understand data. They also needed to delve more deeply into digital marketing to market your business to the best candidates. She added that strategic planning vital too and leadership – “the ability to mentor has never been so important” she said. AI and HR analytics expert David Yang also gave an thought-provoking address, detailing different types of leadership and how success stems from balancing different characteristics within people.

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