HR Leadership Lessons From the Early Days of the Pandemic

In more than 30 virtual gatherings between February and March, Egon Zehnder reached out to hundreds of human resources leaders to learn how they were readying their function and preparing their organizations for the coronavirus crisis and for what is to come. The results were revealing. Let’s take a closer look. 

July 27, 2020 – The world is both united and divided during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s united in the sense of we are all adjusting to a “new normal” and the challenges—and some opportunities—that arise with a different way of living and working against the backdrop of genuine solidarity. The division comes in where nations fall in the crisis bell curve—and how we have responded to the situation. In more than 30 virtual gatherings between February and March of this year, Egon Zehnder reached out to hundreds of human resources leaders to learn how they were readying their function and their organizations for the coronavirus crisis and for what is to come.

“As organizations rallied to respond to the crisis, authentic, empathetic and resilient leaders emerged to help employees and businesses find a path forward,” said Egon Zehnder in a new report, authored by Gizem Weggemans, who is based in London, and Xuemei Bennink-Bai, in Shanghai. “Among those leaders—and often leading the charge—are HR executives, who are a critical part of the team. The need for HR executives to go beyond functional leadership and emerge as true chief people officers has never been greater, and so many have been stepping into this responsibility with determination and empathy.”

In many ways, businesses are rewriting the rules of engagement through camaraderie and collaboration, said the authors. Businesses have united in ways that no one would have predicted just a few months ago. “The civil responsibility and common purpose this crisis has brought to our lives is unprecedented,” one global CHRO of a consumer goods company told Egon Zehnder. Competitors have become collaborators as people come together to solve a truly global challenge. “The scientific community has all come together,” another HR executive said. “There is no room for competition, [we are all] trying to find a solution, either therapy or vaccine.”

Other partnerships between customers and providers have blossomed. The chief talent officer of a global consumer company, for example, told Egon Zehnder that his company was considering offering temporary positions to the staff of a hotel chain that is one of their major customers since the hospitality industry took a major hit from the pandemic.

Stronger Partnerships

What’s more, many companies have strengthened partnerships with local governments and were working more closely together. “We are looking to partner with governments to provide support for lower paid workers who either will not be paid because there is no work or who will not be able to go to work and be paid,” one HR executive said.

“We also saw HR leaders connecting with each other to solve the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Egon Zehnder. “During these times of uncertainty, business leaders across industries have been eager to share their experiences and learn from each other in both the HR function and in other roles.”

While internal communications is often an afterthought, the coronavirus crisis thrust it into the spotlight. HR leaders, working with the corporate communications team and C-suite, were charged with determining the tone, frequency and platforms to reach both a remote workforce and frontline employees working often in dangerous circumstances. In this environment of uncertainty, many companies found that more informal messages resonated more, said the search firm. “We doubled down on visual and short-form, less structured communications,” said one executive from a major manufacturer.

Companies were also using different channels to communicate than they normally would, with WhatsApp, WeChat, Ding Ding and others becoming a primary way to keep in touch with employees across time zones and workspaces. “We fully leveraged chat programs on our phones, including messages from the CEO to all 50,000 employees,” one HR executive said. “We announce daily and weekly work plans immediately through our chat, and we set up a platform about how to relieve stress, explaining how we can support and help employees.”

Staying Engaged

As the stewards for corporate culture, HR leaders were also looking for ways of engaging employees while they are furloughed, working remotely or operating as the essential employees who remain on the job, said Egon Zehnder.

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How can HR leaders help to reassure employees and motivate them to continue their work amid a crisis? For those on the frontlines, said the search firm, it’s important to instill a sense of purpose into what they are doing, ensuring the safety risks they are taking are for a greater good and part of a solution. “What has gotten traction for us is when we delivered free pizzas to hospital workers or to school teachers,” said a chief talent officer of a food company. “You feel the upswell in engagement, and love and appreciation.”

One executive told the authors that it was important for top management to engage with blue-collar employees through routine interaction and give the message of unity. Another executive said that in addition to the measures taken at the factory/plant level, they also sent hygiene kits to employees’ families.

What works well may also vary across different organizations. An executive from a start-up company reported efforts to maintain morale and avoid burnout with group video chat time and virtual movie clubs with a young audience of employees (average age: 27), said the report. Another HR leader emphasized efforts to unite employees around the same purpose as much as possible. “All of our leaders have daily coffee chats with their teams,” this individual told the authors. “We will bring a majority of our employees together in a single video call for a company meeting.”

Tracking Sentiment

Beyond giving employees the tools and access needed for remote work, HR leaders were also taking into account employee well-being at a time of heightened stress. “When stores closed down, we reminded employees about the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), over and over again,” said the CHRO of a retail company.

Lastly, how HR leaders track employee sentiment and its impact on corporate culture in this time was expected to have a big influence on culture in the future. “One big question remains: How do you create the culture you want post-crisis?” said Egon Zehnder. “Leveraging technology beyond the traditional employee engagement survey, companies are looking to use artificial intelligence and other tools to gauge and respond to employee sentiment. HR leaders believe that the data and insight they collect can help them as they reflect on company culture going forward.”

Related: Coronavirus and the People Pandemic: Should You Stop Hiring?

“We are tracking sentiment a lot,” one global HR leader told the search firm. “People will think differently about their companies after this—positively or negatively. This may well be a point in time where HR leaders, together with the rest of the leadership team, have an opportunity to refine their organization’s culture around a common purpose, deeply rooted in society, where inclusion, trust and accountability emerge as core values.”

Succession Planning Gaps

Rethinking succession planning is also critical. One of the unintended outcomes of COVID-19 was the exposure of succession planning gaps within organizations, said Egan Zehnder. If top leaders fall ill, is there a plan in place for who could step in? In other cases, those who were on the short list as successor candidates may not have stepped up as expected, while others emerged as unexpected leaders. “I absolutely use crises to identify those whom you could trust to get things executed,” one leader told the search firm. “EQ and IQ come out during these times of struggle.”

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An additional challenge was the lockdowns many countries imposed, making mobility between regions and countries nearly impossible. “We are now looking internally at who can be a successor in each market and step in at least in the interim if needed,” said an executive for a major pharmacy. “We have to plan for what will happen if we are shut down for months, so that we are not reactive.”

While many organizations pre-crisis had the tools to employ more remote working opportunities and efficiencies, many hesitated due to the unknown impact on corporate culture and productivity. “As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated, businesses found themselves embracing digital technology in only a matter of days,” said Egon Zehnder.

Some have predicted that the COVID-19 crisis marks a turning point in our collective human history. “Optimists believe that our lack of human contact will remind us not to take small gestures for granted, such as handshakes or hugs, and will ultimately make us want to do better for the world together,” said the report. “Cynics tend to believe that the world will go back to business as usual after a few months post-crisis.”

“The truth is likely somewhere in the middle,” said the authors. “One of the most important things leaders can do it to be open to learning from this health and economic crisis. Fueling their curiosity, this is the moment for leaders in the people function to truly invest in both their own and the next generation’s leadership capabilities. A CHRO on one of our calls put it this way: ‘If you go through this moment in time and it doesn’t transform you into a better version of yourself, you have a lot of self-reflection to do.’”

Related: Conducting Executive Searches During a Pandemic

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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