The role of human capital leaders is as important now as it is difficult. In addition to implementing measures to help their organisation navigate the unprecedented crisis, they need to signal to employees that they are valuable and keep commitment levels high. This may prove a difficult balancing act, especially at a time when businesses are experiencing difficulties, and some are even worried about their survival. A crucial test of a company’s culture is how it treats its employees in times of crisis.
Employees are also going through a rough patch. The transition to teleworking, the subsequent return to the office in a post-pandemic world, and the myriad of complications these developments create for their professional and personal lives are just some of the difficulties employees are experiencing. Shorter working hours, reduced income, and layoffs are further contributing to the strain that came all too quickly and unexpectedly.
Keeping your employees engaged
HR professionals now need to create a balanced work structure that facilitates the engagement of all employees. In this respect, it is vital to establish clear, consistent communication that keeps the workforce abreast of the latest developments and creates an air of transparency.
One of the biggest challenges for HR leaders is arguably the necessity to maintain a consistently positive interaction in times that call for tough decisions. This may involve finding ways to communicate that go beyond a simple call or email as well as identifying employees who are struggling to adapt to the new requirements.
“Owning” the employee pulse
To give employee engagement the attention and effort it deserves, organisations would be well advised to nominate one person to keep track of the employee pulse, Rebecca Homkes, director at the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre at Hult International Business School, wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review. She argues that employee engagement and well-being need to be in one person’s hands, but preferably not the CEO’s, who right now probably has a lot on their plate. It is also not absolutely necessary for the head of HR to assume this responsibility. “Look for someone that people feel can empathise with them and who has credibility,” Homkes advises.
Can Covid-19 be a boon to employee commitment?
There are indications that Covid-19 is actually helping increase the level of commitment and engagement because organisations recognise the necessity to make employees feel safe, supported and emotionally secure to be able to do their jobs. Josh Bersin, a well-known industry analyst in all areas of corporate HR, says his research shows that many companies are currently treating their employees better than ever. Bersin’s observations are supported by data from a study recently completed by Willis Towers Watson, which found that the majority of companies believe their culture, employee experience, and employee engagement has improved during the crisis.
What do employees need from leadership right now?
So, let’s look beyond the corporate setting for a moment and examine instances where people are productive and engaged amid a crisis that is creating anxiety and uncertainty. Gallup has attempted to pinpoint the universal needs that followers have of leaders by studying people’s worry and confidence levels during nearly every major crisis of the past eight decades -- including the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and World War II, the Kennedy assassination, the unrest of the 1960s, 9/11, the 2008 global financial crisis, and now the Covid-19 pandemic.
The analysis showed that people look for a crisis management plan and the ability to contribute to the overall effort to overcome the crisis. Gallup identified four universal needs that citizens have of leaders: trust, compassion, stability, and hope. “In times of crisis, there are two directions human nature can take us: fear, helplessness and victimisation -- or self-actualisation and engagement. On the latter, if leaders have a clear way forward, human beings are amazingly resilient. There is a documented "rally effect", according to Gallup.
Now may be the best time to acquire talent
Gallup’s analysis should encourage human capital directors to treat employees with trust and compassion, but also look forward to the opportunities the crisis may create. So what silver lining can HR directors see in the current situation?
During the 2008 global financial crisis, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the European Association for People Management surveyed more than 3,000 executives, including HR leaders, from around the world to see how they were coping. Cutting back on recruiting was unsurprisingly the most popular measure they took during the crisis. At the same time, when asked about the most effective responses during a previous crisis that also increased employee commitment, the executives pointed to hiring talent from competitors.
The authors of the survey concluded that: “Despite the troubling economic outlook, companies can start to lay a strong foundation for creating people advantage in the future. And there is no better time to start than now, when so many competitors are treating their people as dispensable rather than as sources of competitive strength and creativity.”
Right now, visionary leaders could look around to recruit talented employees who may be struggling to find a job as a result of the coronavirus and thus pave the way for future growth at their organisations.
If they need more historical evidence, they need look no further than Hewlett-Packard’s post-war strategy. In the difficult years following World War II, HP was subjected to a downsizing, yet it still decided to hire engineers from the US military labs that were being closed. At that time, the course of action taken by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard raised a lot of eyebrows. When asked how they could afford to hire all these engineers, they responded, “How could we afford not to?” Thinking beyond the current crisis paid off for them and for many others who seized similar opportunities.
To discover more HR strategies about keeping your employees committed, claim your complimentary pass to the MERIT European Summit in Paris on 18 September – “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World”. This boutique event for CHROs and CLOs is co-hosted by LinkedIn. Places are limited – reserve yours now.
By Valentin Vassilev