Brave New World: People Implications & Role of HR in the Post-Covid Reality

Having explored the far-reaching consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on businesses and organizations, and their responses for adapting to this new reality (in Part 1), we now turn our attention to the role that HR needs to play in this unprecedented transformation.


Employee Champion & Strategic Partner

So far, the HR teams in most organizations have managed the crisis quite effectively. They have been quick to switch on their ‘employee protection and welfare mode’ and have worked very closely with other teams such as BCP, Facilities and IT to safeguard employee health and maintain business operations. Whether it is quickly coming up with “Work from Home” policies, or changing gears overnight to move to 100% online recruitment & remote on-boarding, they have demonstrated ample agility and resourcefulness.

While this facet of HR’s role will continue to get challenged, as well as contribute to the business, we will soon be seeing an even bigger ask being placed on HR as a function. A key determinant of an organization’s future success will be the extent to which HR leaders are able to think ahead and co-create the new business strategy along with the business leaders. This will require them to step out of their functional ‘comfort zones’ and be on top of the changes within & outside the organization. They would need to put on their ‘prognostic’ hats to anticipate the various business scenarios and their accompanying people/ organizational implications. Every decision taken will also bring with it a need for change management, a large part of which would need to be facilitated and project-managed by HR.

The following are some key people implications we anticipate across organizations:

1. Organizational Structures & Support Systems: Wherever possible, there will be a move towards more autonomous and empowered, cross-functional teams (as opposed to central, control-oriented, functional structures). In many organizations, such teams have helped in managing the crisis – through faster communication, better coordination, flexibility and outcome-centricity – and therefore, may continue to be preferred.

This shift in team structures will also necessitate support mechanisms. Traditional informal networks of communication and information & knowledge transfer (such as water-cooler chats, elevator conversations etc.) will evaporate with reduced co-located working. Additionally, in the next few years, a new generation of employees with no previous co-located working experience, will enter the workforce and therefore, will not have any ‘memory’ of personal interactions to fall back on. Thus employees, and new joiners in particular, will need proactive support and hands-on guidance (e.g. coaching & mentoring) in building effective relationships with colleagues and supervisors, and tapping into the tacit knowledge base inherent in the team and organization.

2. Workforce Management: Perhaps the most significant and sensitive implication will be around reviewing the size, composition and cost of the workforce. The intense pressure on managing operational costs and revised staffing norms will make it a high priority across organizations. In many ways, it will an opportunity for organizations to create a fresh workforce model aligned to the new business strategy and focused as much on capability & skill as on numbers and cost.

In many companies, the crisis may have provided sufficient opportunities to observe various job roles and reassign real ‘value’ (in compensation terms) to them beyond titles and job codes. Amongst incumbents, employees who are seen as future-skilled or change leaders in the new business reality will find favour, followed by those in need of reskilling and redeployment. There will also be a higher degree of openness to take on gig employees (independent contractors, on-call/ temp/ part-time workers), thanks to increased remote working, enhanced virtual collaboration & compelling fixed cost efficiencies.

3. Performance Management: This will need to keep pace with the changes in work processes, team structures and workforce composition in the new reality of remote working. While IT tools (log-in/ log-out timings, cursor/ keyboard/ clickthrough tracking etc.) can provide real-time work monitoring for some roles, for others a mix of approaches will be needed to manage performance and productivity. These include assigning outcome-linked work modules/ deliverables, better control & coordination mechanisms (integrated systems/ reporting-check-in cadences/ shared calendars and task lists, etc.), and shared cultural norms, all leading to building greater trust. It will be critical to deploy relevant lead and lag performance metrics, to be monitored continuously with mechanisms for identifying and resolving issues real-time, much like a physical supply chain.

The most valuable leadership behavioural competency in the near future will be the ability to motivate, recharge and uplift team members. HR will need to take a fresh look at the overall skill and capability profile of team leaders and managers (through tools like psychometrics, assessment centres etc.), and ensure their focused deployment.

This crisis can be used as an opportunity to radically improve not just on the Performance Management process, often seen as an HR-led chore, but the entire HR function. It is incumbent on every HR leader to recognize the opportunity this crisis presents – a fresh start to build HR processes keeping the employee and the business front and centre. In the concluding part of this series, we will explore the capabilities that HR functions will need to develop, in order to capitalize on this once in a lifetime ‘opportunity’.

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