HR supporting and leading during COVID-19 – Anne-Marie Flores
In this article series, I ask HR senior managers and leaders to discuss ideas on supporting and leading during COVID-19.
Featured guest contribution by Anne-Marie Flores
What role should HR play to manage the COVID-19 issue unfolding and to lead the way?
Anne-Marie: In my experience through supporting various client groups during a crisis, regardless of its origin, the HR function is most effective when it plays the role of strategic workforce planner and custodian of culture and engagement. Whether natural disaster, technological disruption or global pandemic, HR can add value through creative workforce planning, and curating tone, when communicating difficult decisions. In effect, the HR plan should continue to serve its stakeholders and remember the role it plays as a support function.
What should form the core parts of the HR plan?
Anne-Marie: Managing through a crisis is a hallmark opportunity to showcase the business and its commitment to people, community, and profitability. Whilst we’re dealing with a pandemic that requires an immediate response, businesses would benefit from thinking strategically about their brand, about how they will be viewed in 12-18 months’ time.
The HR plan should encapsulate commercial and legal risks of potential workforce reductions, looking at ways to facilitate wellness and productivity in the face of a changing work environment, and ensuring that the overarching business’ approach is aligned to its values.
Some specifics include a review of leave provisions that may be accessed by ill employees, running a ‘roll call’ to support employees who may be seconded or travelling overseas, guidance on isolation requirements, assessing capacity to work remotely, and putting in place a process for those returning to work from a quarantine.
Specific to our current environment, I also believe it’s the responsibility of the HR function to double-down on building capability and providing their employees with new skills. That may include sourcing online short-courses or developing material internally, and increasing the employability of every person in that business.
In balancing the needs and rights of both employee and employer in managing a crisis, what are prime considerations for HR?
Anne-Marie: As mentioned, both commercial and legal realities need to be considered when balancing the employee/employer relationship – HR needs to be across the fast-changing directives of the governing industrial-relations body.
In Australia, for example, many industrial instruments (Modern Awards) have been adjusted so as not to disadvantage employers, and allow full utilisation of employees, regardless of classification or general duties. With so much information unfolding almost daily, another consideration is the internal communication plan, and how that will be leveraged to simplify all the noise and continue some semblance of psychological safety.
Can you provide suggestions on the communication strategy and pitfalls to avoid?
Anne-Marie: As with any communication strategy, transparency is incredibly important, as well as a timely response that contains the latest information so as to be current – especially in this COVID-19 crisis where government directions are updating frequently.
Line leaders should be provided with training to answer questions, and support their teams – it’s also okay to remember that we don’t know what we don’t know – we’re all in this together. Again, this is an opportunity to be remembered for the empathy and grace in which we handle delicate questions when we have team members we care about who are afraid for their financial security.
The medium in which we communicate should also be carefully considered – continuous email updates may include succinct information, however in times of crisis we need both management and leadership. Videos, Skype calls, online drop-in sessions with senior leaders may prove invaluable, and offer comfort to employees, bringing life to a message that an email will never achieve.
A few pitfalls to avoid, which won’t be a surprise to anyone, is over-commitment or promise of stability when it may not be possible, ambiguous information, and directives that don’t consider the operational impact on how people do their jobs.
Anne-Marie Flores is the Principal of AEP Consulting. Formerly a People & Culture leader based in Brisbane, Australia, her expertise spans across multiple industries, business-partnering at the GM level to support workforces up to 600 employees. She is enthusiastic about employer branding and has depth of knowledge in employment relations. Read the background behind this article series and other featured contributions.