HR supporting and leading during COVID-19

HR supporting and leading during COVID-19 – Anthony Fargeot

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 Anthony Fargeot

What role should HR play to manage the COVID-19 issue unfolding and lead the way?

Anthony: In well-functioning organisations, HR is integrated with all the different parts of a business. This becomes an even more crucial dynamic in the COVID-19 era. HR can provide guidance and support in many areas but when emotions run high in an uncertain climate, HR needs to remain pragmatic and provide a calming, nurturing and reassuring voice. This helps keep focus where it should be and leads towards the best outcomes.

What should form the core parts of the HR plan?

Anthony: I see this should unfold in different ways. Transitioning to distributed work and most employees working from home had to be a swift and unprecedented move for many companies. This is a huge leap for many that may have been unprepared for this. It comes with many changes from day-to-day operations to the basic way we interact with one another.

As human beings, we inherently don’t like change and HR plays a key role in ensuring that the transition is as smooth as it can be.

It firstly comes with clear and regular communication and prioritising employees’ well-being and safety above all. This can manifest in very practical ways by assessing how everybody has set up their own home office, that it ticks the boxes of rudimentary ergonomic assessment but also how it can be improved and how the company can help in doing so.

It may also manifest on a deeper level with regularly checking in on employees. There should be an emphasis and time dedicated to that process from different stakeholders so it goes beyond the simple “Are you OK?” as most people would be compelled to automatically answer “Yes”, even when it is untrue.

HR also needs to have resources ready to help people in need. But we must be clear on the boundaries of HR. It would be unethical to provide psychological counselling or financial advice to an employee. An Employee Assistance Program is a great tool to set up to put employees in touch with professionals.

Channels of communication need to be appropriately chosen as well. We need to be aware that we are removing physical proximity from the way we usually interact. Even if a video call may filter a good part of body language and other non-verbal cues, it may be better than emails or even phone calls when we wish to have a proper discussion. Then, we also need to be mindful not to overdo it so the channel chosen needs to be picked on a case-by-case basis. It may be good to pair up with IT to explore technologies that will enhance remote communication (eg. Slack, Zoom, Trello etc)

Communication doesn’t stop with HR either. Leaders in the business need to communicate and show strong leadership in such times. They may also be worried about uncertainty and have a hard time adjusting to this new way of working themselves. I think there is a fine line between showing vulnerability and looking like we’ve lost control and potentially faith. HR should look after the state of mind of the business leaders too and support them in their communication with the rest of the company.

On the more administrative side, HR should provide legal information to leaders as to the mechanisms of stand-downs, reduction of hours, pay cuts, redundancies as well as government packages available to support the business. The goal is to provide accurate information so educated decisions can be made to carry the business forward.

Finally, adapting Culture is very important. We are not only trading physical proximity for isolation but also dealing with uncertainty creating fear and anxiety. This is a big blow to Culture as it may have been established before. Even if it feels unnatural to try and have fun in such a climate, it is vital to preserve the togetherness of a workplace and reap the long-term benefits of investing in Culture.

In balancing the needs and rights of both employee and employer in managing a crisis, what are prime considerations for HR?

Anthony: I think many people may see those as contradictory and HR being the buffer in-between but I see it differently.

We are living something quite unprecedented and that has changed the face of our economy for an undetermined period of time. It has affected companies’ revenues but also the job market. I’m doubtful things will just “get back to normal”. It will pass but it will affect us durably so I feel it is more accurate that an unknown “new normal” is what is awaiting us.

Right at this moment though, leaders need to lead by the front and, whenever possible, take actions to preserve jobs. This may start with Executives taking a pay cut first before touching their workforce in any way. More drastic measures can be taken such as reducing hours or pay of employees. Forced redundancies should only be looked at as a last resort.

Many companies have publicly taken a pledge to have a “no lay-offs” policy during the COVID-19 crisis. It is a little bit of a PR stunt though this is a great way to appease employees as the publicity makes companies more accountable for their words.

Luckily for us, the Australian Government has taken a fair number of measures to ease expenses for households (eg. free child care, mortgage relief by banks, etc) and businesses (eg. JobKeeper, tax deferral etc). Employers should carry the message that we are all in it together and that a temporarily reduced income is better than no income.

When you show vulnerability, humility and appreciation for your workforce, you may be surprised how some may repay you with respect and dedication.

Can you provide suggestions on the communication strategy and pitfalls to avoid?

Anthony: The keyword here is transparency. People may already have had to sacrifice a lot on the personal front due to the global pandemic. You might have to ask them to sacrifice more on the professional side. If you do so, you owe them a certain level of transparency as to what has led you to such decisions.

I would argue that even if you are among the lucky bunch unaffected by the current events, you should also share that with your team.

But beware of oversharing.

You should only communicate what you are comfortable communicating, as long as it supports your reasoning. Also, you may be thinking of more drastic measures for the coming months depending on how your sales forecast will look like in a few weeks. Unless you are convinced that such measures will be implemented, I would avoid sharing too early. You may see that as contrary to transparency but I would argue that transparency is taking people on the journey you have already made as a leader. It is part of your duties to think of ways of keeping the company afloat in worst case scenario situations but before getting a firm hold on the numbers, such thoughts are only thoughts. Sharing too early may cause unnecessary stress and anxiety.

But beware of fake optimism as well. There is a difference between saying things will be OK and saying that you don’t know what the future holds. I would argue nobody knows what the future holds right now and leaders need to be comfortable to relay to their team that we are all dealing with a high level of uncertainty.

Empathy and appreciation are key. Both ways. You really want to stay away from saying or even hinting that everyone needs to work harder if they want to remain employed because the company is going through tough times. More than ever to stay motivated, people need to feel valued and appreciated, not expendable.

What actions can HR take to support the organisation for business operation continuity?

Anthony: Some companies started investing in software to track how people are spending their working hours now that remote work has become the norm. That’s an example of what NOT to do.

Putting employees’ mental and physical health as a top priority for HR and the business overall is the way to go to ensure productivity. People that are looked after and healthy in their minds and bodies are motivated hence productive. HR can help with putting together quality resources digitally available for all employees. This can range from yoga and meditation classes, strategies to cope with isolation to wellness and mental health webinars. When appropriate, such activities can be done as a group within the company. This promotes social bonding, even when operating in different locations.

HR needs to work hand-in-hand with business leaders as well to make sure they are aware and understand all options regarding employment to drive the right business decisions. They may also support them with communicating, choosing the right words, the right time and the right communication channel to provide the transparency needed for the team.

Though it is important to lift the mood so it is not all doom and gloom, Culture is not only about fun and games. The type of communication and leadership shown during hard times will shape and cement it. A strong culture that unites people beyond a physical location and under something greater of what a company stands for is crucial to foster innovation and creativity rather than fear and anxiety. This may be the greatest strength of companies that will come stronger on the other side, and the ones that don’t.

Anthony FargeotAnthony Fargeot is the General Manager and a founding employee at Bench, an AdTech programmatic agency in Sydney and a Strategic Advisor at JuJuApp, a peer-to-peer recognition and appreciation platform. Read the background behind this article series and other featured contributions.

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