HR supporting and leading during COVID-19

HR supporting and leading during COVID-19 – Tan Weixi

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 Tan Weixi

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

Weixi:  HR’s main role is to support the business continuity plans of their organisation in order to maintain stability during these turbulent times. Depending on their industry, this usually includes:

  • Aligning recruitment and retrenchment efforts, i.e. manpower planning
  • Planning and execute flexible working arrangements
  • Enhancing corporate communications, and addressing any concerns raised by employees
  • Leveraging on the downtime and planning for learning and development activities
  • Implementing staff welfare programmes.

What should form core parts of the HR plan?

Weixi: The critical thing that HR can do is to provide stability so that the organisation is ready to move into productive gear once the lockdown is over.

1) Aligning recruitment and retrenchment efforts, i.e. manpower planning

The sudden drop in business activities will have an impact on revenue. We must take a long term view and avoid having a knee jerk reaction. Ideally, letting go of employees should be the last alternative. Perceived ‘unfair’ dismissal might hamper our recruitment plans in the future, as it affects our desirability as an organisation.

If the lockdown persists, then we should also revisit the existing company structure, roles and responsibilities, and decide if we need to update some job descriptions or even create new positions. For example, the recent boom in the usage of ‘Zoom’ has brought some of their security flaws to light. For traditional organisations who are just joining the bandwagon, it might be wise to assign someone to be in charge of IT security matters and policies.

2) Planning and execute flexible working arrangements

This period of working from home could change the ‘norm’ for the way we work. Employers who were on the fence had no choice but to give telecommuting a try, and this period gives us a chance to try out new communication tools and methods of collaboration.

Establish ground rules for working remotely, and if necessary, provide support to leaders to update the KPIs for remote work.

3) Enhancing corporate communications, and address any concerns raised by employees

There is a saying, “Do not treat our employees like mushrooms. They will not grow if we keep them in the dark, and feed them SxIT”.  With the vast amount of fake news and misinformation circulating around, it is important for HR to take a proactive stance and provide regular and timely updates to employees.

4) Leveraging on the downtime and planning for learning and development (L&D) activities

This is the best time to sign employees up for learning and development programmes. Intense competition is driving down costs, and virtual delivery methods are more scalable and easier to coordinate as compared to face to face sessions. We should certainly train employees so they are ready to perform once the pandemic is over.

5) Implementing staff welfare programmes

This could mean programmes such as distributing “care packs” consisting of masks and vitamin C, setting up an employee hotline, or financial assistance.

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

Weixi: There are three considerations in particular.

  1. Job relevance. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Will this job still be relevant after the pandemic is over?
  • Is the retrenchment a result of permanently closing a plant/branch?  In which case, we would not be in immediate need of this headcount.
  • But then again, how is this employee’s current performance?
  • Can we offer re-deployment instead? We should take a strategic manpower planning approach.
  1. Trust is not built overnight but can be destroyed in an instance. Communication is key.
  2. At the end of the day, the win-win solution is to play a long game. For employees, this means retaining a source of livelihood to feed the family. For the company, this means surviving through this crisis. We can consider flexible arrangements such as enforcing leave of absence among employees and salary adjustments before taking the dreaded move of laying off staff.

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

Weixi: There is a management saying, “set the rules, or your employees will set it for you”. Are they allowed to communicate with external media agencies? Set clear ground rules. Bad news spreads like wildfire, and good news can be stifled with a few drops of water. Set up a feedback channel so we have a chance to respond to employee concerns and not fall foul to rumours.

Avoid a one-size-fits-all communication strategy. There is no good way to break bad news, but we can consider the following aspects:

  • List prior efforts before taking this unavoidable move
  • The industry benchmark for down-sizing exercises
  • Beware of possible lawsuits about favouritism and unfair dismissal; have data to back up any recommendations
  • Hastily released news that even leaders are not aware of, causing misalignment and a lack of trust.

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

Weixi: There are a number of actions that can be taken:

  • Adopt a strategic approach and establish drawer plans for possible scenarios, for e.g. in case of lockdown extensions, market downturn, social unrest
  • Be aware of employee mental health issues and provide avenues for feedback
  • Be agile in reacting to sudden changes
  • Use the downtime to prepare and train the workforce for a better future.

Weixi TanWeixi Tan helps clients to implement impactful change initiatives. He does so by addressing the human side of change through the use of psychometrics such as Workplace Big 5 and Strength Deployment Inventory. He can be contacted at tanweixi@exquisiteconnection.com. Read the background behind this article series and other featured contributions.


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