Covid-19: The implications for HR

Lucy Adams on April 1, 2020

Covid-19: The implications for HR


We know that it’s a really difficult time for everyone right now and we hope that you are all safe and well – and that you are managing to get through it as well as you can. The Disruptive HR team are all isolating in our various locations around the UK and in Spain and trying to keep in regular contact with our families, (Zoom is our new best friend) and not go too insane with our kids!

Work and HR will still be full on for some of you – whilst others may be worrying about getting through the crisis and still having a business. We have been debating about whether we should just keep quiet for the duration – or whether we might be able to provide something of use – even if it’s just to take your mind off things! We recently ran a virtual session for a client who wanted to start looking ahead at the implications for HR of the crisis – and whilst it may feel too early for some, we have put down some of our thoughts.

What we thought was disrupted, now feels stable and boring!

As you know, at Disruptive HR we focus on how HR can change to meet the needs of a disrupted world. Now, that was the old disrupted world when all we needed to cope with was moves to digital, a faster pace of change, new business models shaking or wiping out traditional industries, the growth of the gig economy, the need for cross-border and cross-function collaboration – when we thought the world was disrupted – and which of course now, seems stable and boring!

We were already living through uncertain times and of course no-one can predict when or how this will end. Maybe the only thing we can know is that nothing is likely to be the same again?

On a practical level:

  • People are distressed and scared and will behave differently – making different life choices, priorities changing, etc
  • Businesses will be suffering huge losses and will have to make big changes
  • Our supply chains will be disrupted, and we’ll have to make different arrangements
  • Our customers will require us to behave and operate differently – and will be looking carefully at how we behave

But we don’t know what or how any of these will pan out exactly.

The changes you had already made will stand you in good stead

The need to radically change HR from the bulky, process-driven function had been gathering momentum for some time, especially in the last three years. We have noticed HR teams making significant changes to the way they operate – and the positive news is that all of these changes are likely to stand them in good stead for facing the new post Covid19 world. For those HR teams who haven’t yet made any progress, now could be your time!

I am going to try and do a couple of things:

  • Look at what HR was already beginning to do things differently – and how these might be expedited when things start to return to normal
  • How the crisis has changed things overnight – and what positives might we want to take forward into new world

This is not going to be anything more than an opportunity to take a different perspective for a short period and of course, it might be that this is too early for you – in which case, park it until it feels right.

The HR trends that will continue

At Disruptive HR we have been banging on about our EACH model for a while now; Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. Our view is that these trends will matter more than ever in a post-Covid-19 world.

Adult to adult is even more important

Our parental approach to our people has always been a major constraint in enabling our people to do their best work. We have typically taken an approach that is over-protective (assuming that our people can’t make sensible judgements, own their own careers and performance and have needed to be spoon-fed), or we have based our rules and our processes around the rogue minority who are going to behave badly and applied over-prescriptive rules to everyone.

We had begun to see companies taking a more adult to adult approach with their leaders and employees – moving away from long lists of prescribed rules and instead putting in place ‘freedom within a framework’ where the starting point is that ‘we trust to you to behave well and trust you to use your judgement’. Or moving to an environment where employees own their own learning, career development, performance, etc, rather than having it done to them.

Covid19 has reinforced the need for this

We are witnessing how people are capable of amazing things when freed from traditional constraints; the creativity, the energy, the things they can achieve with very little, how they can adapt to change really fast. Smart companies are already responding to this and taking more of an adult approach. For example, CEO Dan Price of tech company Gravity is currently choosing to meet virtually with 10 employees at a time across the whole company to get their views on how they can get through losing half their revenue overnight as a result of the Covid-19 crisis without layoffs, rather than consulting just with his senior team and communicating their decision.

Of course, people are also capable of behaving badly in – usually when they are frightened – and we have all seen news reports of the stockpiling, or other acts of selfishness. But the potential for brilliant or appalling behaviour is not determined by grade or seniority. We just have to compare the heroism and selflessness of the shelf stackers and the delivery drivers vs the appalling behaviour of some CEOs such as Mike Ashley of Sports Direct or Tim Martin at Wetherspoons to know that we can’t determine how much we trust our employees on the basis of their grade.

In the future we will no longer be able to afford to keep compensating for people we don’t trust or designing our rules, our processes and our communications around the lowest common denominator. It will no longer be acceptable for a line manager to say that they won’t let people work from home because they don’t trust them enough.  We will spend more time ensuring we hire people we can trust, and we will have to finally tackle the ones we can’t.

Of course, there will be leaders who point to some of the irresponsible behaviour that we’re seeing during the crisis as evidence that they need to continue with command and control. But I think we need to help leaders recognise the difference between people acting out of fear during a crisis, when more clarity may be required, and when judgement is called for because the right course of action cannot be easily dictated. Our leaders will need to be more adept at flexing their style and responses from crisis to ‘normal’ and back again – really quickly and fluidly.

One-size-fits-all cannot ever make sense again

Our one-size-fits all approach to HR, where we have a universal approach that is applied to everyone, was already being challenged and the need to tailor and customise our approaches and products was already beginning to take shape in progressive HR teams.

This will matter more than ever.

We are witnessing the very different needs that our people have through this crisis and the different ways they have responded. In the future we will see employees wanting to make different life choices and have different work priorities. One-size responses from us cannot make sense.

The need to adapt the techniques from consumer marketing and user-centred product design will become even more important as we begin to recover from the crisis.

For example:

  • Once a year engagement surveys will make no sense at all and the need for consumer-style, regular temperature checks will become the norm.
  • HR will need to offer a range of different products to meet different employee needs and preferences. We cannot afford to waste money on universal offerings that are irrelevant to many in our organisation. Carefully targeted HR products based around a deeper understanding of what is needed and wanted will be vital.
  • Leaders questioning and listening, as opposed to telling, will matter more than ever. It is fascinating to hear about the way leaders are choosing to use video conferencing right now; those who still choose to broadcast their leadership messages and those who are using it to listen and ask questions.
  • Our leaders will have to improve their abilities to tailor their approach to meet different employee needs and accommodate their preferences if they are to get the best from them.

Our ‘critical’ HR processes have been replaced with human interactions overnight

We had already seen the gradual dismantling of some of our most irrelevant and ineffective processes and the replacement of them with approaches that tapped into how human beings actually behave, think, feel etc. We’d already seen the slow erosion of performance management reviews and the annual talent review based on a 9 box grid, and the alternatives of frequent and undocumented check-ins and talent discussions being put in their place. The crisis will undoubtedly speed this up.

All of those ‘critical’ HR processes that we said we ‘couldn’t live without’ have disappeared overnight and no-one seems to be screaming for their return. As things begin to return to normal, this is our opportunity to get rid of them for good

When the crisis began, what mattered most was human connections. We started to ask our work colleagues about their families, to care more about people. Overnight our leadership seemed more human. We see them in their homes, with their kids on webcams, struggling with stuff like the rest of us. Those leaders who are showing vulnerability and their human side are going down well right now.

Many leaders are now doing what the great leaders have always done. They are showing compassion, demonstrating empathy, doing the right thing without waiting to be told, keeping it simple and showing a pragmatic optimism – all the while building trust with their people.

When we take stock after the crisis, those leaders who behaved like truly decent human beings will be the ones we thank and celebrate – not the ones who complied with the HR processes.

And what about our own HR teams?

HR was already changing before this happened. We were starting to become more agile, less focused on slow annual processes and more sprint based, less siloed and braver, more prepared to pilot and experiment and less focused on getting things perfect and more around making things happen.

Josh Bersin has done a great short video recently talking about this being an opportunity for an HR re-set and I think he’s absolutely right. We will have dramatically reduced budgets, there will be the confusion and fear created by the chaos, priorities will have to change. We will have an opportunity to make changes very quickly. We have an opportunity now, not to implement a new system but to take a hard look at ourselves and say, how will we change? How will we emerge from this as a different type of team?

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