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HR Crisis Management #2: Getting the work done

Lucy Adams on May 12, 2020

HR Crisis Management #2: Getting the work done


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As I mentioned in the first blog in this series, HR teams are under huge strain right now as we attempt to support leaders and employees through the crisis. But providing support to our clients is only a portion of our workload. We also have tons of our own stuff to get done. This second blog in the series on HR Crisis Management is going to focus on that. How can we cope with the mountain of tasks, the barrage of competing priorities and the unrelenting pace and uncertainties of the crisis? Whilst it can be tricky to simply transfer the tactics we deployed in previous difficult periods, there are some that we can re-use and adapt. I’d like to suggest five approaches that have worked for me and other HR leaders in previous crises to get the work done.

Develop a triage system

The triage concept originated during the Napoleonic Wars when the French army adopted a system to identify which of the wounded should be treated first. Thankfully, we’re not having to make decisions in a medical setting, but the ability to prioritise quickly can be helpful in deploying scarce HR resources, time and energy. We developed a triage system at the BBC during the Savile crisis when the team was inundated with people who had experienced some aspect of sexual harassment over a period of decades. We were really struggling to cope with the workload and of course, each person needed to be treated with respect and care. So, we developed a triage system that allowed us to make a call on which needed our urgent attention, which should be referred to external agencies and which could be managed over a longer period. Of course, your triage criteria will be specific to your business but spending a bit of time on these – and the resulting action for each – can be helpful in preventing headless chicken syndrome.

Sprint Planning

A few HR teams had already started to adopt ‘sprint planning’ pre-crisis and this will stand them in good stead now. Instead of the typical three or five year Stalinist, strategic HR plan with the annual business operational plan, we were seeing HR teams move to an approach whereby they have some broad longer-term goals around, say, the experiences they want to create for their people but then operationalising these plans in shorter ‘sprints’ of around six to twelve weeks. This enables the HR team to be more agile, to be more responsive to the shifting business needs and can be really useful during this difficult period when business scenarios keep changing. In addition, by only having two or three products or initiatives on the go at any one time, we see a surge of energy to get them done. This in turn enhances our credibility with our clients rather than fighting on a multitude of fronts over a 12 month period.

Know What to Stop

I’d be amazed if we had any leaders or employees lamenting the absence of some of our most disliked processes, such as talent reviews or performance appraisals, right now. Whilst most of the traditional HR processes have disappeared overnight due to lockdown, we must guard against bringing them back in automatically as the crisis dissipates. Now is a great time to take a really hard look at the processes, policies and rules that we might have had doubts about when the world was relatively normal. And I would go even further than feels comfortable. You may never have this time again. Stopping them now frees us up but also forces us to think about delivering the outcomes from those processes in different ways.

Progress is Better Than Perfection

We have a tendency in HR to want to wait till everything is perfect before we launch it. Whenever I was about to roll out a new initiative, I would have had to ensure everything was ready; the full and detailed project plan, the full cascade comms plan with the obligatory FAQs sheet, PowerPoint decks and manager scripts prepared, the unions and the legal, employment policy and often the public relations teams all squared away. Right now, what matters is that we make quick decisions and get stuff happening. Perfection is almost impossible and we can use this period when our clients are likely to be more forgiving to try out the techniques favoured by agile teams such as ‘fail-fast’ pilots, delegated decision making and the use of Minimal Viable Product (MVP) techniques.

Keep One Eye on the Future

‘To experience a crisis is to inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs’ says William Davies, the renowned political economist. Whilst it can be tempting to immerse ourselves in detail and operational pressures, the smarter HR teams are also recognising that this is a time when they need to keep one eye on the future. If you are familiar with the coaching model that considers where your focus is, you’ll know of the risks of staying rooted in the detail and drama. You will understand the value of encouraging your team to also focus on the vision and planning parts of our role even whilst you are still in the crisis. So, it’s useful to take time out, even if it’s only for a small amount of time, to work with the team on what you’re learning through the crisis; which are the processes that seem irrelevant that you don’t want to resume, what could the new world look like and what could be your response, how will you use the crisis to accelerate some of the changes you would have liked to have made pre-Covid 19? Instead of focusing on returning to normal, how can you create something better? Re-focusing your collective energy away from ‘problem and drama’ and into ‘vision and planning’ can be energising too! Because let’s face it, aren’t we all just a little bit tired of only talking about the crisis!

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