Who Has Time for Strategy in a Pandemic?

by Diana Sadighi

Bulletin,  HR Expertise and Support,  Leadership

As Human Resource professionals, our first priority during the COVID-19 pandemic has been responding to the immediate crisis and restoring business operations. While many of us are still in firefighting mode, try to find time to examine the long-term impacts of our actions.

Whether you’re updating a formal strategic plan or reviewing budgets for 2021, I encourage you to view the current year through a strategic lens. Are you intentional about continuing practices implemented in reaction mode, such as reimbursing employees’ remote working expenses? Has HR’s role in your organization shifted to include Business Continuity, Emergency Planning, or Health and Safety? Have employee expectations shifted?

While there’s no shortage of reports on emerging Human Capital trends, here are four topics that are likely on many organizations’ radars.

Working Remotely

Overall, we anticipate an increase in the number of permanent remote workers. With that said, a review of what this would look like for your organization is important. Have you redesigned your business or specific jobs? Have your metrics changed? Mercer’s recent study indicated that for 94% of employers, productivity was the same as or higher than before the pandemic.

Now is the time to review how the remote work experience fits into your organization’s culture. It’s one thing to quickly switch to a virtual office, taking all your calls on a video conference platform. It’s another thing to get an entire organization to be consistently productive, and in a way that reflects your mission, vision, and values.

Effectively managing a remote workforce may require different skills for your managers. Ask whether and how performance management and goals need to change. Consider what expectations are reasonable around communications and collaboration and review initiatives around employee engagement. Examine your professional development programs.

A shift to remote working offers opportunities for both talent acquisition and retention. You may have the chance to recruit in new locations to fill future talent needs and meet applicants’ expectations for remote work options. Twitter, Facebook, and VMware are among companies announcing permanent work from home policies related to COVID-19, but also as a response to workers moving closer to loved ones or to more sparsely populated areas with less punishing living costs. The forced experiment around remote working has changed work-life integration, for the better and worse.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, don’t waste a good crisis. Organizations that get remote work right will have a competitive advantage with employees. Now’s the time to look beyond crisis response and realign workforce planning with your strategic goals.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Our initial reactions to this year’s protests might have mirrored our crisis response to the pandemic: updating anti-discrimination policies, conducting harassment prevention training, and distributing reading lists. A diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace is one that that transcends regulatory compliance and encourages respect, dignity, the openness and sharing of ideas, growth and organizational development, and a sense of belonging and value.

Now is the time to review how diversity, equity, & inclusion fit into your organization’s culture. This topic is not new, but current events change the lens by which organizations will have to manage this topic.

Promoting respect and fairness has long been a fundamental value for organizations; this helps employees feel comfortable at work. According to the 2020 Deloitte Global Trends Survey, organizations that wish to be inclusive must move from making people feel comfortable at work to ensuring employees feel connected to the people and teams they work with. Fostering a sense of belonging by giving employees the ability to contribute in meaningful ways to advance team and organizational outcomes will also help with inclusivity.

For more information, consult Employers Council’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resource Guide. Employers Council can also assist members with asking the right questions, expanding organizational capabilities, and setting measurable, attainable goals.

Total Rewards Philosophy

A general definition of total rewards is everything the employee perceives to be of value that results from the employment relationship. A total rewards philosophy goes beyond base pay and benefits to incorporate work-life, performance and recognition, growth and career opportunities, and meaningful work. While we recommend you regularly review your philosophy to ensure it supports the business’s strategic focus, this year brings some new considerations.

We’ve seen unprecedented changes this year: Paid Leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), hazard pay, expanded unemployment benefits, changes in child care availability and needs, and subsidies for working from home.  Depending on geographic location, even more changes have been announced for 2021: Colorado has a new paid sick leave law, minimum wage increases, and gender pay equity laws taking effect. Economic conditions have reduced expectations for salary increases, as reported in Employers Council 2020 Planning Packet Survey. These factors may well shift your compensation package’s percentage attributed to pay, vs. benefits, and other factors.

Speaking of benefits, along with your broker’s projections for group health premiums, consider plan design in addressing these trends attributed to our current pandemic:

Virtual healthcare is here to stay. Meeting with a doctor online through video chat or over the phone was catching on before COVID, but usage has greatly expanded this year. Virtual care includes telemedicine, which is a telephone or electronic visit with a doctor in your existing health plan, and telehealth, generally defined as a third-party telemedicine vendor as an add-on to your benefits package. Discuss these options with your broker.

Wellbeing (or wellness) benefits are focused not only on health, but also social, emotional, and financial wellbeing. This is not a new trend, but it’s no surprise that the past months’ events have increased stress, burnout, and uncertainty. One survey by IMA indicated mental health conditions make up four of the top five utilized telehealth services since March 2020.

Outside of the traditional elements of pay and benefits, it’s an excellent time to consider how this year’s events have affected  employee perceptions around work-life integration, paid time off, training, promotions, recognition, and corporate citizenship. All of these areas comprise your Employee Value Proposition. Strategic HR is ensuring your EVP is intentional, not a result of circumstance.

Learning & Development

Development and career opportunities are an essential element of the Employee Value Proposition. Mercer’s Global Talent Trends Study 2020 reports that when asked what makes them thrive, employees’ number one priority is recognition for their contributions, alongside opportunities to learn new skills and technologies.

Current trends are accelerating the need to enhance skills. Continued remote working will keep posing an upskilling challenge. (Upskilling is the process of learning new skills but keeping employees in the same roles and reskilling is the process of learning new skills so employees can do a different job.)  For example, sales forces will have to shift to managing customer relationships effectively in remote settings. Managers need to figure out how to lead their teams virtually. Employees want to be successful working with increased autonomy and in new models of collaboration.

The COVID-19 pandemic may offer the opportunity required to kick-start reskilling. Some business areas will have more time to spare, and firms can take advantage by directing those employees toward online learning courses and career exploration.

The reskilling programs at small organizations (fewer than 1,000 employees) are often more successful than those at large ones, a global survey by McKinsey & Company showed. Smaller companies are often more successful at following agile principles—making bold moves more quickly because they don’t have to shift around large groups of people to try something new. They may also be more willing to fail because they have fewer approval layers to go through. At the same time, smaller companies tend to have a clearer view of their skill deficiencies, so they’re better at prioritizing the gaps they need to address and at selecting the right candidates for reskilling. That’s not to say larger organizations can’t be agile when it comes to reskilling, just that it can be more challenging for them.

What’s an HR professional to do, when traditionally, training budgets are one of the first areas reduced during poor economic times?

  • (Re)define your learning and development strategy. Just like the other topics identified in this article, review changes in job design, work location, and operations through a strategic lens to verify the most important competencies that drive organizational success.
  • Begin with the most critical groups of your workforce, whether sales, customer-facing, or technology.
  • Start now. Even if our landscape shifts again in the coming months, you’re building resilience and providing hope by moving forward.
  • Offer ongoing support and coaching.
  • Emphasize virtual learning, which may provide more cost-effective learning.

When businesses navigate uncertain times, HR should act as the trusted advisor that guides the organization forward. While we’ve demonstrated our value as essential workers in crisis management, don’t neglect your strategic role. Stay on top of these trends and how they evolve. Understand the potential ramifications for your organization. Make selected changes in strategy to incorporate the predictions in accordance with your values. Employers Council can help; give us a call.

About the author
Diana Sadighi

Diana Sadighi is a Consultant in the Human Resource Services group at Employers Council, where she trains and consults with member organizations on HR operations, metrics, and workforce planning. She has more than 30 years of HR leadership experience in manufacturing, renewable energy, and consulting. Diana earned a Bachelor’s degree in Personnel and Industrial Relations from Northern Illinois University, and is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) through the Society of Human Resources Management. She has been a local, state, and regional volunteer with SHRM and currently serves on the Board of Directors for Community Shares of Colorado.