HR agility and resilience: 12 powerful lessons from the pandemic so far

Jess Fuhl
Published on 8th September 2020
4 min read

“HR leaders have always been resilient,” says Founder and CEO of employer brand consultancy firm exaqueo, Susan LaMotte. “It’s part of the job.”

As HR and People leaders, we all know that being resilient and able to adapt is fundamental for effective HR leadership. Yet if there’s any time this has been put to the test, it’s the global COVID-19 pandemic.

We share 12 tips from the HR community on what we’ve learnt from the pandemic so far, and how HR and People teams can lead with HR agility and resilience.

1. Be visible and listen

None of us have dealt with anything like COVID-19 before, and HR leaders might not have all the answers immediately, points out host of the #HRsocialhour podcast Jon Thurmond. “Be willing to admit that,” he explains. “However, make the commitment to get the answers you need.”

“Sometimes people may just need you to listen,” he adds. “We’re all dealing with the pandemic in our own way, remember that just like not everyone goes to work for the same reason you do, the fears and concerns they may have are different but are as real and legitimate as yours.”

2. Act quickly and iteratively

Other sectors can learn a lot from HR and how HR leaders have responded to the pandemic so far, muses HR Consultant, Susan Greenland: “HR has the ability to react and respond quickly, dealing with a high level of ambiguity, new concepts and balancing the commercial decisions with the impact on our people and culture.”

New concepts such as furloughing staff in the UK is a good example of this, she adds. “Very few of us had experience of knowledge of this prior to the pandemic! This has meant having to learn quickly, interpret guidance which is frequently being updated, work at pace with little time to validate our response, and in some cases get it wrong. We’ve had to lead the tough commercial decisions which impact our people, whilst being supportive to our colleagues and true to the company values.”

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

“We’ve seen some inspiring examples of HR professionals who’ve supported their organization and leaders through this period by listening, collaborating with others and communicating both within their company and externally,” says Director at the HR Dept Consultancy, Helena White.

Founder and Director of HR Bridge Consulting Lydik Grynfeltt agrees. “Alignment of everyone around the principles and the change curve is key to state where we all are with change, and how to anticipate the next steps to come.”

4. Know what you can, and cannot, influence

Lydik Grynfeltt also reiterates the importance of change management best practice in relation to communication: “It’s key for individuals to identify the spheres of influence in their own environment: what can I change or influence? What cannot I change or influence? People must feel empowered and able to do what is best in their own sphere of influence in order to manage anxiety and frustration.”

5. Approach every day from a place of agility

HR leader at Weavers Way Cooperative Association, Janet Potts, explains that “while some employers currently have weeks to put together response plans while businesses are closed, things will pop up that can’t be planned for and require a much more immediate response.”

“In this new world, it’s hard to stay one step ahead, but still possible. Go back to your guiding principles and company values and make decisions rapidly and accordingly to meet the needs of your people and your business.”

6. Don’t evolve – reinvent

“Instead of focusing on returning to normal, let’s look at creating something better,” says Helena White – a theme which cropped up regularly amongst those we spoke to.

“Who wants to go back to doing the dreaded annual performance appraisals? Not many, I imagine. An increasing number of organizations were ditching the annual appraisal in the last couple of years and I can see that number increasing after this pandemic.”

“The best leaders will focus on what’s really important, treat employees like adults and have a more human approach,” she explains. “Once you’ve seen people across your organization on video calls with children, dogs and cats appearing on the call it will make more sense to develop HR solutions for the whole person not just the employee.”

7. Embrace empathy

The very best way to lead and manage during times of change is to embrace empathy, says Founder and CEO of employer brand consultancy firm exaqueo, Susan LaMotte.

“We all know how to make business and work decisions, but change can have a powerful effect on our actions. For some, change drives fear, and we’re scared to act. For others, we feel pressured to act and often do so without thinking.

“By embracing empathy and stopping to try to understand how our employees are feeling right now, we can use that to help us either take that action, or pause, and confirm we’re doing the right thing. Often business has to come first, but in can happen in an empathetic and understanding way. You don’t have to choose people over profits or vice versa. You can choose both.”

8. Empower your HR and People team

For Director, Helena White, empowering others is mission critical. “You can’t possibly have all the answers right now, and the best HR leaders are doing a lot of listening to their people and empowering their teams,” she explains. “It’s not the time for micro-management.”

9. Claim your ownable space

We love this tip from Susan LaMotte and think it will resonate with a lot of HR and People leaders. “Oftentimes CEOs and other leaders will step up to take charge on all things HR,” she explains. “As an HR leader, you have to be the people expert — be confident asserting yourself.

“Reinforce the importance of gathering feedback and practicing empathy. Focus on communications and the importance of what you say or don’t say. HR are even more important than most leaders are willing to admit. Now’s our time.”

10. Play the long game

Managing Director at HR Rewired, Shereen Daniel’s top tip is to play the long game. “The HR leaders who can also help the business respond proactively by balancing long term strategic vision with short term operational challenges will be well thought of by their leadership team and their peers,” she explains.

She adds: “Look after yourself first, ask for help when you need it, look at the resources around you and be fearless in seeking out whatever support you need to help your business navigate through this.”

11. Take time to recharge

Director Helena White agrees. “Most important is to take time for your own wellbeing and recognize when you need some time out to go for a walk or switch off,” she explains.

12. Remember that you can only do your best

The last word on this goes to HR Consultant Susan Greenland, who reiterates just what a whirlwind the pandemic has been so far.

“We are now having to lead and support colleagues and teams working in very different ways, being at the forefront of some very tough conversations and people decisions,” She explains. “Alongside this, we are all balancing working from home, supporting family members and friends, home-schooling and a whole list of other new demands. This is on top of what many of us had prior to COVID-19!”

“My top tip, and something I am having to remind myself of much more these days, is you can only do your best. We are all having to work differently and facing situations that we have not dealt with before. Trust your judgement and your experience, as they have served us very well up until this point in times of change and uncertainty.”

What skills will the People leader of tomorrow need? Download the eBook ‘The People team of tomorrow’ to find out more about how you can get ahead for today’s changing world of work.

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