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20 May. 2020 | Comments (0)

Crisis is like a lens - it magnifies everything. It quickly reveals the weaknesses in the systems, but it also brings out the best in the human character. It unleashes the ingenuity and the ability to mobilize resources in previously implausible ways. From an HR perspective, the pandemic creates an unprecedented opportunity to simplify the work environment, to focus on the workforce wellbeing, and (finally) embrace the digital transformation. It also creates a tremendous amount of uncertainty. 

Just as people analytics was being embraced and accepted as a strategic differentiation in decision making, the implications of pandemic on HR practices, on HR technologies, and on people analytics are emerging to be far-reaching. 

Let’s consider this example: before COVID-19, in a tight labor market, organizations were prioritizing hiring efficiency and retention. Hundreds of solutions and models were built to help talent acquisition identify the “perfect” candidates through personality and skills assessments. Sophisticated evaluation of job descriptions and candidate selection processes allowed organizations to eliminate any bias-inducing keywords or reveal human judgment gaffes, and ensure a diverse pipeline. Prediction models were built by analyzing resume text, translating into specific elements that were compared to the “success profiles” to identify candidates who are most likely to succeed and not quit. On the retention side, more prediction models were built to identify those at high risk of leaving and specific drivers for their decisions so that HR and the business could make targeted interventions. 

Fast forward to today. We are seeing a labor market that went to tens of millions of unemployed in a matter of days, a great rebalancing where “essential” industries/organizations have a really difficult time ramping up the capacity, while others are on a spree of furloughs and layoffs. Tens of millions went to a virtual, remote, distributed work environment overnight and the work didn’t stop, nor the efficiency drop. 

Let’s assume this is all temporary and we will go back to some version of “next normal” (AC, or after COVID-19) until the vaccine or cure becomes available (VC, vaccine and cure). Nevertheless, the following questions will be here well past that point and should be considered before reacting or making long-lasting and irreversible decisions:

Consider what will stick: What elements of the “DC” (during COVID-19) ways of working will persist and should be planned around? For example: 

  • Distributed work: virtual, remote work is here to stay. Is your technical infrastructure able to support it (bandwidth, VPN, remote access into tools previously only accessible from office)? Are your employees equipped with tools and skills to work remotely (equipment, ergonomic office, secure access to office infrastructure, ability to balance workload, maintaining focus)? Are your managers able to lead a dispersed team (define goals and outcomes vs time spent, empathy, coaching, more frequent check-ins, building trust, fostering collaboration, encouraging serendipity and “watercooler” moments)? 
  • Physical distancing: handshakes, hugs, and meetings in tight conference rooms are going to be a thing of the past, for a while. Large events, conferences, trade-shows, and annual off-sites will most likely be amongst the last ones to return to “normal.” How will your organization need to adapt to create a sense of belonging and cultural identity? How will the office layout have to change (open floor most likely will not feel safe)? Will you even need as much office space? Will you stagger work shifts especially if your offices are in tall buildings and elevators can only take a few people at a time? Will you retrofit your office with many contactless interfaces (automated doors, touchless vending machines, touchless security turnstile)? 
  • Vocabulary: we have quickly adopted terms such as “essential” employees, front-line, social distancing, and immunity. We have also accepted painful realities such as furloughs, layoffs, and major cross-industry talent rebalancing, and almost overnight have shifted from a record low to a record high unemployment. We have embraced Zooming (into conferences, 1:1s, book clubs, and happy hours), we are using virtual backgrounds as a method of self-expression and a way to hide the reality of our daily lives. We are acutely aware of risks of Zoombombing and all the interruptions caused by homeschooled children, noisy pets, and sirens blaring outside.

Plan for what’s known, short-term: From HR perspective there are few things that are most likely going to persist: 

  • Safety and well-being: Focus on employee’s health, safety and well-being will put HR in at the center of building and enforcing new workplace norms and practices: testing, masks and gloves allowances, office sanitation and decontamination, private transportation and childcare arrangements, questioning travel needs, providing self-quarantining benefits (hotel stay to avoid exposing housemates), assessing gaps in existing policies that didn’t account for health crises. More importantly, the focus will shift to mental health and dealing with fatigue, disengagement, illnesses, and grief.
  • Workforce resilience: HR will have to rethink the organizational design to create local, modular and duplicative organizational capabilities to ensure operational continuity while micro waves of shut-downs will continue until a vaccine or cure is developed. Emergency succession planning will ensure leadership teams can function despite illnesses or even deaths. Coaching and development programs to raise personal resilience skills will also be critical to ensure people can build coping mechanisms to deal with the daily stress. Leading in crisis will be the traits that are prioritized. 
  • Virtualization: The long-haul challenge for HR will be the notoriously elusive “digital transformation.” An overhaul of traditional processes such as onboarding, collaboration, training and development activities, internships, culture building, annual retreats, and the list can go on and on. We are already running virtual board meetings, talent reviews, and town halls  - so it has been proven that remote versions can be just as effective. What are the new norms that you might need to reinvent or create? How can you build trust without having the luxury of “in-person” meeting? How can managers be enabled to manage distributed teams? How can employees be coached to work distributed and digital? What is the shift in priority of skills and abilities of the workforce (self-directed, digital, remote, comfort with ambiguity, resilience, etc.)?

Measure what matters: From people analytics perspective we will have a whole new set of challenges to deal with and opportunities emerge:

  • Measurements: What new measurements will you need to establish to measure success or good performance? What new data elements (i.e., “essential” designation, immunity test results, underlying conditions) will we have to start tracking? What type of new analyses will be possible with more data about digital behavior becoming available? How will you adjust your data collection models, governance, and existing processes to the new reality (i.e., workforce planning will have to change from a long-term, annual process to a scenario planning, agile and adaptive process)?
  • BC/DC/AC Data: How do we deal with historical data and how will we discern what stays and is still relevant, what needs to be eliminated, or adapted to new reality? How will your organization ensure the quality of data you already have? Will you need to retest all the prediction models? What results will you be able to explain with the data you already have and where will you need to start fresh with AC data? Which AI systems trained on historical data will still work?
  • Tracking and monitoring: as new monitoring solutions emerge (national or even global contact tracing, IoT-enabled such as biometric rings, or even workplace productivity monitoring that track clicks or take pictures of people every 10 min, etc.) what are the ethical and privacy implications of tracking and monitoring of employees? What new protocols should be established to ensure the trust of employees is not eroded and the “right” decisions are being made. 

It is so important now to observe the positives of new reality: it unleashed creativity, brought levity and acceptance to our working relationships, gave permission to bend rules and bypass formalities, and brought more empathy and humanity. Let’s keep track of those and measure the positive impact - it might be the biggest value people analytics can provide (in the near term, AC normal).

  • About the Author:Stela Lupushor

    Stela Lupushor

    Stela Lupushor is a Senior Fellow in Human Capital and Program Director for The Conference Board. Stela is on a mission to humanize the workplace and accomplishes that in several major ways: At the…

    Full Bio | More from Stela Lupushor


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