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Role Of HR heads in managing the COVID-19 crisis

Role Of HR Heads In Managing COVID-19 Crisis
Imprint of the LinkedIn article by Suresh Anubolu! 

We all are experiencing a global public health crisis, which can significantly impact the future of countries, businesses, lives, and livelihoods. There are innumerable articles from analysts about its impact on economies, however, these articles lack clear guidance on its recovery path, time, and form. As an HR practitioner, it is essential to have a comprehensive view of this, as this would help in the proactive design and delivery of the interventions to sustain and navigate the organization toward growth. Holistic employee wellness programs have become ever more important.

Among U, L, or V-shaped recovery paths; considering data from past epidemics, market response times, and the current progress made in the treatment of COVID-19 with repurposing drugs/vaccines; in all probability, it may take a V-shaped recovery path in 6-9 months’ horizon. While we start designing HR interventions, we may encounter the following market realities, post the "lockdown” period.

Backward march of economic growth indicators

As the global economy is moving towards a major slowdown or recession, there would be a negative impact on growth Indicators like GDP, Stock markets, and Forex Reserves; leading to the evaporation of VC funding sources and financing options for companies. This would necessitate the companies to revisit their strategies/reduce their FY-21 goals and budgets.

Huge deficits in government budgets 

Huge deficits witnessed in government budgets across the world due to COVID-19 control measures followed by infusing money to improve the economy and, providing support to the poor and unemployed people, to avoid social unrest.

Unemployment touching newer highs with layoff announcements

Industries like Apparel, Aviation, Tourism, Hospitality, Construction, and Automobile; which thrived on the discretionary spending of citizens would start announcing layoffs; which they would have deferred due to G.O. instructing not to terminate employees during the lockdown period. In addition to that, small-scale industries may exit or sell off their businesses due to poor cash flows and insufficient funding options.  

Increased localization efforts by government and organizations 

Increased localization efforts to manage supply chains better, avoid dependency on a single source or single country like China and also improve employment opportunities.

Evolution of new societal and organizational norms 

Evolution of new norms to adhere to social distancing & hygiene ecosystem. Some of them could include greeting norms, group ethos, travel guidelines, virtual working practices, and so on.

High thrust to automation, AI, and digital technologies 

High thrust to Automation, AI, and Digital technologies by organizations, to avoid human presence in running their continuous production operations and also to bring about efficiencies.

While some of these may be worrisome, history has shown that every problem has its own time period and it plateaus at a certain point in time. Considering this phenomenon and also the prediction of the RIPPLE effect of the COVID-19 Crisis (lockdowns may occur multiple times to handle these rolling peaks), it is of paramount importance that we come out with interventions to balance two continuums i.e. organizational sustenance vs. employee wellbeing. Alongside we also need to prepare organizations to handle this situation for the long haul.

While each HR Practitioner might have his/her own approach to handling the above situation, I came out with the following interventions encapsulated under the acronym “R.I.P.P.L.E”, which can be of help in bringing back organizations to a productive stage.

Intervention 1: “R”estart the operations with appropriate confidence-building measures

  • Identify early adopters and motivate them to return to the office. Their presence can boost confidence in the rest of the workforce to return to the office.
  • Enhance transportation facilities as public transport will be seen as a high-risk option by employees.
  • Ensure proper sanitization in office, common areas, and work areas; and provide continuous access to sanitizers in working areas.
  • Enable proper pre-screening systems such as Thermal Scanners at entry, Disinfection Entry Tunnels, OHC support, and new hires/vendors travel declaration process.
  • Restrict external visitors (or candidates) entering the office and encourage video/tele calls.
  • Avoid any group meetings or events; declutter cafeterias, buses, corridors and conference halls and carry out fumigation at right intervals.
  • Increase the regularity of leaders’/managers’ communication with employees, while following social distance norms.

Intervention 2: “I”mplement compliance systems to meet government regulations

  • With Government invoking Disaster Management Act 2005 and Epidemic Diseases Act and, with new social media and visiting visa regulations; it is important to establish proper policies/guidelines to conform to these regulations. To name a few, making the wearing of masks mandatory at the workplace, paid sick leave for unwell employees, salaries to employees during the lockdown period, WFH options for eligible people, cases with termination without cause, foreigners working in the office, self-quarantining people who traveled abroad, curfew passes for employees to commute to the office and so on.
  • Decluttering existing workforce in hourly shifts or workweek shifts: There is a need to reduce office density at least by 50%, by exploring various working models. Implementing either an hourly shift system (6 am to 2 pm and 2 pm to 10 pm)  with 2 batches in a day or dividing employees to come in 2 workweek shifts (3.5 days out of 7 days) with 2 batches in a week; will be of great help.
  • Clusters and compartmentalization:  Post-implementation of hourly shifts or workweek shifts, there is a greater need to ensure working clusters (building or department-wise) and compartments (floor/lab/sub-function-wise) and restrict the movement among these clusters and compartments. This will help in preventing total quarantine of the entire campus, by restricting it to the impacted floor/lab in case any employee is tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Activate the EHS task force to monitor the hygiene ecosystem and; come out with SOPs and protocols for handling COVID-19 suspect cases in the organization and in restarting the process.
  • Institutionalize EAP (employee assistant programs) or Doctors on-call system to avoid any legal risk from employees, as they may go through high stress during this time.
  • Engage union leaders/labour commissioner offices and bring them up to speed on company challenges, to avoid any future litigations or labour issues.

Intervention 3: “P”repare BCP plan and proper strategy for organizational sustenance

  • Help the CEO in activating the BCP task force and BCP plan and have regular meetings.
  • Encourage CXOs to review their business landscape, scan for new and adjacent opportunities, and also partner with them in building a plan to retain existing clients.
  • Set the tone for an open and timely discussion with Board members/Investors/Stakeholders and share the best, realistic and worst-case scenarios related to FY-21 target budget numbers (revenues, people expenses, Capex, etc.).
  • Proactively reach out to key stakeholders, share action plans and take their buy-in to ensure cohesive and collaborative actions, and avoidance of impulsive decisions.

Intervention 4: “P”roactive cost-saving measures to protect jobs and your employer brand

As an HR head, proactively initiating cost-saving measures can avert large-scale job cuts or loss of morale of your employees. Your CFO would be reworking budgets/cash flows to support operations, hence it is critical to get a sign-off from CEO/CFO on cost-saving measures. These initiatives can be executed in 2 phases, based on the severity of the crisis.

Phase 1: Measures considering problem span < 6 months

  • Hiring freeze to unleash untapped bandwidth in the organization.
  • Defer the appraisal cycle to a later date (3 or 6 months) as employees may not be mentally ready to handle these conversations. Additionally, defer increments to conserve cash during this period.
  • Stagger FY-20 bonus pay-outs to management staff, in 2-3 installments with retention clauses.
  • Austerity measures like avoiding business class travel, withholding leave encashment programs and deferring leadership outbound events, employee engagement events, and special perks.
  • Conduct HR audit of job families and asses workload for each position, move some jobs into part-time or WFH or consulting mode to reduce fixed pay liability.
  • Optimize contingency workforce through necessary reorganization and reduction.
  • Design retention programs for top talent (say ESOPS), to avoid their exit due to anxiety during these times.

Phase 2: Deeper measures considering problem span > 6 months

  • Focus on zero-based budgets and validate the importance of each high-cost position or reduce fewer value-added layers.
  • Revisit salary structure by introducing project allowance as a key component so that salaries of the undeployed workforce will not hit your paycheck heavily, and at the same time would protect their jobs.
  • Focus on bottom performers, give relevant severance, and exit them.
  • Define proportionate headcount cut in each department based on forecasted revised budgets.
  • Explore salary cuts for certain grades so that these savings can help in protecting the jobs of other employees at lower grades.

Intervention 5: “L”everage technology, automation, and digitization to avert this in future

  • Encourage every department to come up with a suitable digital plan to automate as many processes as possible. Your product department can have aggressive targets in moving to automation.
  • Audit currently implemented HR technology and look for ways to integrate all HR systems. Also, focus on virtualizing induction and exit processes to avoid touch points.
  • Drive remote working culture (no IT company may have difficulty) with suitable infrastructure (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.), training, and engagement interventions.
  • Plan to implement mobile technologies for better reach to employees to train, communicate, and connect with them.
  • Most importantly move your learning offerings to a blended model, leveraging newer platforms like LXP, to support remote workers and avoid classroom group sessions.

Intervention 6: “E”nhance Organisation Capability & Agility for future growth in this crisis

  • Identify strategic growth areas, map the talent pool and build these capabilities; as every problem will end one day.
  • Identify the top 3 most differentiating skills and build these skills i.e. EI, Customer Handling skills, Effective Remote Working skills, and so on.
  • Focus on Operational Excellence, Six Sigma, and Biz Process Re-engineering initiatives to create an agile and slim organization.
  • Develop new-age leaders, who have strong Emotional Intelligence and are agile, aspirational, and digital savvy

While this crisis has put us in a hot spot, it has also brought in the much-needed focus on the importance of public health across the world; made us re-imagine the way vaccines have to be developed; taught us the balance between ecology and economy, and; gave us an opportunity to reflect on our living styles. 

Most importantly it made us realize that we are living in an interdependent world, we are one big family with 7 billion humans as "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" and that, we need to take care of each other.

About the Author

Suresh Anubolu is an HR leader who can strengthen the organization's Valuation & Values through the right People, Process & Purpose interventions, Mr. Suresh's career purpose is to nurture and build "Globally competitive organizations & Globally respected leaders" using his OD & HR competencies. He has around 20 years of Industry experience with IT Products, IT & Pharma Services (CRO) organizations.