HR on the COVID-19 frontline – A HR Director speaks

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Barron Williams

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Our HR Director client is a very experienced HR professional with board-level experience across a number of sectors, both commercial and public sector. Her roles have included interim roles as well as permanent Board appointments – it’s fair to say that very little phases her in organisations these days…

Talking recently, we discussed how the COVID-19 crisis has affected different sectors and organisations in a variety of ways.

For example, one of our clients is a supplier of products and services to the Retail motor industry – their business was immediately and severely impacted by the lockdown in March.

Other clients, in Manufacturing for example, faced challenges around maintaining production whilst adhering to social distancing guidelines and supporting their staff as they manage child care, shielding and other similar issues.

Interestingly, this particular HR Director gave us some insight from two different perspectives having recently completed an interim HRD contract in the Education sector, before moving on to a permanent role in the Pharmaceutical sector. The two provide some interesting contrasts.

HR Director insights from the Education Sector

In the Education sector organisation, pre-COVID, the culture was one of certainty. A clear organisational model, stable structure and competitive but a largely predictable market for post-grad students. Day to day focus was on operations “evolution rather than revolution”.

The impact of the crisis however, was immediate and significant. At the start of lockdown the market seized and financial implications were dramatic. For an organisation unused to, or geared up for, rapid change, it was difficult to adapt to new ways of thinking, as well as working.

In a world requiring adaptability and agility, organisations unversed in adversity were at a distinct disadvantage and, it hit quickly!

Nor surprisingly, some managers struggled to adapt, and the essential skills needed were in short supply. It is difficult to think strategically when faced with immediate and significant challenges, however, it needs to be done.

Organisations in this situation will need to support senior management through this, but it’s also often necessary to bring in a blend of different skills. Turnaround experience and financially astute leaders able to structure organisations for the future, whatever that holds.

From an HR perspective, it’s difficult to judge right now whether the calmer waters will return once the ship is steadied?

It may be tempting for managers used to certainty to hold back, however, it seems more likely that change is not only irreversible, it needs to accelerate.

The impact of COVID-19 0n the Pharma Sector

In contrast, having completed her interim role, our HR Director friend recently took up her post with a global pharmaceutical manufacturer.

As with other companies in the sector, the COVID-19 crisis has brought many challenges, but more so in relation to maintaining, or in many cases, even increasing production capacity within a safe working environment.

In common with most sectors, they have facilitated home-working wherever possible, a move to video-conferencing for meetings and, for those necessary to be present, social-distancing across the entire site.

It certainly made for an interesting induction, meeting your new colleagues and yet to shake their hands!

Also common for all is that need for agility – of approach and mindset.

Different challenges to those faced in Education but the same requirement to address issues based on where we are now – It’s a new world and if you snooze, you lose!

From an HR Director perspective, focus has been on the safety of key workers – not just on site but recognising and acting upon the wider impact on peoples lives – childcare, self-isolation, safeguarding vulnerable family members etc.

Even the basics of getting staff to work when public transport was limited presented a unique challenge to many manufacturers, not just pharma.

There was also noticeable changes in attitudes to work.

Working from home presents challenges for some, and there needs to be a consideration of a work/life balance too.

Managers making decisions in more uncertain situations, with limited information or little to no precedent will be making errors. It is inevitable.

Evolve & Adapt

The lockdown has also shown how some people are quicker to adapt to the new normal (and new forms of virtual comms) than others.

Future HR issues will arise as organisations acclimatise, however, already, forward thinking HR Directors will be considering how to train people in the necessary skills for the future and, crucially, how to recruit those with the right traits and mindset to build for future management team and bench talent for the long term.

We may see this evidenced by a shift in emphasis in candidate selection to more psychometric measures over technical skills and/or sector background.

Looking at the longer-term Organisational Development (“OD”) issues, a new HRD has the advantage of a consultant in approaching the diagnostic phase of an organisational review with an open mind.

For the future however, leadership will be evident where organisations are able to abandon entrenched norms, and take risks in creating their own new norms.

The employer/employee relationship is fast-evolving and priorities have shifted from material reward towards safety and security.

Organisations are reacting and readjusting right now, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Whatever happens, HR Directors will have their work cut out advising, guiding and supporting senior management colleagues as they form their response to these challenging times.

If you’re looking for your next role, then please feel free to Upload Your CV or Call Us for an exploratory conversation. If you’re looking for a senior executive for your organisation, please use our Client Upload Form or Call Us now.

Barron Williams

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