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Mark Spratt

Josh Bersin Academy

Vice President

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The big reset: HR’s 20 priorities for building a better workplace

What are the top 20 priorities for HR leaders during the pandemic and beyond

Covid-19’s impact on our economy, social lives, home life, and businesses has been huge, and has required what analyst Josh Bersin has called a Big Reset to accommodate new ways of working, financial priorities and budgets, as well as a new, more empathetic role for leadership.

Most of us are now realising that we’ll never return to how things were before, and that uncertainty will be with us for many months to come. 

The Josh Bersin Academy has been talking with HR executives from more than 160 companies to understand their reactions, responses, and new strategies for supporting workforces during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. Here are the top priorities for HR and their teams they identified.

1. The need for continuous communication

A new focus on empathy, support, and connection is emerging as critical. Every single HR leader in our working groups suggested the need to create a new support structure for employees at all levels. This includes frequent (daily or weekly) communications, all-hands meetings, and lots of listening, surveys, and feedback. This renewed emphasis on employee communications and response to feedback, typically being led by HR, has put many chief executive officers into the role of the chief empathy officer, too.

2. Wellbeing moves to centre stage

The second overarching priority is a complete top-to-bottom focus on all aspects of employee wellbeing. Studies by Towers Watson and many others show that workers are under enormous stress right now. Not only are companies conducting yoga and positive thinking classes, they’re offering cooking tips, delivering education and training for children, and adopting many different types of coaching on physical, mental, and financial fitness.

3. Supporting and developing leaders

We’re hearing from executives that every leader needs to become totally comfortable supporting employees and their families. In particular, leaders need to learn how to supervise and support people working at home.

4. Multi-skilled HR

HR teams must now broaden their areas of expertise and work directly with other functional areas of the business such as safety, facilities, IT, legal, and finance. Many HR teams are finding that their scope of responsibility has expanded, and in some cases, people are moved into completely new roles. HR professionals need to be on top of workplace safety, public health, and facilities design, plus be empowered to deal with issues like employee commutes, bathroom and cafeteria policies, and be competent in the myriad of legal issues created by the pandemic.

5. Adapted talent practices

Most organisations have continued to hire, onboard, train, manage, and promote their people – but every one of these talent practices has changed. Recruiting and onboarding are now being done digitally, often with great success.

6. Digital transformation accelerates

Executives have discussed how rapidly their employees are adopting new digital tools for remote work, recruiting, onboarding, collaboration, and communications, as well as for surveys and check-ins. Tools for daily attestation, virus response, remote onboarding, team collaboration, and real-time information were implemented in days or weeks.

7. Agile problem solving without agile methodologies

The pandemic has put agile thinking and problem solving into daily work streams, without formal processes. The traditional lengthy processes to agree on solutions, gain stakeholder buy-in, create solutions, and gradually drive adoption are being dramatically condensed. PepsiCo, for example, developed a virtual onboarding programme in four weeks that probably would have taken six months before the pandemic.

8. Focus on family

Most of us have been taught to leave behind our family problems at the start of each workday. Employers largely ignored issues such as sick children, children out of school, aging parents, or health problems. That has all changed. Leaders are developing many practical ways to directly support workers and their families. Nokia, for instance, identified all employees who were likely to be home alone so they could receive special attention; the company also identified families with aging parents who needed special support. Meanwhile, Chubb Insurance holds family hours online and movie nights.

9. Maintaining productivity

Employees now have so many distractions (family issues, health worries, safety concerns) and the digital always-on workplace is so distracting that many HR leaders have been looking at ways to make work easier while maintaining productivity. This is now especially important with so many workforces dispersed.

10. Remote and flexible work goes mainstream

Prior to the pandemic, about half of the companies did not support remote working. Now, six months into the crisis, a large majority of companies now have remote working policies in place for some segments of the workforce. It’s important to remember, however, that many companies have large numbers of employees who cannot work from home. For these important employee segments, we’re seeing more flexibility, and even financial help, to help people juggle childcare, commuting issues, and other responsibilities.

11. Purpose rising to the fore

In times of uncertainty and ambiguity, people are desperate for a sense of purpose. Leaders who understand the importance of a uniting sense of purpose are finding competitive advantage. Our members know this; Sainsbury’s purpose is to ‘feed the nation’; ServiceNow’s purpose is to create workflow tools to help its customers manage business through the pandemic; Santander Bank and Royal Bank of Canada talk about the purpose of helping their customers and communities better manage and improve their financial lives.

12. Trust

Research by Edelman and others shows that citizens around the world do not trust government and many don’t trust the media, but most do trust their employers. It is critically important that company leaders live up to this responsibility. CEOs and operations leaders are now in a world where trust, competency, ethics, and listening are sacrosanct.

13. Distributed authority

Effective responses to the pandemic seem to involve centralised information and policymaking coupled with local authority, skills, and information. Pizza Hut, for example, created local ‘health-at-work-officers’ who take responsibility for back-to-work policies and implementation.  

14. Improved pay and benefits

Many employers we talk with are raising pay, increasing benefits, improving sick pay, expanding leave policies, and generally helping employees with many aspects of their financial lives. Target, Wal-Mart, Verizon, and Chubb are among those companies that have either raised wages or made ‘no layoff’ commitments almost immediately lockdown started.

15. Learning all the time

One of the most interesting findings from all our conversations is the massive rise in consumption of great learning content. Sanofi, for example, launched a new corporate university at the start of the pandemic and found that company employees consumed almost a million hours of training in just two months. In addition to learning about the virus and health, people are using spare time to learn about digital tools, professional topics, even new languages for fun and professional advancement.

16. Rules and policies with consequences

One of the other findings that came from our working groups was the need for clear policies to address pandemic-related issues. Will the company pay for my home office supplies? Can I take a leave if my kids are out of school? Health and safety guidance for these issues must be clear and well communicated. Humana’s playbook is 175 pages long, for instance, and updated every week.

17. Living with uncertainty

Most of us are now realising that we’ll never return to how things were before, and that uncertainty will be with us for many months to come. Enlightened HR leaders are realising they must organise and manage for continuous uncertainty, and signal readiness to help, regardless of conditions. In addition, they must convey a sense of optimism and competence even when conditions continue to change.

18. Positive psychology

Currently, there is much discussion in the community about the need for mental, psychological, and physical resilience. Resilience demands optimism, a sense of joy, and a realistic but well communicated vision of the future. Companies are using coaches, psychologists, and many new tools to help employees take a positive view of the future and build resilience. Legendary Entertainment, the movie and comic publisher, hired life coaches to help creative and executive staff learn to meditate, practice yoga, and work on fun exercise regimens at home.

19. New workplace protocols

A whole series of new workplace protocols are emerging, encompassing everything from operations, technology, safety and wellbeing, to service delivery and execution, logistics and culture. One of the most interesting comments came from a leader at L’Oréal, who said that as a result of the welcome back to work kit, protective measures, cleaning protocols, and safety changes, employees feel they are safer at work than anywhere else.

20. Unity: coming together

Finally, every single leader told us that the pandemic created a sense of unity, among employees, customers, and across all corporate functions. In many ways, the pandemic forced us to tear down our functional silos and work more closely together than ever before. People are inspired and energised by the sense of purpose, togetherness, and urgency in this time of change. Let’s continue to keep that happening.

Interested in this topic? Read Four ways to shape a future of work that’s right for your people.

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Mark Spratt

Vice President

Read more from Mark Spratt

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