Leading through COVID-19

Leading through COVID-19

Employers' response to COVID-19 is a leadership moment.

The organisational change is multifaceted and defining new realities of employee experience. Gartner suggests an acceleration across all people, business and technology streams of the Future of Work:

  • Remote work increases up to 41% — 74% of CFOs expect to grow remote work capacity or practice in organisations post-COVID-19
  • Expanded data collection — new dimensions of employee tracking, in particular health data
  • Contingent worker expansion
  • Employer as social safety net — the expansion of the organisation's societal role and greater holistic accountability in employee mental health, healthcare and financial wellbeing
  • Separation of critical skills and critical roles
  • Humanisation (or dehumanisation) of workers — the emergence of both more connected relationships and the risk of marginalisation of task-orientated workers in different demographics
  • Emergence of new top-tier employers — that, in the words of Lorraine Murphy, "You get the culture [and talent] you deserve"
  • Shift from design for efficiency to designing for resilience — where streamlining has created efficient systems, it may have destabilised platforms; that going fast without discipline is no longer acceptable
  • Increase in organisation complexity — in particular, the challenge for leaders to navigate evolving operating models

As my old colleague Neha Bhardwaj and the PX.Works collective assert, "We are in the new normal." In many respects, that comes with incredible opportunity such that I agree that, "…there is no need to turn back." How we lead people into our new societal and organisational contexts with agility and dignity is crucial.

Thankfully, there has been some great content on how to navigate this crisis. Empathy, human connection, transparency and clarity remain essential principles for leaders. People are incredibly resilient when we make all reasonable efforts to share, communicate and care. They can forgive your imperfections as a leader—even for not having answers. Right now, it means more that you are kind, accessible and even vulnerable.

Our business has been working through the painful process of reducing our workforce as we respond to the commercial and operational impact of COVID-19. For those of us who have worked to build something a bit special for the past few years, it feels like we have a momentous responsibility as custodians of that—and the rich heritage of the brand—to ensure that we position the company to be sustainable into the future. It's a solemn responsibility to honour the people to whom we're saying farewell and the value that they created for the organisation. This is no one's fault.

The privilege of the HR business partner role is that we get to see leaders at their most vulnerable so that we may support them to be their best selves when their people need them to be great. It's been an honour to work alongside a team that has genuinely agonised over how to find the least bad outcome in all the circumstances. That has been frustrating and emotional for all. As leaders who have a duty of care to their people, it's nevertheless the right work even though it feels like the wrong outcome.

We as individuals are extremely resilient. It's our organizations that get in the way. (Josh Bersin)

I recognise the HR professionals who came before me and earnt the seat at the table that I now occupy. I also acknowledge the inclusivity of the leadership team I partner with. I'm humbled by the community we serve and people's patience, pragmatism and grace as we've worked through some difficult decisions. We've tried to do things with dignity; their humility and grit is an inspiration.

Reflecting on all of this, I have three personal observations to support leaders through this extraordinary time.

  1. Vulnerability is powerful. This is heart-breaking work; crying and kind-hearted awkwardness is very humanising, not failing. Own it; have a glass of water; carry on.
  2. Be still for a moment. Sit in the discomfort with others; share the burden of their suffering while they process this. Don't rush in to fill the difficult conversations entirely with words.
  3. This isn't your legacy. It's supporting those people who we have to farewell into jobs they love—through the quality of experience they gained here, your network or reference—and your best work is yet to come.

In terms of organisational behaviour, culture and employer brand, this is perhaps the most important context for the leadership maxim, "People won't remember what you said but they'll remember how you made them feel."

Kia kaha, whānau.