5 Things HR Leaders Must Do Now Amidst This Never-Ending Crisis
From holding a space for grief, talking politics, to entering the Multiverse.
by Tim Leberecht
Doom-and-gloom is alien to a function that is expected to attract talent, enhance employee wellbeing, and promote a positive story of development and growth. Trauma, sadness, depression, uncertainty, and doubt are not part of HR’s usual repertoire.
However, the events of this year, from the pandemic to the protests against structural racism, growing social inequality, political polarization, automation and volatile job security, increasingly tangible climate change, as evidenced by the shocking images from the West Coast of the U.S. this past week, on top of a massive mental health crisis, challenge existing norms and behaviors. It’s one thing to “reimagine capitalism when the world is on fire” at the highest policy and economic level, as Harvard professor and Rebecca Henderson does so brilliantly in her book of the same title, but what does the collapse of narratives, social systems, and nature around us mean for the job profiles of HR leaders and talent managers and their day-to-day responsibilities?
Here are five immediate things these leaders and managers can do:
1. Address the big issues humanity is facing
Don’t shy away from difficult, painful conversations and invite employees to a dialogue about the great challenges of our time. Talk about racism, privilege, and unconscious bias. Study the science on climate change.
And talk politics! You don’t have to take a stance for a specific political party or candidate, for example, when it comes to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, but do offer opportunities to engage. You might be afraid to get into the trenches — and yes, you shouldn’t — or believe that that these issues are too big to be tackled in a meaningful way by you and your colleagues, but the thing is: consciously or not, these issues weigh on your employees, and by addressing them head on, you give your employees a sense of agency. These are political times, whether you like it or not. Have an opinion, allow for others, and enter the arena. And get your employees to vote!
2. Create a safe space for negative emotions
HR leaders and talent managers are often handcuffed by a dictate of forced positivity. They are supposed to highlight that their company’s culture enables positive emotions such as happiness, joy, and empathy. It’s a cliché these days to talk about “bringing your whole self” and being “authentic” at work. But a human workplace is one that not only enables us to be happy but also allows us to be sad.
HR leaders must recognize that many of their employees may be returning to the workplace traumatized and scared, with deep-seated anxieties about the future. Creating a safe space for them to openly share their feelings is paramount. This can take place by forming small circles of peers, larger townhalls, or facilitating 1:1 walking meetings for colleagues from different functions, with no direct reporting lines, to mitigate any fear of potential political repercussions.
Employees will appreciate orientation and a consistency in all communications (as Edelman research has shown they trust their employers more than the government or media when it comes to COVID-19-related information), but having all the answers and lulling them with a false sense of normalcy will seem tone-deaf and ingenuine.
3. Enter the Multiverse
Many companies have already announced they will not move their workforce back onsite any time soon (e.g. Google or Facebook), and while the long-term implications of the crisis are disputed, one thing is clear: work is never going to be the same again. Even the manager of a small real-estate development firm told me lately that they were going to change their culture and remove most of the hierarchy, moving toward a much more nimble, flexible, and independent way of working: “humanocracy” instead of bureaucracy, to use Gary Hamel’s concept.
The long-expected age of the micropreneur is here. The new workplace is going to be a Multiverse, that is, a layer of multiple worlds, online and offline, VR, AR, and physical, audio and video, across media and platforms. This will require a whole new type of worker, and a whole new type of HR leader: a mix of gamer and hacker, designer and developer, curator and experience designer. Or, in one word, a painter.
4. Be aware of new divides
As studies have shown, remote work favors more senior workers who have had the opportunity to develop tacit knowledge and the kind of relationship capital that is easier to generate at the watercooler or other informal in-person settings. This capital is critical for advancing their career and makes it much easier to do their work remotely. More junior employees or newbies to an organization are disadvantaged as they will find it much harder to get to know their colleagues online and to build trust when interactions are limited to Zoom meetings and Slack chats. A survey also found that pre-pandemic, newer employees were more likely to feel lonely at work.
HR leaders must therefore go above and beyond to create additional social forums for newbies and junior workers, online, or if possible, pending local COVID restrictions, in smaller in-person meetings. Designing for serendipity becomes an even greater priority. Socializing now needs a calendar invite and some serious planning as it will no longer be just the welcome byproduct of social collisions at work.
5. Learn, learn, learn — Renaissance-style
The accelerated digitalization of the workplace that the pandemic has triggered might overwhelm some workers who had already been struggling with the pace of technological change. Companies have the responsibility to not only ready their workforce for specific functional tasks, but to heighten their overall digital literacy: from how to run an Insta TV live-stream to Blockchain to GPT-3 to policy innovations such as Universal Basic Income.
In Germany, many businesses have their teams take part in ada, a new, comprehensive year-long learning program for any manager wanting to take a tour de horizon through the digital future, and it is a good idea for you to explore similar partnerships or create such programs on your own. The future belongs to Renaissance men and women; bean counters and card-punchers with a narrow understanding of the context of their work will be left behind.
HR leaders and talent managers have a significant responsibility in the face of this ultra-marathon, multi-pronged crisis. One the one hand, they must hold open the liminal space for exploration, reflection, and grief, rather than rushing back to fake business-as-usual. On the other hand, they must think ahead and prepare their employees, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, for a near to mid-term future in which they will have to live with the virus, cope with unprecedented material and immaterial losses (lay-offs, instability, illness, and not the least climate change), and manage nauseating uncertainty.
This is a historic opportunity for HR leaders and talent managers to cultivate trust, let employees co-create their new workplace, and allow them to determine how they and their company show up in a world that needs conviction, commitment, and care more than ever.
This article first appeared on the Journal of Beautiful Business.