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How HR leaders can move on from the crisis

Louise Anderson, VP of APAC - Degreed

Australia and New Zealand are now emerging from lockdown, with cases on a decline or, in the case of New Zealand, almost eradicated completely. With both nations being closely watched as they get their country, economy, business and society back to (near) normal.

There will be lessons in their approach for HR and business leaders worldwide. How the respective Governments, citizens and industry heads respond over the coming months will influence other country’s post-lockdown responses.

HR leaders’ priorities during lockdown
At the peak of social distancing restrictions in Australia and New Zealand, we carried out a survey to gauge the priorities, concerns, and challenges facing business and HR leaders in the region. The results highlighted an interesting perspective, where business leaders were reacting to the immediate short-term challenges facing their organisation. To the detriment of longer-term strategic resilience.

Many leaders were concerned about keeping their core business tasks running and (related to this) shifting their workers to remote set-ups quickly – without impacting productivity too much. A quarter of respondents expressed concern about working through the challenges of shifting employees to remote work. 40% saw keeping their people focussed on core business tasks as their main challenge. For others, cash flow was an issue, especially those in sectors disproportionally impacted by COVID (travel and hospitality, for example). 

Looking ahead
As we most out of phase 1 responses to COVID, however, the long-term ramifications are yet to be realised. There will be economic fallout from the lockdown and the resulting loss of revenue for entertainment, sporting and hospitality. Australia’s tourism industry is its fourth-largest exporting industry (in New Zealand, it contributes around 5.8% of New Zealand’s GDP) and global disruption to this industry is expected to last well into 2023. Many countries are on the cusp of recession and organisations will have to quickly pivot their offerings and value propositions to survive in an ongoing volatile climate. 

For HR and business leaders, there is a vital need to remain agile and responsive – especially given the uncertainty around what our future post-shutdown will look like and if a second wave is incoming. This begins with talent, by retaining workers and reskilling them where needed to meet new business demands. 

Utilising all worker skills
This becomes even more relevant when you consider that many organisations (including telco Telstra and law firm Clayton Utz) have frozen hiring for the foreseeable future, and may cut working hours or staff if challenging conditions continue further. With a smaller pool of existing talent to draw on when production increases again, HR leaders will have to ensure every worker’s skills are fully utilized, that they are meeting their full potential and mobilised to the business functions that need them most. 

Mobilising on-demand
Mobility will be essential moving forward, as demands on different departments will fluctuate wildly. Skills must be reallocated quickly into new areas of demand, from a front-of-house retail position to a contact centre, for example. HR leaders are fast-realising the benefits of having full visibility over all workforce skills and assigning people to work based on their skills and experience, instead of job roles. 

This creates an on-demand workforce that can be readily mobilised into high-demand business areas and upskilled for new priorities or product shifts. Indeed, we saw this concept come to life during the pandemic response, with on-demand talent used to fulfil public safety and healthcare surges. 

On-demand workforces offer, by their nature, the level of agility and robustness needed over the coming months. They are underpinned by skills – knowing every skill in your organisation, having a clear framework for naming and measuring those skills, and applying that knowledge when redeploying, hiring, promoting and upskilling workers. 

Upskilling in the limelight
During the lockdown, upskilling came to the fore as a way for employers to keep their workers updated, productive, and engaged during the lockdown. Workers have gained some 1 billion extra hours of free time. This can be used to upskill in new areas or refine existing skills so, when they return to work, they will be better in their roles. 

It’s almost a silver lining, giving people space and time to retrain and upskill a workforce ready for future disruption – building resilience and agility to withstand threats and take advantage of opportunities. Indeed, during the lockdown, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised business leaders to use ‘hibernation’ time to organise training for their workers. Since then, he has outlined plans to overhaul Australia’s $7.7 billion training sector to better meet the skills requirements of employers. Morrison is recognising the critical role that skills (and having the right ones) play in economic and business recovery.

Indeed, economists have long linked investment in worker upskilling and recessions, with the former likely to increase during periods of uncertainty and downturns. There is alignment between employer and worker, therefore, during moments like this. As having better-skilled workers will positively impact the bottom-line but also give workers more certainty in their role and continued employment. Conversely, any upskilling approach must place workers at the centre of the plans – otherwise, engagement and completion of the programme will be hindered. 

HR and talent will drive recovery
Ongoing uncertainty requires constant and rapid reactions. During phase 1, there was an understandable knee-jerk response to external threats and changes that ensured a business’ survival. But we must now move on. As countries globally move towards phase 2, there is now a concentrated effort on recovery. That requires a long-term outlook instead of immediate continuity plans. 

To get ahead of the challenges on our horizon and to embrace opportunities, organisations should shift-gears with their talent approach. Because your people will underpin your continued success. 

HR leaders must now focus on building agile workforces through upskilling and cross-functional mobility. Moving people to where they can have the greatest impact – and supporting them to build the skills they need to remain employable in the future. 

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