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As national lockdowns ease, HR leaders should prepare for a new beginning, not a new normal. The global pandemic was a mega-event disruption, a true game-changer which may happen again – and again – during the decade 2020-2030 until science and technology develop vaccines and ever faster responses to sars viruses. We cannot expect to go back to the way we were. Instead we have to accept our new reality – living with COVID-19 flares up, new sars viruses and regular local or national lockdowns. As HR leaders you need to find a way to move forward with confidence and optimism while acknowledging that the market and your organisation are still in a state of flux.

The focus for HR leaders needs to be on how to support the organisation to survive turbulence in the short term and thrive in the medium to longer term. We are on a continuous crisis-opportunity loop right now, as businesses discover new product and business opportunities amid very stressful change and collapse of certain parts of their business model. HR leaders need to work at CEO and board level, on setting out the right ‘survive and thrive’ change strategy and advising their business leaders on how to keep their teams and people engaged and performing to optimal levels – whilst acknowledging that there has not been a real return to business stability yet.

HR leaders must continue to play trusted advisor roles in the direct one-to-one support of the CEO and business leaders by offering their availability as one-on-one coaches and sounding boards to these top leaders, and crafting bespoke stress-relieving solutions to respond to the anxieties of this top team during this continued heightened stress period.

HR leaders should accept that more people in their organisation will stay working remotely and that the organisation may likely be entering a decade of advance and retreats from IRL (in real life) presentee-ism. With this in mind, HR can better prepare for the future by planning how to conduct their normal HR functions and processes remotely – including CEO and top leadership advisory, talent attraction, new employee induction, training and development, employee pay and reward and employee exits.

The best HR change strategy will take into account the human side of change as well as deliver of business critical targets. HR leaders must continue to play a crucial role in representing the voice and interests of employees. HR leaders need to stay positive, optimistic and value-adding – seeing both sides of the change coin as crisis and opportunity, and simultaneously support the business through painful change whilst appreciating that adapting to change will grow the resilience of the culture and help future-proof against any future threats to business survival.

HR leaders need to reset expectations and strategies for long-term remote workers – advising the CEO and business leaders on developing a more holistic employee remote working strategy and setting aside specific new budget not just to deal with the physical equipment and basic challenges of remote working, but also for the cost of employee assistance programs to enable mental health check-ins and support as and when people need it; and for investment in new creative online platforms which enable employees to stay socially engaged and feel connected to their teams and their organization mission and values.

HR needs to continue to help to prevent and combat employee burnout while working remotely. If there are any early signs of individual or team burnout, you must act quickly to alleviate an already pressurized situation and reduce expectation on remote work productivity. You could provide a real-time practical response to employee remote-working needs and potential burnout, using timely surveys and employee pulse checks on what is working well or not working well and adjusting the strategy accordingly.

The HR function is typically the organisation’s ‘care giver’, but try not to flood your employees with too many ‘care initiatives’. Different people are responding in different ways and at different times to the challenges of long-term remote working and may find it just as distracting and anxiety inducting to have to deal with any HR overwhelm of information and care packages. Instead put in place communications about solutions that can be accessed as and when the employee needs them.

I realise it is a lot to think about. Remember to have empathy for yourself in these challenging times, as well as having empathy for others.

Niamh O’Keeffe, Leadership Advisor and Founder.

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