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6 Lessons from HR Executives Who Led through COVID-19

The past year held several large-scale challenges. 2020 opened with record-breaking wildfires, then ushered in a global pandemic that not only threatened millions of lives but also wreaked havoc on business. Meanwhile tensions over social issues in America reverberated worldwide. While the world has seen similar turmoil throughout history, 2020 was a year like no other in our cognitive history. In business, due to the human-centric nature of these multi-pronged challenges, 2020 shined a spotlight on human resources.

To understand how these events affected business enterprises, including how they adapted, survived and sometimes managed to thrive, Conduent partnered with The Hackett Group to interview more than a dozen HR leaders across various industries. We aimed to get the inside scoop on how their daily operations were impacted, the ways they reshaped their workforce and workplaces in real-time, and how HR’s role has evolved as a result.

Here’s a quick snapshot of our top 6 findings. For in-depth research, including the direction HR is heading in 2021, download the full joint report: Leading HR Through COVID-19 and Beyond: Lessons from Top CHROs.

1. Employee wellbeing became a true business priority.

While the pandemic affected nearly everyone, the most vulnerable segments of the workforce were hit the hardest. A host of existing issues — inadequate healthcare, lack of diversity and inclusion, and financial inequity — were not only magnified but also joined by additional challenges that further threatened employee mental and financial health. This included isolation from working at home, competing distractions in a home office environment, and increases in substance abuse.

During times like these, one CHRO pointed out, it’s essential that business leaders approach their workforce with genuine empathy. And it fell to CHROs, another agreed, “to help the CEO and the management team think in a very different way about what is important [including] a focus on the safety and security of the workforce and their wellbeing.” Not only did business leaders develop more authentic communication with their employees, but they also began to explore flexible working arrangements and innovative employee assistance programs (EAPs) to support diverse wellness concerns.

2. HR moved into the spotlight.

Due to the people-focused nature of 2020’s biggest challenges, HR held an integral role at both strategic and tactical levels. From helping other business leaders scale for necessary resources while keeping near-term and long-term headcount needs in mind, to planning and communicating new policies in real time, to instituting new protocols that protected employee health and safety, HR leaders were essential drivers. “When COVID hit, our people realized how much they need HR,” one HR leader said. “They became much more reliant on us in all the most positive ways.”

3. CHROs took valuable and strategic leadership roles throughout the crisis.

Of his and other HR leaders’ roles, one CHRO noted, “Our company’s leadership, including the CEO and board, is looking to us for direction.” Another agreed that the COVID crisis in particular catapulted the role of CHRO to the front and center. Many even found themselves acting as close confidantes and direct advisors to their CEO.

4. HR organizations that had already begun digital transformation were best positioned for success.

HR leaders who had started digitally transforming not only their technical tools and platforms, but also their own processes and operating models could respond with nimble adjustments to ongoing challenges and changes presented by the pandemic. Those that performed best had already adopted global operating models with shared services that emphasized strategic alignment between HR and the overall business. This allowed them to make pragmatic adjustments on the fly and as needed on both global and local levels. 

5. Organizational and technical deficiencies rose to the surface.

On the flip side, other HR organizations got held back by their traditional HR models and habits of planning only in the long term. “We had to shift from 12-18-month plans to 1-2-week sprints,” explains one HR leader. “It forced us to change the paradigms around our speed of decision making.” HR teams ill-prepared to do so suffered process breakdowns and couldn’t react with the necessary speed, especially if their use of technology and their data analysis capabilities also lagged pre-pandemic.  

6. HR is poised for gains — provided its leaders know how to take advantage.

As mentioned, the challenges of 2020 permanently elevated HR’s visibility and importance. This also raised expectations not only for what HR is capable of, but also what it must do: add value to the business by ensuring employee wellbeing, influencing a productive organizational culture, and maintaining a positive employee experience as the world accelerates into a very different future of work.

For more detailed analysis as well as tailored recommendations on how to position your organization for post-COVID success, download the full white paper or watch our joint webinar: Beyond the Crisis: Coping with COVID and Beyond.