Two Ways HR Must Evolve to Recover from COVID-19

February 2, 2021 Michelle Hernandez

Since the start of the pandemic, organizations have battled a host of operational challenges they’ve never before faced. Many times, these challenges involved maintaining business continuity while also responding to employee safety concerns and massively scaling workforces either up or down depending on how the pandemic hit certain industries. In this environment, 2020 shined a spotlight on Human Resources (HR).

To survive, HR organizations had to change how they operate. They suddenly needed to accomplish what used to take them months, even years, in just weeks or days.

Some HR organizations rose to the challenge, even creating custom apps to reduce employees’ anxiety, track important workforce health data, and keep employees informed in real time. Most often, the organizations able to do this had begun transforming their operations and updating their digital tools prior to 2020’s tumultuous events. They were, therefore, better positioned to handle the challenges that arose throughout 2020. Not surprisingly, this group responded more quickly and effectively on both local and global levels. However, most HR organizations struggled with at least a few inadequate HR models or processes that held them back.

Two major HR weaknesses uncovered by the pandemic

In Conduent’s webinar, Beyond the Crisis: Coping with COVID and Beyond, our HR and Learning Solutions team partnered with The Hackett Group’s Tony DiRomualdo to unpack what we’ve seen and heard over the past year when it comes to HR’s handling of the pandemic. One key point was that, as HR grappled with each new issue, two specific challenge areas rose to the surface: organizational shortcomings and technological gaps. We’ll outline each challenge here and offer tips for organizations that have experienced these difficulties and are attempting to move forward.

1. Organizational shortcomings

“We had to shift from 12-18 month plans to 1-2-week sprints. It forced us to change the paradigms around our speed of decision-making,” Johnson & Johnson’s HR leader commented regarding his team’s response to COVID-19.

According to DiRomualdo, this lightning-fast decision making paired with nimble execution was paramount during the pandemic. HR needed to act with agility as both business objectives and employee needs shifted, but many HR departments found that they simply weren’t set up for it. They didn’t have processes in place to sustain this new speed of business. Those with more traditional HR operating models experienced process breakdowns and discovered skills deficiencies, many of which related to data. Their staff wasn’t ready to gather the data they needed let alone interpret it to convey key insights to business leaders. And these shortcomings got in the way of HR functioning effectively.

How to recover: Think like an agile organization.

The RX for 2021: HR leaders who have found their teams falling short should consider ways to reorganize their departments and retrain staff when new methods, procedures or skills are required. Some ideas to get started:

  • Create an organization and infrastructure that enables speed. For program design, leverage strategy centers of expertise. To implement and execute new processes and technologies, utilize delivery centers of excellence.
  • Establish universal process standards so HR staff can efficiently support a workforce spread over multiple locations. This will also simplify efforts to automate repetitive, low-value work, which brings us to the next suggestion.
  • Identify candidates for processes that could use advanced or smart automation. This could improve the employee experience, speed processes and cut costs. By automating processes that formerly required manual work, you will also free up HR staff to focus time and effort on higher value work.
  • Integrate analytical tools and dashboards to facilitate workforce decisions and to plan for the future. Implementing a workforce analytics platform not only streamlines efforts but also incorporates data collection for improved business intelligence and workforce insights. 
Ready to move your HR organization forward? Learn more about Conduent’s Enterprise HR Transformation Assessment.

2. Technological gaps 

According to DiRomualdo, “Technology was the acknowledged Achilles’ heel for most organizations.” This started with the fact that many HR organizations had low, or even no, access to their data. Either their workforce data wasn’t present in their HR systems or it lived in fragmented, non-integrated platforms. Plus, their staff wasn’t capable of analyzing or reporting on it. And they definitely couldn’t use it to anticipate and proactively respond to future risks. Some of these organizations were able to find short-term workarounds, but others were completely hindered by their technological shortcomings.

How to recover: Get your organization in “digital shape.”

The RX for 2021: HR departments must adopt modern technology to better serve how they operate, connect with employees and serve their workforce overall. Here are some tips and ideas for moving forward:

  • Assess your organization’s current state of digital fitness, including your suite of digital tools – or lack thereof. You can also take our 2-minute Digital HR Maturity Assessment to get a quick email report showing where your organization stands on the digital maturity curve.
  • Identify your high-level opportunities for change. Then set digital priorities and explore solutions whether they involve improving workforce analytics or better serving employees.
  • Create your digital roadmap, thinking in agile sprints as opposed to long transformational journeys. Then define your achievable goals and set realistic priorities for how you can drive incremental, hard-dollar improvements along the way.
  • Drive user engagement. Use human-centered design principles to elicit desired outcomes. Integrate artificial intelligence (AI) for digitally enabled conversations that accelerate speed to resolution and employee satisfaction. Consider an employee engagement platform with these criteria built in–one that employees can access from anywhere and at any time.

The good news

These challenges give HR leaders clear direction on where to head. By focusing on overcoming these shortcomings, HR leaders can turn them into opportunities. After all, a renewed focus on employee wellness paired with HR’s essential role in addressing the pandemic has given HR a stronger voice and a greater say in steering businesses forward. It’s time to solidify those gains and capitalize on the strategic relationships that HR leaders have forged and strengthened with their business counterparts.

People are critical to both productivity and business performance. The challenge moving forward will revolve around this question: How do we continue to evolve workforce strategy and organizational culture to a digital way of operating as people and technology increasingly interact? HR needs to help answer and act on the answer.

For more content and resources, check out our Path to Recovery for HR leaders.

About the Author

Michelle Hernandez

Michelle Hernandez is the Vice President and General Manager for Conduent’s HR, Payroll, Health & Wellness, and RightOpt businesses. For more than two decades, she has built and delivered best-in-class, human capital management solutions for clients of all sizes, across all industries, and around the world.

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