COVID-19: The Great HR Divide

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Charles Abramo
10/06/2020

HR Great Divide

For decades, the HR function has fought to be a strategic player in the business world.  The ‘HR Business Partner’ model was founded in the 90’s by industry leaders and it was meant to transform how the human capital function operated within companies.  At the heart of the transition, it shifted HR from an administrative, tactical industry into one of strategy, people solutions, and helping support organizational growth. Since then, the industry has slowly migrated to that model. 

Fast forward to March 2020 and the world came to its knees at the mercy of COVID-19. Overnight, businesses closed, companies changed their models to meet a different demand, and the world as we knew it was temporarily gone.  This instant shift impacted most companies in America. 

Whether that was to increase production, decrease production, close locations, open locations, layoff employees, or go on a mass hiring spree; COVID-19 changed how we played the game.  A side effect of this rapid change was that it put a spotlight on how far the industry has (or hasn’t) come.

When the pandemic hit, HR was forced to take action.  But what action was taken?  Did we help in responding to unemployment claims and processing sick time?  Or did we take our technical knowledge and help drive the team that chose the direction and strategy of the company during a time of panic? 

Were We Ready?

In times of crisis, it’s easy to resort to the familiar and common.  We know what the familiar feels like.  Under the familiar, we know how to make an impact, we know how to navigate the uncertainty.  These unprecedented times rattled us all and it’s no wonder that some professionals resorted to what they knew.  Not to mention, the pandemic provided plenty of personal challenges for us all on top of a sea of professional trials.

Without knowing it, HR was just put through a rigorous, terrible, painstaking pop-quiz to see if we’ve been studying all along.  COVID provided us the opportunity we’ve been asking (or begging) for: the chance for a “seat at the table” and to be a strategic player.  COVID was and is our opportunity to provide solutions to the countless people problems that surfaced in 2020.

Below are some ways HR could have positioned itself as the MVP of COVID and instantly gained credibility for a department that normally takes a lot of heat. 

  • Driving the employee experience in new ways if your workforce was remote or if social distancing became the norm for you
  • Pushing wellness programs to reduce benefit costs
  • Helping redefine organizational goals in partnership with executive leaders
  • Evolving perks to ensure employees were able to maximize their benefit offerings
  • Help strategize the talent need within the organization and create programs to respond accordingly
  • Assist in the cost structuring of headcount adds or reductions and how it aligns to sales projections

As HR professionals, it’s easy to for us to be drawn to the tactical; the items that can be checked off a list. The instant gratification of creating policy or responding to claims can be seen as a reprieve when so much of HR’s work lacks the instant gratification we all want to see. Obviously, the tactical needs to be accomplished because without it, we aren’t doing our job. But it can’t be all we do.

Stepping Up

COVID afforded us the opportunity to play with the heavy hitters and it’s imperative that we seize the opportunity. Do you feel like your HR department showed up as the evolved business partner we commonly talk about?  Ask yourself these questions to help guide your reasoning.

  1. During the pandemic, were you in constant communication with your business partners?
  2. Were you proactively providing solutions to the organization to help get in front of the hurdles of 2020?
  3. When you think about your time spent during the pandemic, was it mostly spent behind a computer screen or (virtually) with your business partners?
  4. What do you see as your biggest contributions in 2020?
  5. During 2020, what were your priorities?

An honest response to the above questions should lead you to an overall assessment of your impact as a strategic partner. So, what happens if the above answers don’t lead you to the assessment that you’re playing in the strategic space as much as you would have hoped? 

First, don’t panic. Secondly, take a step back and think about where your strategic presence could’ve been inserted more. Finally, act on it. 

I often tell people who are getting into HR: being an “HR Business Partner” or “strategic player” isn’t a title or a level in a company, it’s a mindset.  A mindset that can be adopted at any stage in your career growth. Speak to your leader or business partner about it.  If you’re struggling to see how it comes to life in your role, I recommend the book, “The Chief HR Officer: Defining the New Role of Human Resource Leaders.”  It’s a great book, written by multiple industry leaders so you’re able to gain multiple perspectives in one text. 

While it’s written by CHROs, the concept or mindset can be adopted at any level; whether you’re an HR department of one or lead a team of 100+.

Like anything, HR is an evolving structure that changes over time and demands different nourishment to keep itself alive.  If the Administrative HR era was HR 1.0, that makes the HR Business Partner model, HR 2.0.  This means that the industry must start preparing for HR 3.0 and what that will evolve into. 

Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has written extensively about ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ which is a fundamental shift in how the world operates. Knowing that this will impact work, talent, and the convergence of the two, HR needs to be prepared for that evolution.  We can only be prepared if we successfully position ourselves as the strategic, people focused partners we were meant to be.

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