I am in Blood
Stepped in So far that, Should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
By all accounts, the coronavirus pandemic will be historically transformative, being compared by the U.N. Secretary to World War II. But we don’t need the U.N. Secretary to tell us what we all instinctively understand. Covid-19 will have profound, lasting implications across many aspects of our lives.
Though no one knows exactly when, one day we will peek from our coronavirus caves to assess the damage and survey the very different world. Make no mistake, we will survive to thrive once more. But it won’t be easy, and certainly not by returning to the past.
HR will emerge to face a doubly daunting challenge. On one hand, we will have to deal with the human casualties of the pandemic. While HR professionals aren’t on the front-line like healthcare workers, they are on the front line when it comes to working with employees who have lost jobs, retirement security or even loved ones. Helping organizations deal with myriad human impacts will have far-reaching impacts on the work of HR. At the same time, HR, itself, will need to change the way it operates. As demands on HR shift and change, we cannot simply return to our old ways.
I’m no futurist, but I do know there are aspects of the way HR currently operates that will need to change in order to meet post-pandemic challenges. To survive in the new world we will need to be suppler, simpler and smarter. Let me explain.
Have you asked yourself how HR got to be so complicated? I used to joke that HR “ain’t brain surgery,” but now I’m not so sure. Clearly, it wasn’t always the case. One obvious factor is the ever-rising mountain of government regulations that complicates almost everything HR touches. I’m not making an argument against regulation. Nobody is going to convince me that EEOA, ADA, ERISA, FMLA, COBRA and others are bad, despite any imperfections or unintended negative consequences they may have. But the cumulative complication they’ve brought is without question.
Other key contributors are M&A growth and globalization. Big, multinational companies, especially those who grew through acquisition, can be so complicated that even top-tier HRMS packages are incapable of meeting their complex needs without customization.
Lastly, when it comes to complexity, we can both blame and thank digital technology. Between computerization and complexity, I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg. While technology enables us to manage mounting complexity, it also makes complexity possible. An old IT buddy used to say, “Anything’s possible with enough time and money.”
Let’s just say the hand that giveth also taketh away. Paradoxically, as the part of the organization that deals with humans, HR may be the most technologically enabled of all. According to the most recent Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey, employers utilize an average of eight different HR applications, with large organizations averaging nearly eleven. If HR delivers a service — and it delivers many — odds are good that there’s an app for it. Despite the chicken-egg conundrum I posed, digital technology is helping HR manage complexity and is therefore friend, not foe. Nevertheless, the complexity that computers help us manage exists and is only getting worse.
Post-pandemic organizations will need to take a hard look at the complexity that weighs them down and reset priorities. Allow me to offer an analogy. If, God forbid, your home was swept away by a hurricane and you received an insurance settlement to replace your belongings, would you head right out to buy everything you lost? I doubt it. More likely, you’d buy what you really need and say goodbye to the rest of the junk you suddenly realized you didn’t.
Organizations accumulate complexity like homes accumulate junk. I call it organizational entropy. As the pandemic delivers hurricane-like impact on individual companies and whole industries, it will be necessary for many to rebuild from the ground up. When they do, they should use the opportunity to get rid of junk they don’t need. This includes non-valued programs, convoluted policies, and the even complexity of the function itself. In the post-pandemic world, HR organizations will be challenged to focus on what delivers direct value and get rid of everything that doesn’t.
Getting simpler is a key step toward becoming more supple, meaning flexible and agile. This must occur on two fronts. First, HR must root out policies and practices that get in the way of organizational agility. The bureaucratic rigidity we tolerate today will be flatly rejected tomorrow, or simply ignored. Most HR organizations are not set up to enable high-speed organizational change, much less facilitate it. Obstacles to change take many forms, sometimes innocuous and unnoticed. Administrative hurdles that get in the way of change and the frictionless movement of talent and capacity to meet unforeseen challenges must be removed. Put simply, HR will need to get out of the way and hop on the bus instead.
Second, largely due to the specialization required to address increased complexity, HR could be the most siloed function at HQ. Functional silos are inherent barriers to agility. In the midst of the pandemic, organizations are already finding creative ways to move HR capacity across departmental boundaries. For example, recruiters, stymied by sudden hiring freezes, are being asked to help manage the influx of employee questions coming into the HR call center.
In the longer term, the post-pandemic HR function will need to allow its own supply of talent to flow to where the demand is greatest, not through restructuring but in real time by enabling and expecting staff to expand their knowledge and skills to help out when and where needs arise. HR will need to take a dose of the same medicine it is prescribing to the new, agile organization.
Dynamic, agile organizations thrive on — yea, depend on — data. Where stable organizations and industries can look to the past to predict the future, organizations that live in disruptive environments must constantly take stock of their surroundings. In many sports, defensive players must constantly scan the field of play to quickly assess and respond to whatever the offense is doing. These players are taking in real-time data. Likewise, organizations in dynamic environments must become good at gathering, interpreting and responding to data very quickly.
A recent podcast where Leapgen’s CEO, Jason Averbook, interviews Visier’s Ian Cook includes several intriguing and valuable examples that go beyond what I can include here. If you’re thinking about areas where the new HR will need to shift resources, this is probably a good place to start.
Getting to the Other Side - A mandate for the new HR
Ushering tomorrow’s simpler, suppler, smarter HR function is the silver lining of the cloud in which we find ourselves.This mandate is not being given to us by the Covid-19 pandemic, merely accelerated by it. HR is overdue to become the enabler of organizational agility instead of the obstacle. Perhaps now is the time for us to be the antidote to bureaucracy, not the guardian.