At Leapgen, our consultants have worked for decades with technologists and HR professionals to design and deliver great workforce experiences to the very stakeholders that drive any business forward -- the employees. The capabilities HR helps to deliver have changed over those decades, but not as much as the world of work around it. Despite the dynamic nature of our space, most innovations and investments in the area of Workforce Experience and HR capabilities have been driven by one or both of the following:
- The desire to create more value for the firm by better enabling talent; and
- The opportunity save money by making the HR function less administrative and more cost-efficient, enabling it to focus on bullet #1
For the first time in a very long time, we are seeing a third factor introduced to the equation. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a shockingly sudden change in capability needs oriented around a new factor: the need to instantly stretch and scale in unprecedented ways. To accomplish this, firms will require a new HR operating model designed around the “new normal” that will be left in the wake of the present crisis. Even more, we believe executive leadership is going to recognize and fully appreciate this urgent need, and investment will be there to support it.
While the current crisis presents obvious new challenges, it also shines a harsh light on changes that have been needed for some time, elevating them to a critical point now requiring action. The time is NOW for HR professionals to take advantage of the change impetus and redesign how we work, both in the current crisis and beyond.
Demands of the Immediate Crisis
In the immediate near term, HR shops, some already staffed at bare-bones levels, are being asked to support a slew of people-related responses to the crisis, ranging from new programs and policies to sudden transactional avalanches (e.g., mass layoffs). In some ways, the impact on HR is not dissimilar to what’s happening to health care systems, where demand threatens to dramatically outstrip capacity. These are a few examples of urgent demand needs we’ve heard from Leapgen clients:
- Design and communicate new programs and policies (e.g., work from home)
- Facilitate two-way rapid response communication to employees requiring unplanned leave
- Deploy emergency communications to employees in specific, site-based locations
- Stand up a new contact center to handle the influx of employee and manager questions
- Expand the capacity of existing contact centers to handle increased call volume
- Expand and modify online portal content to address pandemic-related matters
- Listen to (survey) the shifting mood of the workforce in real time during these times of high stress and anxiety
- Support workers remotely after previously communicating with them face-to-face
- Generate and issue custom, in-house training programs; drive participation and adoption of them
- Navigate the creation and/or utilization of benefits and leave policies that may be new or unfamiliar to workers who now need them the most
- Support the workforce through all of these issues on a global, round-the-clock basis using digital capabilities that may not exist right now
Meeting these demands has required new behaviors. Policy decisions that historically might have dragged on for months are now being made in hours, if not minutes. Day-to-day decisions are being pushed down the hierarchy out of necessity. Job descriptions are being put aside as workers answer the call of duty, whatever that might entail.
Embracing the “New Normal”
Businesses have been lamenting bureaucratic inefficiency for decades. While most have made little progress in busting bureaucracy, there are notable exceptions. The more disruption a company or industry must handle, the more urgent the need to find more flexible and responsive operating models. But, especially in the age of digital disruption, few leaders would argue that the bureaucratic model is really working.
Busting bureaucracy is no easy task. For one thing, the bureaucratic model is baked into everything from government regulations (e.g., EEOC) to business school curricula. Moreover, bureaucracy must be appreciated for what it truly is -- a governance model for getting and keeping large organizations oriented to enterprise priorities and strategies. Let’s face it, the cascading authority structure of hierarchical organizations is a proven way to accomplish what Max Weber, the acknowledged “father” of bureaucracy, called “imperative coordination.” Alternatives to the bureaucratic model must somehow achieve imperative coordination. Otherwise they will fail.
Human Resources plays a surprisingly important role in making the transition from bureaucracy to what’s next. The reason is simple: HR has evolved to be the steward of bureaucracy. After all, it’s HR that keeps the hierarchy intact, ensures jobs are properly and consistently documented, designs hierarchy-oriented career progressions, etc.
While digital technology is responsible for driving much of the disruption in business, we may also be able to look to it for solutions. Most of us in white and gray collar jobs do the vast majority of our work via a suite of digital tools. Increasingly, we even experience “face to face” meetings digitally. Almost overnight, thanks to COVID-19, this is now the rule.
Thus, COVID-19 is propelling us faster and farther along the digital trajectory. It is safe to expect digital engagement will be part of the new normal after this pandemic subsides.
In the digitalized organization, the way we perform our work -- who does what, how, and when -- is literally configured in the systems we use. Thus, the “imperative coordination” Max Weber talked about is achieved through the configuration of the digital technologies we use.
Digitalized organizations look more like networks than pyramids, replacing departmental silos with cross-functional, cross-departmental “value networks.” As such, organizational effectiveness means optimizing these networks so communication and work flows seamlessly between parties in the network.
Speaking of flow, the digitalized organization allows for the frictionless flow of human capacity to the point of demand, much as is happening today in atypical responses to urgent Coronavirus priorities. Thus, the digitalized organization makes better use of human capacity by allowing it to be pulled by demand rather than pushed by supply. When human capacity responds to demand pull, work is only performed if it delivers expressed customer value. (This very principle, by the way, is at the heart of the Toyota Production System.)
It is no doubt difficult to envision such an organization. The good news is that the digital capabilities already exist. The current crisis mode we’re in may be offering valuable insight on how HR can best organize - or de-organize itself - to meet the demands of the business and the needs of the workforce.
The Future won’t wait
Under current crisis conditions, organizations are, out of necessity, in reactive mode. But the time will come, perhaps sooner than you think, when reactivity must give way to proactivity. At some point, we will need to turn our focus back to the future. At Leapgen, we believe organizations are called to take advantage of the situation at hand in order to reimagine the digitalized organization; considered thus, the future can be brighter than ever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Scully is a recognized industry expert in the design and optimization of HR service operations. With nearly 25 years of professional experience as both a consultant and practitioner alongside extensive practice research as founder of the HR Shared Services Institute, Jim has unparalleled expertise in the field of HR shared services and service operations. Jim also brings operational excellence, including TQM, Lean, Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints (TOC), to the realm of HR service delivery to go beyond mere consolidation to create what he calls the “Delivery Center of Excellence.” Jim holds a B.A. in Philosophy and M.S. in Management from the University of Missouri and Georgia State University, respectively.