Navigating the future of human capital

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The world of work will not return to how it was before the pandemic and the role HR has to play is going to be so critical in the ‘new normal’


Today every organisation has to work in a volatile environment. Developing relevant strategies to utilise the available opportunities to overcome threats has become an imperative factor. 

During the past decades, many changes took place in the HR industry due to the introduction of artificial intelligence, growth in the gig economy, greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion at workplaces; recently, the COVID-19 global pandemic has challenged the status-quo of organisational human resource management. Thus, organisations have to rethink the way they recruit, develop, retain, and lead their employees. 

Although nobody yet knows the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, its initial effects on the economy, employment rates and the way people work are deeply rooted in the entire human capital management system. The world of work will not return to how it was before the pandemic and the role HR has to play is going to be so critical in the ‘new normal.’


Valuable measures to ensure the business continuity and sustainability

Against a backdrop of massive disruptions, HR leaders and their teams have been under significant pressure to manage the many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many organisations, HR has taken the lead in communicating information about COVID-19 and its effects on the workforce in a way that mitigates its potential damage to morale. HR professionals have also had to manage and execute a multitude of business decisions that affect the workforce. They include:


  • Mandatory vacations
  • Reduction of salaries
  • Layoffs and workforce reductions
  • Leave policies and procedures 
  • Travel restrictions
  • Work from home process 
  • Implementing government and provincial or state decisions, such as programs and policies set forth in the coronavirus-related regulations, lockdown and curfew related information, reliefs and economic concessions, business closure regulations and public safety stay-at-home orders.

In addition to these ‘enforced’ changes to business operations, HR leaders must also uphold corporate policies and procedures that support employees to be safe and healthy. They include social distancing measures, disinfecting and sanitising workplaces, etc. while also trying to keep the business running as normal as possible.


The IT thought leader’s guide to the future of work

HR teams must also ensure that the human resource information systems and other HR systems uphold changes resulting from COVID-19 outbreak. Legal changes to time, vacation and pay mean making technical changes in the appropriate systems, which require testing before these changes can be pushed into implementation. 

HR leaders, working with their superiors, have put many implementation and transformation projects on hold until they try to figure out when business and revenue can return closer to pre-pandemic levels. The lack of clarity makes business planning difficult and business leaders are erring on the side of caution when it comes to capital expenditure on IT projects, even when an ROI is almost certain.

HR must continue ensuring that workforce health and travel information is collected, processed, and stored legally. When confirmed COVID positive cases are detected in the workforce, first and second level of closed contacts of the victims should be identified, and affected parties are identified for quarantine purposes. While there are various laws country-by-country that define local data collection, processing and storage, HR leaders and teams have to sacrifice their time and efforts to update the health status of their workforce on an on-going basis.


HR’s role navigating a COVID-19 world

As top leaders within the government and companies take tentative steps to return to some version of ‘business as usual,’ the important role is bestowed on the HR leaders maintain a near normal work atmosphere. They need to continuously monitor, study and implement national and local regulations, particularly if the current economic situation continues on its current trajectory or governments enact additional regulations or programs.

HR can work with business leaders to find alternative solutions and avoid layoffs, should the economic situation require additional methods of reducing workforce costs.

As the pandemic slows down or comes to an end, even mass hiring may become a pressing need in certain sectors. HR leaders will need to make sure that recruiting teams and systems are ready. That requires being proactive about identifying skills and other requirements. For example, HR can research virtual interviewing methods, which may also become more important in a post-COVID-19 hiring market.

For companies that have rolled out work from-home policies, business and HR leaders must face challenges such as keeping employees engaged and maintaining on-going listening to feedback; these are critical to ensuring that productivity levels are retained. Employees who face challenges with working from home might also need on-going support. They may face feelings of isolation and experience work related stress and disengagement. HR leaders must also work with business leaders to determine how the current practices might evolve to more permanent practices and policies once the pandemic comes to an end.

These alternatives can include reducing the work hours, and offering voluntary unpaid leave of absence, flexible working arrangements, partial salary postponement and salary reductions. Hiring freezes are also effective at reducing workforce costs but may not represent a significant reduction to rule out other practices.

Apart from above, HR leaders have to focus on the workers’ wellbeing beside the workflow. And it’s not only regarding hygiene and safety, but also the psychological wellbeing of the employees. Nowadays, due to the bad eating habits and lack of exercises, even young employees suffer from various health issues. Those employees will not be able to give their fullest contribution to the organisation due to poor health. 

Moreover, there may be employees who are single parents, divorcees, etc. and require a good psychological support from the organisation to do their job properly through access to qualified counsellors, trained mentors within, a recognition programs, internal communication initiatives to promote mental health, etc. All in all, there’s a huge transformation needed to the human capital management across the world to overcome the current challenges arising from COVID-19 pandemic. 

(The writer is currently heading the HR functions at the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation Ltd. He is a Past President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management – Sri Lanka and a recipient of CIPM Lifetime Gold Medal presented to the best HR Professional in the year 2018.) 


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