COVID-19: The critical questions that all HR departments must ask

In times of unprecedented crisis, business leaders often fall into the trap of jumping straight into ‘troubleshoot’ mode rather than ‘assess and analyse’.

This is an instinctive and entirely justifiable reaction. After all, if your next door neighbour’s house is on fire, you don’t stop and reflect before calling the fire brigade.

However with COVID-19 causing unprecedented chaos, HR professionals must force themselves to take a step back. Now is the time to ask the critical questions required to plan an effective human response to the coronavirus and put the needs of the workforce first in the challenging weeks and months ahead.

Here are five key questions HR should consider.

1. Which employees are at the highest risk?

Although the UK government has given clear guidelines to employers to send as many of their workforce home as possible, there are industries where this is impossible.

For example supermarkets cannot function without staff stocking the shelves and utility companies require engineers to physically visit a site in order to conduct essential maintenance.

HR leaders at these organisations must identify the ‘high risk’ groups within the workforce using demographic and location data and use it to help department heads make quick, informed decisions. Can lower risk employees temporarily take on their workload? Can their shift patterns be adjusted to minimise their exposure?

Refer back to skills and training data to identify employees that could be temporarily seconded into a different role in order to cover high risk or absent workers. Think creatively: can your best sales reps double up as account managers for a few weeks? Is there someone who speaks the language that can be virtually seconded to the Italian team?

2. Who is business-critical?

‘Business-critical’ employees are the people without whom the business would stop functioning. It is vital to quickly identify these individuals, determine their location, assess their risk level and mobilise to ensure they have access to all the tools and technologies required to support the business.

It is also smart to ‘war-game’ how the organisation would cope if any of these employees were to fall ill for an extended period of time. For example, can emergency handover documents with vital information be produced? Do these individuals have strong deputies who should be brought into the loop now for contingency purposes?

3. How is this impacting morale?

COVID-19 is impacting employee morale in a myriad of ways, from inducing boredom and apathy to causing serious anxiety over finances and health. HR teams are responding by significantly increasing their internal communications efforts to provide reassurance and guidance, as well as introducing morale-boosting initiatives like Friday drinks via Zoom or access to wellbeing seminars via livestream.

4. Who can work productively at home?

Faced with a major lockdown across the UK, businesses also need to identify the types of job roles and teams for whom working from home has historically impacted on productivity or has the potential to do so. For example, to what extent will the lack of face-to-face contact negatively impact sales teams?

On the one hand, HR teams need to address these issues head on. What creative steps can be taken to mitigate this lost productivity? Can you add some additional incentives to your team to keep productivity levels up?

COVID-19 is also a learning opportunity. There has never been a larger experiment on the positive and negative impacts of remote working for such an extended period of time.

If HRDs act quickly, they can capture a huge amount of information on productivity, performance and morale in the weeks and months ahead then use it to inform flexible working policies and practices in the future.

5. How do we ensure we bounce back quickly?

The decisions HR teams contribute to now will govern how quickly their company bounces back once the worst of coronavirus is in the rear view mirror.

For example, by closely tracking the global spread of the virus, organisations can start to anticipate the cities and countries that might start loosening their restrictions in the near future.

This data will enable global HR leaders to get the organisation moving again and potentially experiment with redistributing work from COVID-19 hotspots into territories that are slowly recovering and finding their feet again.

For many organisations a critical factor in how quickly they can recover from the coronavirus will be their ability to get crucial hourly workers back on the payroll. How these people are treated right now will play a huge role in how willing they are to come back to work and how productive they are when they get there.

Difficult as it is to imagine, the world will eventually emerge from this crisis. Some companies are already investing time and resources in planning what their workforce, business model and category will look like post COVID-19. In doing so they significantly boost their chances of exiting the crisis healthy and optimised for the next stage of their growth.

Jan Schwarz is co-founder of people analytics company Visier