Is a sense of community the solution for HR in an economic downturn?

So much of the storm that businesses are currently weathering is outside of their control. Keeping up with a plethora of government news, advice and guidelines; supporting employees with physical and mental health challenges that weren’t a concern this time last year; learning new and updated words in the lexicon – these are all activities above and beyond the anticipated day job for business leaders and HR alike

A lot of the demands levelled by COVID-19 are probably outside of many people’s comfort zones as well.

As the saying goes, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’, and this is especially true when facing challenges that don’t come with rule books. Businesses need to remember that they already have an inbuilt support network – the combined expertise and experience of their own workplace community.

HR are best placed to mobilise this resource to lead their businesses through both current and future demands. The key to success will be instilling a sense of co-ownership and responsibility in all staff for the welfare of their business – everyone needs to work hard and play their part like their livelihoods depend on it, because they do.

How can HR inspire a new level of community and ownership in their workforce? It starts with honesty, compassion and comradery.

Honesty and transparency

There needs to be a step-change in businesses in their approach to internal communications. Employees know the country is facing economic hardship, and they will understandably be concerned about their own financial security – the severity of the concern perhaps dependant on the company and the industry.

Messages that pretend all is ‘business as normal’ just won’t land well, and they won’t drive the enhanced commitment and dedication that organisations will need to survive and hopefully thrive.

What will have an impact is an open and transparent approach that explains business challenges as clearly as possible (of course, maintaining confidentiality when necessary). HR can guide businesses in defining their most pressing concerns and what skills they might need to solve them.

They can then work with the business on crafting messages that inspire the workforce to help, and strategies to bring that help to life. This could be through cross-function or cross-seniority working groups collaborating on projects that meet new business needs.

Don’t shy away from hard conversations

A part of being honest and transparent is tackling hard conversations head on.

Underperformance should be nipped in the bud as quickly as possible. HR can provide the business with advice on different techniques for having these conversations to get the best outcome.

Harder talks might also be on the horizon if businesses need to reduce headcount. Line managers will turn to HR for advice on communicating with affected staff, what information they can share, and how to convey these decisions with the wider business.

Maintain empathy and keep energy levels high

To keep employees engaged and committed to high performance, businesses are going to need to strike the right balance between empathising with the stress and pressure that everyone is facing while keeping the overall mood in the organisation positive and optimistic.

Line managers will be under particular strain. HR can support their business through this. Is there training they can offer? Are resources or support groups readily available? HR should think about what they can do to help their business leaders, so the key pillars in their workplace community aren’t burnt out.

When all is said and done, COVID-19 should be less about ‘social distancing’ and more about ‘physical distancing.’ Building a strong workplace community with deep social ties can only strengthen a business – and businesses will need this strength in resolve, expertise and resilience to meet both current and future challenges.

Shandel McAuliffe is the head of content at Cezanne HR

Further reading:

Radical transparency is needed in the workplace

Emotional intelligence – the new skills gap

Leaders are failing to communicate with employees during coronavirus

The key lessons HR leaders should learn from COVID-19