Navigating crisis as an HR leader in a high-growth company

Despite the multitude of challenges and disruptions faced by businesses and employees during the COVID-19 outbreak, some businesses, including high-growth companies and scale ups such as our own, have continued to grow, hire and expand

To find out more about how high-growth companies are navigating the current crisis, we brought together senior HR leaders and VC partners – who support business leaders at scale ups – to talk about how they’re approaching the transition back to the office, and how the HR role has changed. Here’s what we discovered.

The transition back to the office

While many scale ups started planning for the transition back to the office early on, it’s clear that the right solution will take a while to reach.

One HR leader said they’d reformulated their plan half a dozen times.

At Personio’s Munich office, which has a capacity of 400, we adopted a ‘test and learn’ approach, initially running a trial with 30 people to test out rules and regulations for the office. This has allowed us to progress up to a daily limit of 140 people – and with more and more people wanting to come back, we now have a daily sign up method for using the office.

An agile approach, and the freedom to test, trial and go back to the drawing board, is key to helping HR and leadership teams to find the right solutions at each step of this transition.

Combatting burnout

Even once offices are able to operate at a fuller capacity, many companies believe they’ll retain a flexible approach on a longer-term basis.

But, with significant proportions of the workforce operating remotely for the foreseeable future, the question has shifted from “how do we stay alive?” to “how do we combat burnout?”

Some high-growth companies have looked to put counterbalances in place to support employees while working from home, whether that’s ‘no meeting Thursdays,' more flexible work hours for employees with families at home, or one extra day off a month.

Until children are back at school, this structural support for families, especially, will be very important.

And it’s certainly interesting to note that, for some scale ups, this transition to a more empathetic approach is quite a big shift. We’re seeing working re-envisioned for so many businesses.

The changing role of HR

The HR and VC leaders we spoke with agreed that the HR function became way more visible during the pandemic, as HR teams suddenly scaled up their own role in these high-growth companies – from supporting individuals, to supporting leadership teams with advice and strategy.

While the role had already been evolving before the pandemic, with HR becoming more of a strategic partner to business, the outbreak has reinforced this position.

Indeed, one VC partner noted that it’s the first time that board members and CEOs are really talking about non-board level people leaders. Clearly there’s now greater recognition of the importance of building, managing and supporting a great team.

The impact of HR has managed to trickle up to the top in these high-growth businesses, and it’s hoped that this is helping to build political capital for HR – and could help HR create the case for budget investment in the future.

Don’t waste a good crisis

As with those at many other businesses, HR teams at scale ups have had the opportunity to experiment with new ways of working and have also been thrown under the spotlight, as their role became pivotal to the company’s response to coronavirus.

And while there may now be pressure from businesses for HR leaders to find the new solution to working that will stick, the reality is that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

HR teams need to stay agile, be prepared to flex their approach, and keep trying new strategies in tandem with leadership until they find the one that works and keeps both employees and the business safe.

As we re-envision the future of work, this is an opportunity for HR leaders in all companies, big, small or high growth to design something more meaningful and impactful for the future. Don’t waste a good crisis.

Martina Ruiß is head of HR at software firm Personio