Let’s go back to December 31st, 2019.
As the clock hit midnight, many of us assumed 2020 would be an extra special year. Being a new decade, there is heightened positivity and hope for the future, in both our personal and professional lives. Not to mention the excitement and effort going into the international events planned in the UAE and Qatar; 2020 looked promising from all angles.
After the financial crisis in 2008 and the oil crisis in 2014, the GCC had proven its’ resilience in the face of extreme economic adversity. Yes, there was major cutbacks across all sectors during both these times, and the job market was in decline for the most part – but going into 2020 these pressures seemed to be easing and we were entering a new period of growth and in some cases, like in Saudi Arabia, dynamic change. The retail sector showed real signs of recovery after long periods of restructuring; the banking sector continued to digitalise and consolidate at a local level; technology start-ups were multiplying; and the developers where building.
From an HR perspective, recruitment was once again a key priority, coupled with talent management and true business partnering. Leadership looked to HR leaders for support in what appeared to be a positive start to the year. And for that reason, HR teams were adding headcount, especially at the mid-management and specialist level.
Fast forward to the end of quarter 1, and it’s a very different picture. COVID-19, a new strain of the coronavirus, has threatened our professional lives like nothing else in our lifetime. And it’s not limited to one region; it is truly a global HR issue affecting every sector, every discipline and every level of employee – both blue and white collar. In large global organisations like Google and Apple, there are rigorously tested, business continuity plans ready to be put into action in these situations (such as a national state of emergency or a war).
But what happens at a regional level for local organisations and SMEs? In these companies, the leaders suddenly look to HR to implement immediate changes to the way employees work, develop compensation strategies to reduce the chance of long-term redundancies, and in extreme cases decide if employees work at all. The pressure on the HR function is very different in these situations – the safety and well-being of employees, suppliers and customers must come first. This can often mean making ground level changes to daily tasks. These changes need to be communicated clearly and quickly, and in a way that guarantees a change in behaviours and accountability. As an HR professional, you need to understand the processes within the business itself, and be able to work with the other support functions to enable efficient changes – be it working from home, limiting the need for business travel or reducing personal contact in the office. At the same time, commercial decisions need to be taken and communicated by HR in a fair and legal manner.
Like an act of terrorism, a pandemic also creates fear of the unknown – and this can have a huge effect of the productivity, mental health and engagement of employees. Suddenly, technical HR skills are less important and there is a need for empathy, advisory and leadership skills.
For larger organisations, the threat of the virus is even broader. The stock markets are in decline and in some countries business operations are halted. The timescales are unknown and therefore the impact on employees is also unknown. As anyone would agree, it is a very worrying time.
So how can HR be a positive influence during a global crisis? At this point, the word Human is the most important one. This is a Human crisis and it is not limited to any demographic. HR must find a safe way to keep teams and communities together and reassure employees that we will all get through this. Companies have a responsibility to care and protect their employees, and HR can be the driver for this. They must communicate, update and relay the facts, daily if possible and on all platforms. Above all, they must continue to deliver an efficient employee service during a time of fear, uncertainty and anxiety.
Indeed, colleagues & teams can be as important as family during a global crisis and this is where HR can take the lead role. Supporting employees during this time will ultimately lead to a more engaged and loyal workforce once we come out the other side – which we inevitably will do.
Stay safe & stay positive.