People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2020

Insight into Action

By Marc Sokol
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​The ABCs of COVID-19 Business Recovery

Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, a slowing of the increase rate of global cases and more effective treatment regimen, we will be living and working in new and adaptive ways. This issue of People + Strategy brings together diverse and thoughtful views for how we manage the present and begin to recover. All of us in business anticipate the opportunity for recovery, a greater sense of security in health and a return to what we once considered just a normal day. But as the authors in this issue all discuss in their own ways, that “normal day” won’t be the same as in the past. Already, there are key lessons to be learned as we contemplate our future.

Trust shapes everything. Several contributors rightly place trust at the center of how organizations are able to move forward. Trust must exist between leaders and employees, between companies and their suppliers and their customers. As Lisa Shalett notes, monitoring whether trust is growing or stagnant is now a significant board responsibility. In times of uncertainty it is who and what we trust that shapes what data and information we believe credible. The CEO of Molina Health reminds his team that above all, “do the right thing.” When employees, board members and investors trust you, they will trust your data and recommendations; if they trust someone else or another institution more, they may question your judgment.

The ABCs of COVID-19 business recovery stands for agile business continuity. We don’t know if, when or how severe a virus recurrence will be, but must prepare for the possibility. Business continuity management programs that quickly ramped up shouldn’t just get put back on a shelf. Every company needs to conduct an after-action review, discovering what went well and what they could do differently if called upon again. HR has proven to be a core part of that team and should remain deeply embedded. Business continuity management itself has to become an agile process, responsive to the diversity of situations, geographies and customer groups. We need to apply design thinking for rapid testing, refinement and deployment of new ideas that help people and business perform. As Liz Segel of McKinsey advises, empower a network of cross-functional teams, overseen by an integration team, so that action, testing and adjustment occurs quickly and lessons learned are then widely dispersed.

Communication, clarity and cadence build confidence. Prolonged “not knowing” eats away at resilience. However, as Deb Bubb and Joanna Daly of IBM note, a steady cadence of communication, providing clarity from respected leaders and subject matter experts can be calming, even centering for the workforce of any firm. Emotional wellbeing also comes to the foreground if we intend to sustain resilience, especially when that translates into the ability to reflect, relate, renew and realize potential under pressure. IBM enables action and resilience by aligning perspectives, policies and practices. Leadership mindset gives rise to perspectives of what we stand for and who we are as a firm. These perspectives shape the policies we adopt and the practices we encourage and expect. The three Ps combine to impact performance of individuals, teams and the firm. IBM believes such thinking extends to all organizations regardless of size or scale.

Culture and collaboration are more malleable than we previously thought. As the Executive Roundtable members point out, every HR and talent management group has the opportunity to rethink how it enables business to excel. People expect better resources and guidelines how we get work done. Can we continue to modify work-from-home models and balance that with the experience of being physically together yet safe? Can we make a small dent in both work-life balance and climate change as we think more creatively how to accomplish work? Herman Miller CEO Andi Own and colleagues look at this from the standpoint of physical settings and how they enable or limit collaboration, focus and engagement.

Now is the time to embrace innovative thinking about people and strategy. PepsiCo is accelerating its efforts to bring the anticipated future of HR to the present. As they digitalize talent management practices, they know they must also equip leaders to effectively use these new practices. For Alan Church and Sergio Ezama of PepsiCo this means HR and managers need to raise their collective skills at deriving appropriate insights from advanced analytics. Even more far reaching is the shift they see in their workforce, as they employ a higher percentage of gig workers over time. Workforce planning and development is now intentionally moving from focus on career to portfolio models of experience and development. In a related way, McKinsey’s Talent Exchange, an online market for people in search of work, shows how the future of talent management can go beyond our focus within companies and address larger workforce dynamics. 

Embrace innovative practices but stay attuned to unintended consequences and potential misuse. Productivity surveillance tools offer the promise to monitor performance of a highly remote workforce. Aiha Nguyen alerts us these technologies can also become a poor proxy for managing what we really want employees to focus upon and can convey a lack of trust at precisely the time when we need employees to remain engaged.

The definition of “leadership” is changing. When you’ve worked for leaders who display empathy and action, it’s hard to follow those who lack this combination. Sociologists have long referred to emotional labor as the real work of managing your own and others’ emotional response, the way flight attendants keep people calm while getting them to take appropriate actions. Fred Thiele of Microsoft takes this further, recognizing that their leaders need to model key behaviors, coach others through difficult moments and demonstrate genuine care for those they lead. This has been an expectation of senior leaders for a long time; now it may be a standard expectation for leaders at all levels. For Mike Cordano of Western Digital, it comes down to empathy, inclusion and collaboration, not just as a leader but to also embed such attributes into culture, strategy and operations.

The examples above represent new horizons for HR practice and workforce planning. This brings us to an even higher call to action for HR and associated professionals. As Bill Schaniger of McKinsey notes, “when companies fully leverage their scale to benefit society, the impact can be extraordinary.” The same can be said for our profession: we can bring greater attention to those harsh realities of the current moment, to the industries, workers and groups of people most hard hit by the pandemic. As professionals we have the science, tools and ability to innovate and lead change beyond our own places of employment. It’s time to be a steward of a future of which we can be truly proud.  

Marc Sokol, Ph.D., is Editor-at-Large for People + Strategy and Founder and Principal Consultant at Sage Consulting Resources, LLC.