HR Leaders Brace for Post-COVID-19 Shocks

By Nicole Lewis May 21, 2020
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worried HR executive

​Forrester Research has concluded that if companies don't take the necessary actions to prepare for four major shocks this decade, they'll have a difficult time managing in the post-coronavirus era.

The four shocks are:

  • Systemic risk that makes every company a globally exposed enterprise.
  • Robots and automation that will assist or replace workers.
  • A tsunami of employee data that promises to drown companies in obligations as well as possibilities.
  • Growing employee power that will redefine workforce strategy.

The good news is that many companies are already speeding up preparations to shock-proof their organizations. One step is allowing employees to work from home indefinitely to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and help head off a resurgence of the virus in the fall.

Another step is investing in artificial intelligence technology that will improve the way data is captured and analyzed.

But they need to do more in other areas. For example, employers will need to prepare responses to workers who use social media to publicize complaints. After Amazon workers began protesting working conditions during the pandemic, a group of state attorneys general asked the company to provide data on coronavirus infections and deaths among its workforce.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Opportunities for HR

J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, believes HR professionals can play a pivotal role in shaping decisions designed to buffer future shocks to the corporate system. But it may be a stretch for some.

"This is HR's moment," he said. "The HR manager has the chance to finally blossom as a strategic player in the way the company does its business, but it's a chance they might miss. There's no guarantee that suddenly HR managers are magically more strategic. Some of them won't be ready to step up."

Gownder encouraged advocating for better short- and long-term outcomes for the business rather than simply mitigating the risk of other people's decisions.

HR leaders also need to do a better job of communicating their companies' plans to keep workers safe.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Forrester has been polling employees to gauge how they feel their companies have supported them during the pandemic.

In an online survey of 533 employees conducted in May:

  • 61 percent said they have confidence that the head of their company or organization will handle the coronavirus situation in the best way possible.
  • 63 percent said they believe their company will put their health and well-being first when making decisions about the risk of the coronavirus
  • 61 percent said their company has a plan for how to manage the risk associated with the coronavirus.

"There are still a third of employees out there that don't believe their company is going to put their health and well-being first," Gownder said. "They don't believe their company leader can handle the coronavirus crisis, and they don't feel their company has a plan to manage the risk associated with this pandemic."

CHROs' Role in Wrangling Data

Hayagreeva Rao, Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Stanford University's graduate school of business, said chief human resource officers (CHROs) will have to be thoughtful about how they use increasing volumes of data and noted that it remains to be seen how robots and automation will impact employees' work lives.

He cautioned that companies managing large amounts of data generated by their workforces should be mindful that greater amounts of data, particularly data related to employee health, come with great risks.

"It's not just an employee data tsunami that HR managers have to be concerned about, but the employee privacy tsunami is what is going to sink them," Rao said. "It's not just that there is a lot of data, it is who owns this data. Is it the employee or the company? For example, take COVID-19. When companies reopen their doors and take an employee's temperature three times a day—is that the employee's data or should the company keep it?"

Employee power, Rao said, will expand in some areas and contract in others.

"Employee rights and employee activism are actually going to increase, but can workers protect themselves against layoffs or furloughs?" he asked. "These are the kinds of situations that are going to be way trickier, and resolution of these problems is going to have to happen at a societal level."

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami. She covers business, technology and public policy.

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