Dealing with COVID-19: The HR Leader’s guide to preparing for a better normal and driving business profitability

HR is the new super-hero for businesses

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown may not have given us enough time to think through how work and our role as people enablers would change, but it has definitely given us enough time to think about how we can come back to a better normal!

88% of HR Leaders believe that this time of crisis has allowed HR professionals to adequately demonstrate their value to the business, importance of HR strategies and mitigating people risk1. Key strategic interventions by HR will help many organizations recover and even thrive through this time – Welcome to a world where HR teams will be Superheroes for their business!

Some key lessons from the top HR leaders in the world, with reference to people challenges in the pandemic and beyond are as follows2:

  • Remote Work is real and its big

  • Going digital is imperative

  • Personal Health and Safety is paramount

  • Providing flexibility for employees’ remote work as this may need to continue

  • Caring, listening and empathy are a priority

  • Remote work requires leaders to provide direction, confidence, and resilience

  • Leadership matters now more than ever.

  • Continued communication from leadership is key

  • Continuity Planning Is Vital: Black Swan Events Happen All the Time

Strategic initiatives

Resource realignment, pay cuts, redundancies and a lot of people-related decisions can often be a knee-jerk reaction unless strong HR leadership intervenes. People costs are unfortunately the quickest and easiest cut for many businesses. But how do you ensure business continuity, recovery and even profitability in a more effective manner? This is where, you as a strategic HR leader step in. The organization and the CEO are looking to you to provide the right direction in terms of managing costs, enhancing productivity, and ensuring profitability. This is the time to step-up to the plate to provide strategic advice and take strong steps to help the organization navigate this storm.

To borrow a phrase from a Deloitte model – Respond, recover, and thrive3 should be goals of the HR department during this time.

Here are some key initiatives that can help the business recover or even prosper:

Organization redesign – Start by re-looking at your organization structure. Your business may have to shut down business lines which are not viable in the medium to long term. There may be shift in strategy of deferring new expansions or product lines. First, create organization structures that will sustain and create growth. Trim the fat but keep an eye on the future. Re-look at hierarchy, span, and scope of roles. This is your chance to start with a clean slate. Your organization structure should deliver the following:

  • Maximum efficiency from each role (map out the scope of the role, the span of control, the impact on business)

  • Eliminate duplicity

  • Maximize the power of centralization

  • If you can save costs by outsourcing services – relook at this

  • Automate what can be automated

Remove roles that do not drive productivity or are not drivers of growth and development. If they do not belong in the future, they may not belong in your present structure as well. If they can be automated or outsourced, they do not belong in the org chart.

Job redesign – Do a job analysis. Relook at job roles and responsibilities. Redesign jobs in order to ensure maximum productivity. Reduce duplication. Re-train where required. Enrich or enlarge jobs. Lean in on job enlargement – if you can expand a role to include more responsibilities without negatively impacting efficiency, do so.

Look out for roles that have been created to manage/reduce symptoms of a problem. Attack the problem. Look for a solution. Encourage your business teams to invest in a solution rather than papering over a problem with a person to mitigate symptoms. An example: If processing a claim takes a person over an hour per claim, rather than adding more people to process claims, think about the process: Is this too long, is there a way it can be made shorter, can we look at technology (specifically robotic process automation (RPA) to solve this problem).

Leverage technologyAs an HR leader be a staunch proponent of technology. Within your own department, adapt as much technology as you can to reduce manual tasks that can easily be automated. Retrain staff doing this kind of work into jobs that add more value either to the bottom-line or the top-line. Do not be afraid of investing in technology. Digitization is already here. The pandemic has just sped up the process.

Compensation restructuring – Alongside announcing redundancies, compensation restructuring is one of the most unpleasant things to either implement or be on the receiving end. Encourage the organization to participate in these discussions. Send out a quick survey, ask people for their ideas, try to involve everyone in the process. This will help you get buy-in and maybe a better way of doing things as well. Start with collecting information from competitors, partners, allied industries or ask your talent partners to help you with this. Assess whether you are paying for a role or whether compensation has been inflated due to ‘person related qualities’ such as a long tenure in the organization. Redesign compensation with a higher emphasis on performance – tilt the balance in favour of variable pay based on accomplishment of targets. This will help you drive business performance as well. Favour a tie in of variable pay in with quantifiable targets alone– sales & profits. If you have softer aspects – drop them. If you are implementing salary cuts or reductions, ensure that you are in line with the legal regulations on this matter.

Communicate openly, freely and encourage dialogue on this subject. The more open compensation discussions are the lesser the resentment across the board. Try to be fair and equitable. Try and protect salaries of lower wage earners in favour or cuts with senior management compensation. Chances are senior management may not feel the pinch as much and may even volunteer to this. Communicate the cuts for senior management as well with the rest of the organization.

Policy design and business contingency planningBlack Swan events happen all the time. Look back at the recent past and you will see it littered with such events that changed the course of a company, or an industry. Economists and CFOs alike speak about the cyclical nature of the markets and that crises tend to recur. The time-spread of market corrections ranged from 15-20 years, reduced to 10 years, and are now occurring at even shorter spaces. As an HR leader, design people policy to be agile, prepare for these contingencies and insist on each department having a business contingency and continuity plan in place. Create a people-driven business contingency and continuity plan considering health, safety, environment, essential services, livelihoods, talent needs of the organization to respond to crisis, recover and then thrive. Stress test it and be ready for the next time something happens – It will happen.

Talent acquisition and hiring strategyA hiring freeze is par for the course for a lot of companies today. And this is the perfect time to re-look at hiring strategies. Start with the employer value proposition – just because you are not hiring right now, it does not mean that you wont ever hire. At that time, when you are trying to attract top talent, you should be the first choice for the right people. Make sure that you work towards building a positive employer brand. A small investment in this communication, will help you save a lot of money in future hires.

Next, work on your build-vs-buy strategy. Map your talent with the future needs of the organization. Match the talent required to the future strategy and business requirements – are you prepared for the future? Can you re-train or can some of this talent in the organization or build this talent for future roles? And more importantly do you have the right talent for the present?

Invest in key roles now. You may be able to fill these roles a lot more easily than you would in a talent war. Do not hold back on building good talent for the organization – these are the people who will help you recover and help you prosper. Hire only for critical roles (roles that will change the course or the destiny of the organization). At this point of time, getting your hiring right is critical – work with trusted partners to deliver the best results.

Talent managementRelook at your talent map. Review the 9-box grids per department and identify key personnel who are critical to engage and retain. Put in place measures to ensure that your top talent, who are either going to enhance profitability or increase revenues are identified. Create a plan to engage and retain them – this need not necessarily be monetary. Often, top talent just needs a reassurance and a clear plan on how the organization is going to move forward. Make clear communication your ally. Your top talent are the ones who will help the organization sail through the storm – create a taskforce and leverage the power of your talent pool.

Take clear actions on building talent for the future – this will help you optimize your talent in the long-run and ensure business continuity. Align your talent management initiatives very closely to the business strategy. Do not use these as measures to appease or in lieu of reduced salaries etc. That would spell disaster.

Talent engagement – This is a time of great uncertainty. This leads to fear which in turn leads to defensive behaviours, loss of motivation and satisfaction and drives engagement down. Fear alone can cause a huge hit to engagement and productivity. People tend to be less creative when they fearful. Chances are that a fearful employee is disengaged and is putting in long hours and creating throughput to keep his job, but his productivity and quality of work may be suffering. High productivity, creativity and high-quality work is what will help an organization get through this crisis.

A survey conducted by Josh Bersin and CultureX in April 2020 (COVID-19 HR Pulse)1 shows that 41% of HR leaders view health and well-being of employees as a top issue. Mental Health and Uncertainty were part of the top 4 issues on the minds of HR leaders. 56% of employees said health and well-being is a top concern for them.

As an HR leader, the onus falls upon you to equip managers to help increase employee engagement and allay these fears. A few steps that can help increase engagement:

  • Foster open and clear communication about the company and its plans – do not allow for rumours to take over the narrative

  • Encourage employees to participate or suggest possible course of action to tide over situations – Participative decision making is often more practical, has clear buy-in, is easier to implement and will reduce resentment

  • Gather information about how your employees are feeling and what they want – do a quick dipstick or survey and try to address these needs.

  • Set aside time for social interactions, even if it is virtually

  • Start and drive initiatives to help those less fortunate and encourage the team to participate. Ensure this is done safely.

  • Invest in the physical well-being of employees – join/subscribe or educate employees on medical helplines to answer their queries. Enhance health insurance and ensure it is extended to all. Enlist help from your insurance provider to drive wellness measures. Offer virtual fitness, diet consultations etc.

  • Invest in employees’ mental well-being. Provide remote counselling or mentoring sessions. These can be outsourced. Try and organize group sessions (virtually) to help foster camaraderie. People usually want to know that they are not alone and need to be buoyed up by a sense of community.

Practical guidelines to ensure smooth post-lockdown transition

Preparation before return

  1. Regulation and compliance – Ensure that you have read all the regulations and are in compliances with the requirements before opening. Make a short document with a checklist to share with the team and vendors who will be responsible for compliance.

  2. Make sure you have created a set of guidelines and communicated this with the staff before they return to work

  3. Managers and team leaders are key allies – do a remote meeting with them to prepare them to handle the transition and to take on any practical concerns that they might have

  4. Enlist a professional sanitization company or check with your existing vendor to ensure 24-hour Sanitization cycles of the entire premises including specialized sanitization of electronic equipment. Ensure that your current facilities management company is equipped to handle the sanitization – they are you first line of defence and the service providers are well-protected themselves.

  5. Personal protective equipment (masks and gloves) and hand sanitizers should be readily available at key check points (near lifts, near common garbage bins, at multiple places on the office floor)

  6. Reorganize the office layout to ensure at least 2m distance between people.

  7. Reorganize the pantry to ensure that seats are 2m apart. Remove all items that pose contamination risk. Ensure the availability of hand sanitizers and wet wipes.

  8. Contingency plan for positive-tested/ suspected cases – Ensure that you have an area to isolate any suspected or confirmed COVID-19 positive cases. Have a plan in place to deal with this, including informing the authorities and assistance on contact tracing

Upon return to work

Sanitization measures

  1. Ensure 24-hour sanitization cycles

  2. Identification measures & health checks such as temperature checks for all individuals entering the premises. Ensure that managers immediately intimate HR in case any symptoms are displayed

  3. Self-reporting – encourage individuals to report any symptoms or sickness immediately. Encourage employees to avail of their sick leave and not come to work if they are not well. Even if they are not COVID-19 positive, immunity levels dip during illness and this may make them more susceptible

  4. Safety and personal protective equipment – Encourage the use of gloves and facemasks. Procure these items if required. Keep a few spare ones on hand (remember not to hoard – we need to have enough for everyone for us to be safe). Disposal of all such equipment should be done correctly in the prescribed manner

  5. Share a guideline with employees for social distancing and preventive measures when they are outside the office premises.

  6. Electronic equipment – Ensure that all electronic equipment (like common laptops in conference rooms, VC equipment, phones etc.) are thoroughly sanitized. Discourage people from touching or sharing keyboards, mouse etc. – These are high-contact areas. Encourage laptops, keyboards, mouse, and other electronic equipment used by staff to be safely sanitized

Working protocol to reduce risk

  1. Desks and seating protocols – Ensure that all employees have been allotted seats based on social distancing protocols and are at their assigned seats – do not encourage ‘at-desk’ meetings which involves gathering of people at one desk.

  2. Meetings – Minimize the number of meetings and limit meeting sizes to less than 5 people and ensure adequate distancing of 2m between the attendees.

  3. Remote working – Encourage at least 70% of your workforce to continue working from home. Try and extend this to the maximum number of people who need to use public transport to limit risks

  4. Working hours – Try to reduce working hours in the office or at least limit working hours

  5. Gatherings and eventsSuspend all in-person gatherings, events and townhalls.

  6. Guests, clients, and visitors – Make all potential visitors to the office aware of the required protocol. Avoid in-person meetings as much as possible

Use of Facilities

  1. Parking – Ensure that parking meters, touch points of parking barriers, are sanitized regularly.

  2. Lifts/elevators and escalators – Do not allow over-crowding inside lifts and elevators – limit this to 30% of capacity at the most

  3. Pantry regulations – Use individually packaged, disposable cutlery and plates. Stagger lunch hours and break-times. Ensure social distancing of at least 2m between individuals. Encourage people to wipe-down with anti-bacterial wipes after use of the tables at the pantry.

Employee engagement

  1. Engagement – This is the time when employee engagement would typically be at the lowest. Employees may be worried or upset with some changes. Step in to drive engagement.
    Employee physical wellness – Deploy practical steps to enhance physical well-being like virtual fitness classes or diet consultations. Invest in good health insurance.
    Employee mental wellness – Stress and uncertainty foster fear. Mental health is critical for employee well-being. Invest in outsourced counselling or mentoring; offer virtual meditation classes etc.

  1. Communication is key – Ensure that you have communicated all measures before re-opening. Also, ensure that you have communication material at key locations to reinforce some of the measures such as social distancing. Share a daily bulletin with all employees highlighting the positives and explaining bad news (if any). Ensure that you share data and information from official sources with your employees so that they can always depend on this for guidance rather

Doing what Superheroes do

It is the time to put on your cape and mask and guide your organization through the crisis. Just like a superhero would step in at a time of crisis, and work tirelessly, the HR department has the weight of the entire organization on its shoulders – to keep everyone safe and to keep the organization profitable. Working closely with business leaders, the HR department is the polestar that can help business navigate these circumstances with empathy, reason and with a long-term view. If there is one thing that can save organizations a great deal of loss and pain, that is to prevent knee-jerk reactions and take a wholistic view of the organization and its future. It is only the HR leader who can bring together the entire organization, across departments and across levels. Cutting across department lines, the HR leader can step back to view the big-picture and align to business goals, organization values and principles to drive a strategy of prosperity.


1- https://www.hcamag.com/us/news/general/covid-19-hrs-main-challenges-revealed/218599

2- Josh Bersin Webinar – https://joshbersin.com/2020/04/responding-to-covid-19-ten-lessons-from-the-worlds-hr-leaders/ and
Gartner Survey – https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/early-covid-19-lessons-learned-from-employers-in-asia/

3 – https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/covid-19/covid-19-scenarios-and-impacts-for-business-and-society-world-remade.html

4- https://joshbersin.com/2020/04/covid-19-the-pulse-of-hr-what-is-hr-doing-now/