HR and Operations: Lessons Learned from the Economic Downturn

Nov 11, 2020

As parts of the USA work toward reopening, human resources and operations leaders are realizing that they need plans in place for handling changes to the basic structures and practices of work. When things finally do settle down, no one will miss the days of social distancing,
managing personal and work lives during a pandemic, working early mornings and late nights, and carrying insurmountable stress. But everyone can definitely learn from those challenging experiences.

When COVID-19 was on the rise in early March, few people could answer the question “How is your company handling this situation?” It was evident that no one had a good response prepared for the extreme level of economic suppression that accompanied the pandemic. And now, several months later, companies all have to adjust their business procedures again. At this time, it’s important for them to reflect on the lessons they learned about managing situations beyond their control (such as a pandemic and an economic downturn) and create action plans that consider HR, operations, and employee perspectives.


HR Lessons Learned

If organizations didn’t already consider their HR departments as strategic partners before the crisis, they certainly do now. When the pandemic struck and disruptions escalated, many businesses across the country struggled to handle their day-to-day tasks as they faced new challenges, such as filling emergency shifts, making tough calls about furloughing or laying off
employees, maintaining healthy company cultures, and providing support resources for employees who were suffering from the direct or indirect consequences of COVID-19. HR stepped in to help shoulder those burdens and through that process came to several important realizations that can help organizations navigate the days to come.

Employee well-being and safety come first and require an action plan. This isn’t a new concept, but companies need to recognize a shift in the mental and physical health needs of both employees and the business. To keep the business running, companies must have an action plan that not only identities key employee roles for keeping the organization operational, but also recognizes employees’ value by providing for their safety and giving them confidence in the processes put in place to protect them if they still have to come onsite.

Companies can be more agile about training, reskilling, and upskilling their employees. It’s impossible (or at least very difficult) to find an employee who doesn’t want to learn more and find some satisfaction in their job. Providing opportunities to perform different roles and tasks is a great way for companies to help employees work toward their personal goals while also addressing the organizations’ current skills gaps. By continuing to evaluate, discuss, and identify what employees want to learn, companies can create plans that optimize that information against critical business needs when difficult times strike.

If possible, create and promote remote work policies. Although remote work isn’t viable for every business, many organizations now realize that their employees don’t have to be in the office every day to be productive. By leveraging HR data to track employee behaviors and work activities, an organization can determine whether remote work is a good option for that
particular business.

Mental health should never be stigmatized, and organizations should continue discussions on it. Companies should provide their employees with information about how to understand the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety, burnout, and declining mental health in general. Beyond
that, organizations need to develop mental health plans that are easy for employees to understand and lay out what actions employees, HR, and management can take to address mental health issues.


Operational Lessons Learned

The many business disruptions that operations leaders have overcome and continue to address have revealed many opportunities to collaborate with HR. Several new perspectives have emerged around communicating with and supporting employees in what had previously been regarded as purely quantitative day-to-day activities.

Nurture employees through operational processes. This is a great time to be empathetic and real with employees. Recognizing that measuring productivity may look different moving forward, leaders must consider where their productivity gaps are and determine if flexible scheduling will solve these issues. Self-service plays a critical role in shift swapping, shift
coverage, and managers having insight on avoiding burnout. Nurturing starts with trust, and using the right technologies to give employees options around when and how they work enables companies to build that trust while at the same time keeping their
business goals moving forward.

Be present, be visible, and overcommunicate. It’s empowering for employees to know that their peers, colleagues, and managers are willing to have meaningful and transparent
conversations about changes taking place. Companies have learned how important it is to have flexible options for notifying employees about process changes. But even with mobile alerts,
e-mail notifications, call trees, or other communication plans in place, leaders’ willingness to get out from behind their desks for in-person conversations can give those plans an even more
positive impact and make sure that employees feel heard and seen.

Educate around labor costs and how they align with productivity. Leaders who seek to control labor costs, manage overtime, and access data to understand productivity need to make allies of their employees. By using a human capital management system to get reports on who is a top producer, leaders can compare performance within a department (or among people who hold the same position). They can also share some of these results with employees to educate them on which approaches work best to boost efficiency and productivity.


Employee Lessons Learned

During the economic downturn employees, too, have learned a lot about how to cope with incredible amounts of stress, remain resilient, and succeed in nontraditional work environments. HR and operations should come together to evaluate the takeaways their
people have from this experience and use those conversations to build stronger future approaches.

People are resilient but still want and require leadership and guidance. Employees have moved to a new level when it comes to trusting one another and showing empathy for colleagues. Leaders need to set an example by displaying passion and resilience and reinforcing these positive cultural outcomes for employees so that the stress everyone is experiencing brings people closer together instead of driving them apart.

Companies are capable of working remotely—and succeeding. Leaders should give employees the chance to share how the sudden shift to remote work affected the organization’s
culture both positively and negatively. By investigating how employees structured their daily work lives (especially while maneuvering around childcare and other family-related
responsibilities), companies can replicate some of the most successful techniques when employees return to the workplace.

Technology is essential. Leaders should explore with employees how technology helped with transparency and communication during the slowdown. By leveraging employees’ insights into
the technology that has enabled them to communicate even better, companies can eliminate bad processes and reduce their employees’ stress.

Adversity is an opportunity. Over the past few months, people throughout the world have come together to help each other through this crisis, and companies have stepped up to navigate uncertainty. Before things shift again, companies should use this time to reflect and make improvements that can help them achieve even greater things. The actions they take now will shape what happens when the business world returns to a work situation that looks more normal.

As a human capital management strategy consultant for Kronos (, Chas Fields works with leadership teams to invest in people-centric technologies that enhance the employee experience and overall company culture of their business.

Written by: Chas Fields

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