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HR leaders have been central in keeping workforces safe, engaged, productive and resilient in this extraordinary time. As we shift from ‘rapid response’ mode to recovery and beyond, GWG’s Alissa Bower and other prominent local HR leaders reflect on how strong HR leadership will be critical to organisations hoping to thrive in the ‘COVID-normal’ world.

Organisations are confronting many challenges as they prepare themselves for the economic realities of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. From disrupted supply chains to revised revenue forecasts, diversification and reinvention; very few aspects of strategic organisational planning as we shift from ‘response’ to ‘recovery’ remain untouched. Common across these varied challenges is a core of uncertainty about what the future will hold. And while it’s prudent to approach uncertainty through a linear risk-management mindset, we expect that organisations who prioritise people and culture in a way that complements and supports this approach will be better prepared to thrive in the ‘COVID-normal’ world.

Response, recovery, and preparing for the ‘new normal’ – a shift in how we think about HR

HR functions were naturally thrust into the centre of many organisational responses to the COVID-19 pandemic; after all, this crisis is by its very nature, human. Largely focused on immediate health and safety needs and the rapid virtualisation of workforces, HR leaders also quickly recognised the value of employee wellbeing in maintaining productivity and engagement, with many rapidly implementing programs of regular and consistent internal communications. But as organisations turn towards recovery, it’s time to shift how we think about HR. The key to thriving in the ‘new normal’ will be strong HR leadership that is not just responsive to immediate needs – such as providing critical direction on matters of safety and compliance – but leadership that also seeks to learn from the experiences of the workforce and proactively build the capability of others across the organisation. 

Felicity Laczina, Chief People and Culture Officer at Newcastle Permanent, has observed this shift in recent months. “There is a tendency for HR leaders to become directive where safety becomes the critical concern but I think there is a balance from my experience with COVID on providing clear direction and building the capability of leaders to make decisions on a case-by-case basis”, Laczina says. Finding this balance is the key to a shift in how HR is viewed by organisations, with strong leaders like Laczina recognising that while crisis response can force you to think ‘in the now’, it is vital to identify how changes applied to the workforce of today can be leveraged to prepare organisations to build their workforce of the future as we recover towards a ‘new normal’. 

A new focus on coaching for HR departments

HR teams were gifted a unique opportunity to hone their skills in remote communication and productivity during the COVID-19 crisis period. Trial and error in communicating and collaborating with employees at all levels of the workforce will have resulted in many valuable lessons for the internal communications playbook; lessons that should be shared through closer collaboration with line managers, says Alissa Bower, Senior Consultant in HR and Business Support here at GWG.

“As we shift from response to recovery, it’s time to move away from that pure ‘personnel’ model of HR towards strategic coaching and mentoring,” she says. “HR managers need to be putting the value of what they’ve learned to work by helping managers step up to become leaders, empowering them to come up with initiatives that build resilience and keep their teams engaged through uncertainty.” This focus on coaching and building capability is a great way for HR leaders to build credibility and trust throughout the organisation while gathering valuable collective intelligence to feed back to executive decision-makers. And for those organisations that have been forced to pivot, diversify or re-invent during the pandemic, this kind of HR leadership will be key to supporting your workforce through extremely challenging times.

Alissa Bower
GWG’s Associate Director Alissa Bower says HR leaders can help managers to become leaders, and empower them to develop initiatives that build resilience and keep their teams engaged through uncertainty.

The ‘employee experience’ – a new view on employee benefits

In welcome news for organisations feeling acute financial pressure, there is evidence that some employees and job candidates have reprioritised the value of salary in context with other benefits. Catherine Williams, HR Manager at PPK says that while employee benefits may have traditionally been seen as a ‘list’ of primarily financial benefits, these days it’s about much more than that. “Employee benefits are now more about the kinds of things that make you want to stay. So it’s really more about the whole employee experience, things like clear and open communication, setting clear expectations, being encouraged to learn and develop, learning about healthy lifestyles, having a good work-life balance,” she offers.

This focus on employee experience is a critical aspect of preparing your organisation to thrive through challenging times; after all, an engaged workforce is a productive workforce. Alissa Bower likens this to familiar marketing strategies: “HR leaders that are approaching the employee experience in the same way they would the customer experience will have better success in engaging employees for the future. Never more than now should HR functions be empowered to place employee interests at the heart of their businesses.”

Catherine Williams, HR Manager at PPK says that employee incentives and benefits have shifted from just a list of financial benefits. “It’s really more about the whole employee experience, things like clear and open communication, setting clear expectations, being encouraged to learn and develop, learning about healthy lifestyles, having a good work-life balance.”

HR leadership is critical to navigating uncertainty

For organisations feeling the pressure to cut costs, investment in strong HR leadership that can empower a shift towards organisational capability development and employee engagement is an easy win. When HR is viewed as a critical and trusted partner in tapping into your organisation’s collective intelligence, you’ll soon find creative solutions emerging to the complex problems that flourish in uncertainty.

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If you’re looking to enhance the HR leadership capabilities of your organisation or seeking a new position, reach out to Alissa Bower today on 0411 043 537 or email 

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