Reimagining HR during times of crisis

Whitney Benner looks how HR professionals can be well-informed to respond promptly to unexpected, catastrophic risk.

2020 has challenged us in ways we never thought imaginable. A global pandemic, a racial justice movement, an unstable political environment and more. Any one of these events would have been enough to demand our attention and provoke change. And while the pandemic is but one of this year’s large-scale events, its impact on HR strategy and operations has been tremendous. 

Regardless of industry or core function, business leaders had to quickly pivot their operational plans to keep employees, workplaces and other assets safe amid an unfamiliar and expanding risk landscape.

Human resources professionals, in particular, moved swiftly to adjust their workplace benefits, and remote-work support structures, while crafting new approaches to address challenges for different groups within the company, such as working parents and other caregivers.

HR leaders also faced the challenge of limited time, having to quickly plan for each phase of their business’s COVID-19 response, as well as employees’ evolving and varied questions and concerns.

All of the challenges we have been facing this year have demonstrated the heightened need for an expansive, and early view into potential and pending crises. The best way to gain that advantage is to create an additional layer within HR for crisis management that harnesses the power of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), real-time alerting systems, and process automation.

For example, imagine a retailer with physical stores across multiple states in the US, with subsidiary stores in Europe. Health regulations are shifting constantly, and often made at the state and local level. To remain in compliance, and keep employees safe, HR leaders at that retailer would need an accurate, up-to-date view of current policies affecting each of their work locations.

But how do you build that view?

During the pandemic, HR leaders everywhere relied on a wide variety of information as inputs to decision-making. Depending on the source and format of the information – and its very nature as public or proprietary – some HR teams manually search for that information on their own, and lean on peers and colleagues in the industry to learn how others are addressing the crisis.

Tech-savvy HR leaders are able to take advantage of advanced technologies to discover, distill, and deliver information faster

More tech-savvy HR leaders are able to take advantage of advanced technologies to discover, distill, and deliver information faster, enabling them to make a sound decision with renewed confidence and speed as the next realities of work-life in a pandemic become clearer.

During the pandemic, real-time alerts – spanning announcements from public health officials to notices of school closures – have provided a critical advantage in managing this crisis, providing crucial inputs for HR decision-makers who need to inform their employees, especially those in essential roles, of how to operate with renewed caution.

For instance, thanks to early, real-time alerts on the initial global spread of COVID-19, many HR teams had an early warning to proactively close their offices and shift their teams to working entirely from home – well ahead of a wave of self-quarantining measures in the states, provinces and countries where they operated.

This advantage also enabled HR leaders to more effectively collaborate with essential functions such as IT and operations to make better informed decisions on how to support a remote workforce from the cybersecurity, public safety and mental health perspectives. 

Enhancing the employee experience

While many organisations were quick to address the immediate safety concerns of their employees at the beginning of the pandemic, the stress of the on-going crisis has dramatically shifted employee sentiment. A recent McKinsey study found  that 80% of respondents believed that the pandemic is “materially affecting” their everyday work lives.


Leaders must also recognise that the employee experience is not singular. Some employees may thrive in a remote-working environment, while others may struggle to adapt to these changes due to isolation, lack of structure and other factors. It is incumbent for leaders to create solutions to accommodate these differences.

For example, remote work initially appeared to be advantageous for parents; but it also unleashed new challenges, including balancing childcare and supervision of schoolwork during lockdown – with no reduction of work priorities.

A survey from anonymous workplace networking app Blind found that over 50% of working parents had concerns about their performance compared to employees that are not parents. In addition, 61% of parents found themselves working three or more extra hours daily to complete normal tasks required of their positions.

As a response, HR leaders have been re-evaluating benefits and how they cater to the changing needs of their employees.

Staying on top of new industry standards, public health mandates that have the potential to affect homelife, and general culture shifts that can impact brand equity, is more important than ever for HR professionals.

Beyond internal surveys, employee discussion forums or other feedback tools, real-time information will help any organisation adjust and plan for the future and support the wellbeing of employees for the short and long term.

Real-time alerting plays a significant role in ensuring business leaders are informed on local guidelines, as well as any scientific breakthroughs or new information regarding COVID-19 treatments and testing.

Planning a safe return to office

Research has shown us that a far lower percentage of UK office workers (34%) had returned to work in comparison to countries in Europe. Today, with new lockdown restrictions across the UK and Europe, navigating a return to the office has continued to be difficult.

Employees who are currently working from home are hesitant about returning to the office. It’s easy to see why – there are well-publicised examples of businesses reopening too early with little to no workplace protections, putting their employees and business at risk.

Employees who do not feel safe or comfortable in a workplace may find it difficult to be productive, responsive or engaged, and could lose trust in their employer. HR leaders must be informed and willing to communicate candidly with their employees about risks, and the steps the business is taking to mitigate those risks.

HR should be transparent with employees about the safety precautions being implemented on their behalf. They should also openly acknowledge the impact that external factors, such as new lockdown measures and access to childcare, will have on the employee experience when returning to the office.

These decisions require leadership to have access to new information as it comes out, to prepare for and mitigate risks. In a crisis, real-time information is an invaluable input in developing new strategies and plans that support both employees and the organisation.

For instance, real-time alerts can inform where there are COVID-19 clusters, what the most up-to-date public transportation restrictions are, or which schools or childcare centres are currently open.

As the world looks forward to collectively defining and responding to the ‘next normal’ in the workplace, gaining access to accurate information in real time will be critical to assist HR leaders in shifting policies, supporting staff, and protecting assets in a manner that allows proactive decision-making to stay safely ahead of the curve.


About the author

Whitney Benner is chief people officer at Dataminr


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