The Big Rethink Agenda: HR, Leadership and Crisis Management


As First Published By HNN

Throughout the summer months, Aethos™ has been inviting human resources executives to participate in one-on-one conversations as well as online round table discussions. The purpose: to have an open and unbiased forum to be able to share concerns, ideas, or challenges with impartial industry executives as it relates to talent management and leadership aspects within one’s own organisation. Here is an overview of what they have shared with us is on their minds.


Since the beginning of 2020, HR leaders have been expected to act fast and to have ready-made plans in place to be rolled-out. The fact, though, is that the sheer scale and impact of Covid has dwarfed whatever contingency plans might have been in place and it has made many of the ‘Plan Bs’ redundant. To ‘steady the waters’ and to protect employees and customers alike, as well as the business and its shareholders, senior human resources executives, together with company leadership teams, have drawn up new agendas – although not exhaustive, here are some of the top priorities:

  • Realigning HR and business strategies – In light of the current subdued business conditions, organisations are bracing themselves for a long road to recovery. Consequently, having already cut costs, restructured departments, and boosted efficiencies and productivity, they are now refocusing their attention on making further adjustments to their core business models. In other words, leadership operates on the assumption that travel and demand patterns, as well as behaviours, have shifted for good – so do the HR departments. With a view to stay ‘lock-step’, HR leaders are thus re-prioritising, placing a greater emphasis on effective and proactive crisis management, innovation and change management. However, they are also more focused on, for example, commercial functions as opposed to operational ones – the former being regarded as more vital for the new avenues being pursued by many organisations (as it relates to, for example, subscription models, or repositionings). For many, it is also a question of building stronger flexibility and adaptability into the HR system with a view to ‘future-proof’ against other crises – which begins with securing access to, or building up, a more fluid workforce.
  • Managing a more fluid workforce – many organisations were mandated by governments to put in place remote working or to limit the size of the work force (and its interactions with one another and the customers). At the same time, companies have had to deal with enforced quarantine measures and travel restrictions. All this, on top of the cost measures which significantly reduced the workforce, has resulted in significant strains on the system. It has forced companies to re-think traditional ways of collaborating and of ‘getting things done’. These, then, are really the questions at the heart of what is keeping many HR executives up at night: How does one guarantee continued access to know-how, or key business relationships, if a large portion of the workforce is on furlough or no longer with the company? How does one collaborate effectively without being in the same room, or in the same time zone? How does one make sure employees have all the tools at their disposal if they are having to work remotely? Perhaps more importantly, additional questions arise around quality of decision-making and performance management. Not wanting to set-up a ‘control state’ which micromanages its employees, HR executives are exploring how they can best assess quality of work or productivity – by default, this included a re-assessment of the available talent pool and the inhouse skills gap.
  • Plugging the skills gap – With many businesses no longer being able to afford the payroll and levels of staffing that they have been used to, restructurings have been abundant. Many organisations have been using technology and assessment tools to assess who within their workforce is ready for the next step or challenge, and who would bring the needed transferable skills and abilities to the table to drive and implement change and innovation. Plugging the skills gap will be one of the crucial responsibilities of HR departments – and doing so requires an excellent overview of the available inhouse talent, a laser-focus on what skills and management capabilities are needed to steer the company through such times of change, an ability to quickly put in place (cross-)training or coaching programs, and a knack for spotting up-and-coming ‘superstars’ who have yet to prove themselves. It is a challenge which depends on HR’s own capabilities, but also on its resources – and unfortunately, many departments have been deprived of the necessary funds and even lack, for example, a properly integrated talent management system. Technology-upgrades have thus ‘moved up the ranks’ in terms of priorities.
  • Upgrading systems and protocols – The significant rise and popularity of technologies such as Zoom has demonstrated how organisations are trying to find ways of staying connected, keeping business personal and collaborating more effectively. However, many companies have also looked at technology to continue, or fast track, their road towards a leaner operation, to improve their forecasting, or to better use customer data to tailor new products and services. And of course, business leaders and HR executives are looking at new systems to help protect their employees, guests, and business partners. Such ‘invasion’ of new technologies often also raises questions around data security – as we have seen across many international markets where ‘track and trace systems’ have been delayed because of concerns around exactly that aspect. Building more IT into an organisation’s structure and workflow thus brings with it many questions which the HR department, alongside some of its counterparts, needs to answer. It begins with data security but spans all the way to assessing how new systems might impact workflows, and thus potentially the way the business engages and interacts with its customers, as well as the mental wellbeing of employees.
  • Protecting mental wellbeing – It was reported in the past that a ‘technology-overload’ can have counterproductive and even negative impacts on employees. Having to adapt very quickly to new systems or protocols can be overwhelming – in particular in an environment in which an employee might already be working quite literally in isolation from its colleagues and in which informal exchanges can only happen ‘at a distance’ through an impersonal platform. However, organisations are of course also concerned about stress and the mental wellbeing of staff in general – that is those who are still part of the organisation (most of whom will likely have had to take on additional responsibilities) and those who have had to, or will have to, leave the organisation. Stress and anxiety levels are reportedly very high. HR executives have thus ramped up and improved the way organisations communicate with their employees – placing a particular focus on ongoing communication. That is, staying connected and engaged with staff, providing up-to-date information but also proactive support.

Developing and implementing an ‘HR strategy2’ is a significant challenge for many organisations. Most are rising to the occasion, with the above initiatives helping to fine-tune and improve on existing structures and processes. Many of the HR executives have, however, also stressed that part of this ‘big rethink agenda’ is a re-evaluation of governance. We have seen different strategies being pursued by countries across the globe – some have pursued a highly centralised strategy to fight this situation, others have decentralised decision-making power and let local governments/municipalities take the lead. The jury is still out as to whether or not there is one winning strategy, but HR executives are asking themselves: “Are there potential learnings for us from the different strategies being pursued by governments across the globe? During times of crisis or change, does a de-centralised structure trump a centralised one or vice-versa?”