Hindsight is 20/20: Did HR fail the enterprise during social distancing?

During the past decade, North America has returned to a time of large fundamentalist companies in place of the agile and the entrepreneurial. There is no question that we live in a cyclical culture. Every 20 to 30 years we see the resurgence of similar trends. Think bell-bottoms and cat-eyeglasses. But on a larger scale, think about the trend toward large fundamentalist organizations. As Y2K rolled around, it was the small, agile, entrepreneurial companies that were enjoying the wave. We now find ourselves in the year 2020 once again looking to large monopolies as the corporate entities supplying our goods and services, as well as our career opportunities. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Falling into administrational quicksand

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The large, fundamentalist companies that are driving our economy have learned to use terminology that sells the concept of the company that cares. But while we talk the talk, we continue to find ourselves submerged deeper and deeper into the quicksand of administration and lack of authority, and this is prohibiting us from actually walking the walk. Being immersed in the current pandemic, we find ourselves in a time of crisis that demands quick action and the ability to proactively move forward. But as we try to adjust our corporate culture to align with whatever the new requirements become, the impact on HR and the services it has historically provided have come under the microscope. HR has traveled a difficult path throughout history. But during the fight to get a place at the corporate strategic table, did we lose sight of what it is that people need from HR? If social distancing travels from required to trending to the new normal, is HR ready to support its employees or are we at risk of falling into the fundamentalist trap?

Historically, it was during the 1800s that the need was identified to regulate the hours of labor a company required their employees to work, specifically that of women and children. As the years progressed, corporations deemed it necessary to install people to ensure that they were conforming to the imposed laws and regulations. From this need, came the eventual development of what we now know as human resources. We look to the human resources department to guide the hiring, evaluation, training, and compensation management to ensure the effective administration of employees, and ultimately to achieve organizational goals. But is this what HR is doing during this time of social distancing?

Forcing HR into reactive mode

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It is important to note that we look to supervisors and managers, not HR, to effectively manage employee productivity. The role to mentor, coach, direct, counsel, and oversee employees falls to the direct supervisor of the employee. The problem that persists, however, is the issue of supervisors who forego this responsibility and instead delegate issue resolution to the HR department. As we find ourselves immersed in aligning to social distancing, compliments of the coronavirus, employee supervisors are struggling with team productivity. The result is that we have effectively pushed HR into reactive mode and the proactive responsibility to hire, evaluate, and train employees is no longer effective. In some cases, it is being ignored. While HR is working with supervisors and managers to repair productivity, the true role of the HR department is pushed to the side. Face-to-face, fundamentalist organizations are now struggling with how to hire, onboard, and administer employees. While we have been talking the talk for many years when it comes to employee and manager self-service, as well as online training and virtual meetings, some may have embedded themselves so deeply into reactive mode that all of the technology and tools we have invested in are not being utilized to increase employee productivity. The result is that we may be in jeopardy of failing to align the new and very necessary skill sets to get us into the era that social distancing has introduced.

If we adopt the philosophy that life will return to what we previously enjoyed, then at a minimum, mitigation needs to be undertaken to ensure fiscal responsibility and the continuation of revenue generation. This means installing supervisors and managers with the ability and authority to engage and utilize technology to do the right thing to ensure corporate productivity and longevity. By doing so, this will release HR from responding to employee issues and complaints and moving into a proactive stance. Supervisors need to be enabled to manage their teams and managers need to be able to lead, and HR needs to be released of performing these backup duties. These are three key components that need to be factored into the revised and enterprise-wide remote work strategy.

The way we were is not the way we will be

social distancing

Current theory would suggest that it may not be in our best interest to sit still and assume that life will return to what we previously enjoyed. At best, we will see a slight paradigm shift that we will eventually adjust to. However, if we stop at this assumption, the risk is quite great as all evidence would indicate that returning to the way things once were is no longer an option. Without question, HR departments everywhere are stepping up and assisting with risk reaction. But reactive mode is never a safe place to stay. As a member of the strategic table, it is time for HR to stand up, push back, and remind everyone of the importance of the key and strategic responsibilities of HR and the consequences should we forego those responsibilities in place of firefighting.

Employees do often look to HR to provide support and counseling, but this is not the role that empowers the strategic advantage that HR was intended to provide. Perhaps COVID-19 is the reminder we need to get back to the basics, and lessons learned from social distancing might help to reengage the entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to perform to a higher level. In the meantime, now is the time to shift from reactive mode to proactive planning. It is the HR departments that can prepare the organization and its employees to be ready for the future, but HR cannot move in this direction if they are required to continually address issues best resolved by those working on the line.

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