How would you define leadership role in HR in the current environment?
AB Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the one with a signature moustache, became a hero overnight. Only for one reason — he literally flew into a crisis.
Crisis had catapulted this brave soldier to be widely recognized, much like the HR function that got into the Covid crisis and became one of the most sought-after function in large number of organisations. That, HR played a commendable role in guiding organisations in dealing with employees during the pandemic is now an acknowledged fact, even by most hardened critics of HR. During this period, many business leaders seemed to have frozen in their track — unable to think of options and letting fate take its option by default — similar to a stray deer in front of a car headlight on a highway, frightened and unable even to move.
It was the HR community that delved into its innate strength and training and showed the way. It brought out from its arsenal the most effective solution — Empathy. This became the cornerstone of the way the organizations would deal with the situation. HR led and others followed willingly. How was this different than regular day to day matters where HR had not enjoyed this stature? The main difference lay in the conviction with which HR dealt with the Covid situation. HR demonstrated thought leadership and execution hegemony. The Corona virus crisis helped shine a spotlight on the value that HR delivers in keeping employees engaged, motivated, safe, and productive.
The crisis has transformed HR function. It has infused a new-found confidence and credence in its own ability to make a difference. It also increased connectivity and collaboration within the HR fraternity in terms of exchanging best practices and extending support — even if it was mere moral support.
As the Crisis is ebbing, it is time for HR to introspect as to how it can retain the stature it has gained. This will be possible only if HR continues to play a role that impacts business. No more HR processes for the sake of it but intransigent alignment with Business priorities.
To establish a refreshed role, HR teams will need to be enterprising, challenging and work together to assert professional standards and create better and more consistent systems in which people can flourish. Shaping the organisations, leaders and ensuring the best way to work is a huge responsibility for those working in HR.
So while HR has deservedly earned kudos for handling Covid, the real test for the function will come as to how it supports business resuscitating itself.
Looking at 2021 and beyond, how should HR leadership prepare itself?
AB Post-2020, the workforce will inevitably never be same again. Employees were subjected to prohibitive stress and anxiety under the threat of a pandemic, layoffs, job losses even loneliness. The workforce will yearn for leaders who are understanding and empathetic. They will look for an authority figure that they can identify with and respect. Someone they can connect with. Invariably, the workforce will look up to HR and expect them to play this role. The opportunity for the HR fraternity is to play the employee advocacy role to the hilt. Show its resolve to be employee champion. It will not be easy — because by then, the business would be focused on recovering lost ground of past year and will expect pragmatic, even if unpleasant, decisions to be executed. They will demand “more-for-less”. Some senior leaders will rationalize this changed behaviour by pontificating that lot was done for employees during the crisis and now it is time for hard-nosed business calls.
It is at times like this that HR’s true worth will be tested. Amongst all the pandemonium of business revival, the employee expectation tectonic plate will also shift. Let us examine what uncharted challenges HR leaders will face and identify few leadership traits HR will need to cultivate and demonstrate in the context of the changing workplace tapestry.
Nothing will go back to Normal : Many leaders are still counting on situation ‘going back to normal’. Going back to normal only works, if normal still exists. And normal as it is known currently appears to have died. Trends that might have taken years to materialize, have embedded themselves more permanently in one year — be it WFH, online classes or social isolation. The world we left in 2019 has morphed onto something very new and different in 2021. Denial is not a strategy — or at least not a very good one.
HR will need to lead the charge for adapting the organisation to the changed reality. It will need to challenge some of its own set notions and have the grit to discard them unapologetically. One illustration that comes instantly to mind is the Succession Plan and High Potential list. These may have been prepared with thoroughness and bolstered with substantial development input and investments. HR will need to boldly discard these precious dissertations. Leadership qualities that were considered valued during pre-Covid period have abruptly become redundant. HR will therefore need to go back to the drawing board and re-assess who could be entrusted to lead the organisation going forward. It is easy to write such recommendations in an article but just imagine the trauma and challenges that HR will encounter in just this one exercise. Is there a choice? The answer is a convincing No. HR will have to assist the organization identify a robust leadership pipeline afresh. This is just one example of impact opportunities that HR will need to explore and act.
Home will emerge as the New Hub : As much as some people are longing to get out of their homes and go back to workplace — reality is that Home will never be quite what it was pre-Covid. In 2021 and beyond, home will emerge as a new hub. Ever since the crisis began, home became the new hub for five activities that normally happened outside home: Work, Schooling, Fitness, Shopping and Entertainment. People have reconfigured their homes for offices, fitness, and entertainment and even to some extent hospitality. All these mean that Remote Working will move from emergency or luxury to a necessity. Many employees have actually discovered that they find working from home a preferred choice and will insist on it as they move into the future. The future workplace will be a flexible workplace, at least if the organization wants to compete.
Furthermore, next wave of Flexibility will shift from location to time and will be around when employees are expected to work. Gartner’s 2020 ‘Reimagine HR Employee Survey’ revealed that only 36% of employees were high performers at organisation with standard 40-hours work week. In comparison, organisations that offer employees flexibility over When, Where and How Much they work witnessed 55% of their workforce as High Performers. Employees will be measured and rewarded for their output, as opposed to agreed-upon working hours.
Imagine the rework HR will have to undertake in terms of Goal setting and Tracking Performance, Redesigning Compensation and Retention Strategies. I am highlighting this only to emphasize the new level of expertise HR will need to demonstrate to address the changing times.
GIG, FTE Workforce and Ethics : Many organisations will shift away from trying to build skills for an uncertain future and instead prefer a transient workforce. On the face of it, this may seem like an innocuous decision. But let us acknowledge that employers in a country as diverse as India come in various shades of Grey. It is an established fact that exploitation of Contract Labour has been a highly prevalent phenomenon amongst large number of unscrupulous employers. Recovering from setback in business due to Covid may provide one more excuse to such employers to engage Fixed Term employees and thus absolve themselves from investing in long term commitment to its work force.
In addition, I predict that organizations will move to more fluid structures where neat boxes, in an Organization Chart, defining definite roles will become obsolete. These will be replaced by having employees do multiple tasks in place of defined task all this means that employees will need to learn new skills, if for nothing else, only to protect their jobs. This shift in employee mindset will have an unexpected ramification — Trade Unions’ power and influence will reduce substantially because the employees will prefer to voluntarily opt for re-skill training rather than depend upon Union’s bargaining power to protect their job.
Business is likely to see higher than usual Attrition. Many employees will rethink their future — from what they want to do, what they want their life to look like and where they want to live. In certain industries, where remote working is not a challenge for a prolonged period, young talent pool is likely to relocate to places closer to their families. Good news for such employees is that changing cities will not involve changing jobs.
HR leaders will be faced with an Ethical Dilemma in the above two scenarios. With the reduced checks and balances provided by the Union and with FTE workforce legitimized by the new Labour Code, will HR remain mute spectator to subtle exploitation of the Labour force? If not, then what voice will HR have to prevent the situation? The true fiber of HR leadership will be on test — with no one watching them, except their own Conscience and Professionalism. The workforce should never be considered naïve; it is they who will be the first one to detect any infraction — however well concealed. And with that — the reputation that HR has strived to build will evaporate like drops of water on hot sand.
Dr. Aquil Busrai has over four decades of HR experience covering all aspects of HR including IR, Recruitment, Training, Remuneration, Policy, Operations, Divestment, cross-cultural workforce and HR Shared Services. He has a Degree in Commerce, an MBA in HR, a Post Graduate Degree in Law and a Post Graduate Diploma in Training and Development. He was awarded PhD in April 2012.
Dr. Aquil has held senior positions in both operational and strategic HR. Including, start-ups, acquisition, mergers and re-structuring. He has worked with Unilever PLC in India and Kenya, and with Motorola as Executive Director HR looking after Asia Pacific HR for Software business and HR for India Sub continent. He worked with Shell Malaysia as HR Director and MD for Shell People Services Asia Sdn Bhd. Hislast assignment was with IBM India where heworked as Executive Director HR for Global Delivery business. He was part of growing the business from 14k employees to 47k employee in four and half years.