This time last year if you had asked most HR Professionals to list the top 5 global events likely to impact the workplace, I doubt there would have been mention of a global pandemic. Yet in the last few weeks Covid-19 has impacted businesses more significantly than any other event. Travel bans, airport closures, countries declaring a national emergency, educational institutions closing down or moving to online teaching, tighter border controls and world sporting events cancelled. These are but a few of the actions taken by countries in response to the pandemic.

Organisations and agencies employ thousands of people, which means these actions are creating a ripple effect through their workforce and impacting all of us in unpredictable ways. In the UK, companies have issued employee directives to work from home, conferences have been postponed, cancelled or taken place virtually, and stores have seen shortages of certain products as people stockpile supplies. All these factors impact on their employees.

In the current climate, VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) seems more appropriate now more than ever. Introduced by the U.S. Army War College, VUCA describes our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, following the end of the Cold War in 1990.
Covid-19 has dramatically amplified the elements of VUCA.

Volatile: On 31 December 2019, Chinese officials confirmed dozens of cases of pneumonia from an unknown cause and then a week later on 7 January 2020, the outbreak was identified as a new corona virus. Since then, there have been hundreds of thousands of reported cases worldwide and Covid-19 continues to present health experts with a fast moving situation. As the pandemic builds, the advice continues to change.

Uncertain: The next phases of the outbreak are uncertain. How bad the epidemic will get is unclear. The void of information has led to global trauma, which is evidenced by panic buying of items such as toilet roll, pasta and hand sanitiser.

Complex: Due to the global spread, there are so many interconnected factors which make it difficult to fully analyse the widespread impact of Covid-19 on various sections of society. The variables cannot be understood from the perspective of a single discipline and therefore requires collaboration across industries and sectors. Schools and workplace closures, ensuring the ongoing provision of healthcare and childcare, and the availability of public services all impact on our ability to control the spread of the virus.

Ambiguous: Covid-19 is exceptional and unprecedented. The last epidemic that came close to the scale of what we are experiencing is the SARS outbreak in 2003. There were 8,098 reported cases and it lasted for nine months. Covid-19 has already infected more than ten times that number and it is spreading day-by-day.

How can we add value as HR Professionals?

Work with the organisation’s leadership on communication: Uncertainty about the extent of the pandemic and its impact on us produces anxiety and causes people to jump to conclusions. We often see that play out with change programmes in our organisations. We can work with our respective leadership teams to ensure regular, clear and timely communication is disseminated about what the organisation is doing to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on working practices and enabling safe working environments.

Review and update relevant existing policies to address absence due to sickness, caring for relatives and dependants, and the procedures for reporting these back to the workplace.

Business as Usual: BAU has to take a back seat to crisis activities for a defined period of time. Some BAU becomes even more crucial, such as paying colleagues correctly and making people available who can respond to pay related queries to reduce stress at this critical time.

Redistribute work where possible: Instigate conversations with leaders about the temporary redeployment and reskilling of employees. The advice at the time of writing, is for people to stop all non-essential contact with others, and avoid all non-essential travel. For those people who can carry out their role from home, they are being asked to work from home. It is highly likely we will get to a point where entire workplaces will be closed. We need to be flexible and creative about how work is distributed across teams in our organisations and maximise capacity. This is not just for business reasons but to minimise the adverse effect of staying away from the workplace on employees’ wellbeing.

Remote working: There are lots of challenges and nuances involved here, which we as HR professionals appreciate and can work with leaders as they navigate them to ensure the workforce remains engaged, motivated and healthy during this period. We cannot simply focus on getting our people set up to work from home with the necessary equipment without appreciating how the lack of ongoing social interaction can lead quickly to a sense of isolation. Uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic and how long social distancing measures will be in place adds to the stress. We can mitigate this by producing clear and appropriate guidance about self-isolation and remote working and strengthen managers’ capability to manage remote teams.

Depending on the structure within different organisations, some of these initiatives will touch upon aspects of other colleagues’ roles and so we can work collaboratively with others to cover more ground and enable different perspectives for creating sustainable interventions. For instance, we can work collaboratively with others to train people up quickly and reskill them to perform business critical functions and also develop guidance on managing general wellbeing while working remotely.

There is a wealth of knowledge and skills within our networks that can be of great benefit. In addition to other HR professionals, we can leverage other expertise within our networks, such as behavioural scientists and risks/disaster management experts to understand the potential impact of the pandemic on behaviours and on our short to long term operations.

As the situation continues to develop, we must adapt and respond quickly. The situation with Covid-19 is unprecedented and, there is consequently, no blueprint for devising solutions. Solutions are, by nature, context dependent and this situation will require us to stretch ourselves and get comfortable with ambiguity to develop a best fit approach for our individual organisations. We need to think creatively to define solutions as we work with our leadership teams through this period. There is a real opportunity to think beyond the usual parameters and develop new ways of thinking and working, HR can drive that conversation.