Reset and Thrive – How Can HR Help Businesses Prepare for an Uncertain Future?

Over the last few weeks I have been proud to be associated with the HR function. In all our interactions I have seen HR professionals step up to the plate and demonstrate why articles like Fortune’s rant in 2005 miss the point. Never has there been a greater need for HR’s skills in transforming the way we work. In a matter of days, we have shifted huge numbers of people to working from home, supported them and their managers in coping with the emotional pressure of dealing with a totally uncertain future and provided relevant online learning. But the time has come to shift our focus.

At the beginning of this crisis we highlighted the need to think of three phases we will go through:

  1. Survive – shift our ways of working to make sure our organisations survive in the short-term
  2. Reset – think about the longer-term implications and help our organisations prepare their strategic response
  3. Thrive – those organisations that navigate the first two phases will thrive when we come out the other side.

When we look back at the last recession in 2008/9 it was noticeable that some companies came out of it stronger than others. McKinsey identified how these stronger companies took the tough decisions to cut costs early, but they also shifted more quickly into the reset phase, focusing on new growth areas (even if it meant incurring costs) and engaging leaders at every level in thinking about the future. On average these companies outperformed the market by 40% (based on TSR).

Having stepped up to the operational needs of the survive phase, HR needs to take a lead from these companies and help their organisation think what reset means for them. For HRBPs this means reframing their role and shifting the time they spend focused operationally to spending more time thinking strategically.

There might not be the demand for this shift from line managers. They are often short-term operationally focused, especially under the pressure they are currently under, but we should never forget that HR’s accountability isn’t to line managers but to the sustainability of the organisation. We need to do what our organisation needs – not just what line managers want.

Equally we need to take the opportunities to shift the conversation as and when they arrive, not choosing the wrong moment – so being patient, preparing, then going for it when the door opens.  When the door opens, we need to be prepared to step through, know what to do when we do and then carpe diem (grab the moment). Preparation means doing our research – not just on HR but on our business and the external context. We must take time to give deep thought to the future, but not just from a workforce perspective. HR has always had a role to bring the outside in and we need to find the time to do that at the moment when our little inner voice is screaming ‘focus on the short term’, ‘help individuals’. At the same time, we need to be encouraging our leaders to think ‘outside in’ and ‘future back’ even though that future is totally uncertain.

This uncertainty means we need to shift from thinking about planning for a forecastable future to preparing for a future where the only outcome we won’t get is the one we predict. We need to have a framework to think about the future capabilities required to support a potentially new business model and exploit different business opportunities. It is not necessarily our role to populate the framework, but we should be driving the conversations and bringing together the right people to fill it. These people might not be the ‘usual suspects’ defined by seniority, but by their willingness and ability to engage with ambiguity and their role in the future.

Strategic planning traditionally has been about forecasting the future (often bringing in consultants to do this for us) and then planning our strategic response to this future. In this ambiguous world we cannot possibly predict the future, so we need to reframe the challenge from planning to preparing.  This means that when we apply our framework to thinking about the future we shouldn’t try and come up with the answer, but come up with multiple answers based on different future scenarios. In each case we can ask what we need to prepare to exploit each scenario so that when the future begins to become clearer, we know what do to. By using our own people to do this work, they have ownership and commitment to making it happen. By tapping into a truly diverse group of people we can challenge our current view of the world and avoid groupthink. Our role is to facilitate the right discussions amongst the right people.

In a world of preparing we don’t have to have the right answers, but we should be asking the right questions – being great coaches. Many of the HRBPs we talk to have been taking on this coaching role, helping their managers think through how to engage their teams remotely and continue to drive productivity. We need to shift the focus of our coaching from survive to reset, but also who we are coaching. We should be focusing on leaders, managers and people who will be the future of the business, not necessarily on the ones we’ve traditionally worked with or those whom we like and who are easy to work with. HR is tough, especially at the moment, but if we shift to reset and ask the right questions today we can play a major role in helping our businesses thrive in the future.


Upcoming Webinars

Let’s Get (Beyond) Physical: Crafting A Multidimensional Approach To Employee Wellbeing Wednesday 27th May 2020, 11.30am – 12.30pm

HRBP’S: Reset And Thrive – Helping Businesses Prepare For An Uncertain Future Wednesday 1st July 2020, 12.00 – 1.00pm

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