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Crisis management insights from HR leaders

by Daniel Pirrone

Laptop on a desk with a cup of coffee and flowers

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way organisations manage and operate their workforces. HR leaders have been at the forefront of much of this change, including aligning crisis response teams, managing remote workforces, and employee mental health and wellbeing.   

Six Degrees Executive CEO Suzie McInerney facilitated a global discussion with senior HR executives, centred on holistic crisis response in large organisations. George Sutherland and Lisa McGill from Uniting Care Queensland talked through their experience in creating and managing a Crisis Management Team in the high-risk health service sector, while Carlo Iannone dialled in from New York to share with us his learnings having steered global organisations through the September 11 and Hurricane Sandy responses. 

Predicting the unforeseen 

Even in businesses with highly developed crisis response plans, few organisations prepare for scenarios lasting longer than a week or two. When the brunt of COVID-19 came to bear on the western world eight weeks ago, businesses were plunged into truly unprecedented circumstances.  

HR teams immediately looked to their crisis plans, and how they could best apply them to fit the circumstances. Key to this was the planning and modelling to inform the future state. Thankfully, tracking a number of weeks behind Asia, Europe and USA, Australia had data available to model best, moderate and worst-case scenarios, and organisations were able to generate contingency plans in their crisis management based on this.  

While Australia has exceeded expectations in its management of the spread of COVID-19, unfortunately the US has not been so lucky. Where organisations in the US have felt the brunt to a higher degree, it has proven critical to map and understand which functions are key, and who can drive these; which can be the difference between a business failing or emerging from the crisis. 

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The power of alignment 

With action plans underpinning organisational crisis response, naturally people across companies were eager to do their part in their business units. This enthusiasm can however serve as more of a hindrance than a help if not managed correctly.  

Lisa McGill talked through Uniting Care’s Crisis Management Team which was assembled in order to manage the various workstreams of the business and ensure that these responses were coordinated and aligned. This seconded team represented each of the major business operations and met three times a week. The outcomes of these agile meetings were then communicated organisation-wide the same day through a variety of mediums, with consistent messaging to allow clarity and transparency, as well as effective and decisive decision making to cascade out across the business.  

Critical to the success of crisis management is determining where to allow teams to make their own decisions and empowering them to do so. Providing the flexibility and freedom to operate as teams see fit (while remaining aligned to the wider business framework) allows for greater agility and engagement, driving improved outcomes during uneasy times. It’s also important to communicate where areas of the business have achieved highly, to both celebrate outcomes and people and broadcast improvements to the wider business, and build morale by sharing good news stories that can permeate across the organisation.  

Staff wellbeing 

In usual circumstances, HR’s key responsibility is to ensure the wellbeing of staff. During periods of crisis, this focus becomes even more critical, and the requirements of staff can be even more acute. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the most basic element is the Physiological, followed by Safety, Social, Esteem, and Self-Actualisation. The current crisis has and will continue to affect all these levels; so it’s key for HR staff is to ensure they provide support from the bottom up for their staff.  

Regular check-ins are required to determine the level of support needed, and how the organisation can meet this to allow staff to contribute effectively. However, this conversation doesn’t just happen on its own; it requires focused, concentrated effort to develop deeper connections.  

It’s worth noting that as people process stressful times, their responses will naturally vary across a broad spectrum of emotions. In order to manage this, it is key to be empathetic and understand this varies for different people. The capability of external providers (such as EAP, payroll, etc) in their own crisis response is also critical. As employees directly rely on these services during stressful times, their failure can undo any success that may have been achieved internally. 

If you or anyone you know needs help, contact Beyond Blue for mental health support.

HR in the post-COVID-19 world 

When and how the world emerges post-COVID-19, it is certain that the way organisations operate and manage their workforces has changed forever. HR professionals will be at the forefront of this change, and their knowledge and understanding will optimise this new working landscape.  

Remote working will continue to develop, spurred on by a greater focus on dispersed workforces; and with this greater focus we will no doubt see greater innovation. With distanced teams, new skillsets and capabilities will be required to work optimally, and how HR defines, assess, and develop these skillsets will be critical to wider business performance.  

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