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Management - 7 min read

How to Plan for the Unknown: What People Teams Need to Thrive After COVID-19

Maria Lamp
Content Strategist

This article is a follow-up to Now What? How To Prepare Your Team For the Post-COVID New Normal.

In different parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding at varying speeds and levels of intensity.

The words “unprecedented” and “crisis” are starting to lose their impact and meaning as news from all corners of the Earth floods our feeds and inboxes with the looming threat of the worst-ever recession.

Hundreds of millions of jobs have already been lost globally, with the International Labour Organization reporting that lockdown measures are affecting close to 2.7 billion workers—representing four-fifths of the world’s entire workforce.

Amid the disruption, burnout levels among employees are doubling, anxiety and fears of layoffs are rising, and employee productivity is, understandably, affected. HR and business leaders find themselves in the position of having to plan solutions to these and other problems while also being vulnerable to the same—dare I say it—unprecedented stresses.

In Estonia, home of continuous integration and delivery platform Nevercode, the nationwide state of emergency officially ended on May 18th, bringing the issue of reopening offices to light. Like many leaders today, Kätlin Lepp, Nevercode’s Chief People Officer, is focused on bringing people back to the office as safely as possible, to recreate some semblance of normalcy while adjusting to the new reality. “At Nevercode, we are quite used to remote work and flexibility in working remotely is appreciated and cultivated,“ she says. “It’s up to everyone personally if they decide to return to office life or if they feel safer at home.”

The challenges, however, extend beyond the physical safety of workers. HR and People leads know that even after offices open, their work towards rebuilding healthy environments will have just begun.

“People at Nevercode are scattered not only globally but also in Estonia,” Kätlin says. “Some people will come to the office, others will continue from home. How we keep up the communication and team spirit in these difficult times, that is something that needs extra effort these days.”

But with changes happening at different rates all over the globe, how do you make smart decisions? How do you plan if you don’t know what you’re planning for?

How to plan for the unknown future of people, teams, and People teams

If there’s a silver lining here for HR professionals, it’s that crises are famously conducive to innovation, and HR in the time of COVID-19 is no exception. London-based People and Talent Consultant Clare Mullen firmly believes that HR as a function will benefit from the shock to the system. “It forces HR traditionalists to think about leaner, more agile ways of operating,” she says. “It puts policies to the test and allows you to strip them back and take a more people-centric approach. The challenge for those who don't make changes to how they approach HR as a function will be huge. You will be left behind.”

To make sure you don’t get left behind, here are a few things to consider when planning your next steps.

Leave room for failure

The magnitude of the changes means that like everyone else, People teams all over the globe are navigating problems they have no experience with. This, in turn, means that companies need to be ready for some solutions to fail.

Because there are no blueprints or playbooks for what the world is facing, the pressure on people to find solutions has the potential to become overwhelming. “There has to be psychological safety for failure,” Clare says. “None of us are COVID experts.”

For business leaders, this means giving People teams the support they need to come up with creative solutions to unforeseen problems. Research has shown that a common element in the highest-performing teams is psychological safety, or the belief that people won’t be punished for mistakes. Psychological safety and positive emotions like trust and confidence make people more resilient and motivated. All of this contributes to better solution-finding, which means that cultivating a work environment based on trust and psychological safety is more important now than it has perhaps ever been.

Plan for as many scenarios as you can

The key to getting your post-COVID planning right, according to Clare Mullen, is to start planning now, and to plan for any and all what-ifs you can think of.

  • What if we have to start laying (more) people off?
  • What if the crisis lasts six more months? Another year?
  • What if employee morale drops?
  • What if we reopen the office and government restrictions tighten again?
  • What if remote work goes so well that we might consider staying remote for good?
  • What if…?

Making assumptions or predictions is very difficult—and practically pointless—right now, so keep your options open and be ready for anything you can possibly imagine the world might throw at you.

If, for example, you’ve managed to avoid layoffs so far, don’t assume that’ll be the case a month from now, should things take a turn for the worse. Similarly, if employee morale seems good now, don’t assume it’ll stay that way—time and circumstances take their toll on mental health and wellbeing.

Getting used to continuous change requires a substantial mindset shift, but it’s a vital part of adjusting to (work) life in the post-pandemic world.

Work cross-functionally

Even though People teams have a lot to figure out right now, the effect of COVID-19 on people is not an HR problem. No one person or team can be expected to have all the answers. “Get everyone across the business involved and build a COVID Committee,” Clare recommends. “Everything will be affected, from desks to visitors and everything in between. Wellbeing, both physical and psychological, must be your top priority but literally every aspect of work will be affected.”

At Nevercode, planning for a safe reopening was certainly a group effort. “Some people definitely prefer working at the office,” Kätlin says. “For that, we put our heads together and came up with a plan for how to stay safe.”

The importance of getting the entire organization involved lies in the age-old truism that diversity breeds innovation. A group that looks at a problem from multiple angles has the best chance of coming up with workable solutions for it.

Be honest and vulnerable with employees

In times of unusual flux, transparency is the best policy. “You are not a COVID expert and you need to learn as you go,” Clare reiterates. “Keep your employees informed as much as possible.”

Keeping teams in the dark is one of the worst things you can do right now. Uncertainty fuels anxiety (which is known to impact workplace performance, not to mention overall quality of life), and there’s plenty of both going around these days. Keep information flowing honestly and openly to build trust and put people at ease as much as possible given the circumstance.

If you can afford to keep hiring, do it

The hiring market is reeling, with many people having lost their jobs overnight. If you can avoid a hiring freeze, now is a good time to dip into an unusually lively talent market. But don’t get too comfortable. “People are in a desperate situation and they won't wait around for a role,” Clare Mullen warns. “People and Talent teams need to move quickly but still make value-based hires.”

To make the best possible hiring decisions right now, read all about How to Hire Remotely During COVID-19

Crowdsource your solutions

Finally, remember that there is a whole world of people out there tackling the same problems you are.

“This isn't the time for trying to win an award for Best People Team,” says Clare. “Share knowledge and resources with the community, ask for help and advice.”

Not only are people smarter together than they are as individuals, but now is also a critical moment in human history. Which means that if there ever was a time to share experiences and support each other—this is it.

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