In the face of some two years of living under the shadow of the pandemic, today’s organizations are increasingly subject to significant change and adaptation when it comes to people development.
In many cases, this has altered the way organizations are led and managed and HR and learning and development (L&D) have changed in response too.
This article sets out five key areas related to how people are managed and developed: it contends that we need to maintain momentum in these areas in order to meet new priorities to tackle the changed world today.
What was first prompted by the pandemic should continue to address major business people issues ‘on the ground’ and is key to tackling today’s people challenges.
The shape of organizations of the future
The pandemic has shown that successful future-focused organizations are responsive and adaptive to change. They must be willing to introduce new ideas which will help strengthen their future sustainability. This means:
- Leaders who listen
- Work from anywhere
- Paying proper attention to employee health and wellbeing
- Becoming a fast learning and adaptive organization
- Talent development for real
Agenda to tackle future-focused challenges
1. Leaders who listen
The pandemic has helped leaders to see the value of sharing decisions and problem solving within their teams as they transparently acknowledge and act on gaps in their own knowledge and understanding.
In response to new demands, this approach has become more widespread, one where managers are supportive of employees to tap into their ideas, and promote development instead of tending towards a one-way direction. Showing such listening leadership at every level acknowledges employees want to have their say to get behind change, based on a style of shared or distributed leadership that connects well with employees.
The newly appointed operations director at a profit starved retail group wanted to get to the heart of the issues affecting each store. With no HQ entourage, he came alone by public transport to each local shop and went straight to the shop floor to ask what people felt first-hand. Because of the pressures of the pandemic, many leaders have got closer to their employees as leaders adopt a hands-on urgency which is ready to be in the thick of practicalities.
This has often led to more transparent and better communications. HR and L&D have also followed suit: A recent survey of more than 1500 HR leaders in the UK, US, Canada and Australia identified a new accessible and business-focused face of HR that has arisen through tackling pandemic issues such as remote working and disruptive business changes.
To continue encouraging listening leadership, L&D and HR need to be active and supportive by regular feedback and coaching in helping everyone to work confidently in this new environment.
2. Work from anywhere
From its start as a temporary fix during the pandemic, working from home and hybrid working is becoming embedded into working life.
Despite such dangers as fostering a twin-track workforce, it offers opportunities of valuing a wider range of employees, such as lower-paid employees who are nevertheless critical to business continuity, and keeping older workers in employment; in all, it offers valuable flexibility to use skills and business knowledge and address labor shortages.
However, its adoption poses a range of problems that need to be worked through, such as:
- New ways to maintain contact and communication
- Building a coherent culture and identity
- Use of technology to support teamwork
- Re-evaluating the role of manager as support and co-ordinator
- A level playing field for development and promotion
L&D and HR can play a key role in helping working teams build their capability and hold communication sessions to identify and fix solutions that will fit a work team’s particular issues.
3. Paying proper attention to employee health and wellbeing
The pandemic has had a major impact on raising the subject of employee wellbeing, which had been largely behind-the-scenes, little mentioned, but it has been brought to the surface by employees experiencing long periods of isolation with no work-based social support and communication.
The pandemic has shown that running a vibrant organization relies on a healthy, supportive culture where good communication helps to spot problem situations and people feel free to speak up.
Therefore, we see an essential ingredient of a future business is protecting the emotional and psychological wellbeing and resilience of employees, most visible in the increased risks of psychological distress of frontline staff but throughout the organization.
Also required are building systems and networks which will support individual and team resilience, which will form an important ingredient of support for employee wellbeing. Strengthening organizational and professional support, including training for staff and managers, plus building a nurturing organizational culture is needed and this has been one of the most important organizational lessons taken from the fight against the pandemic.
In the past, there has been little effective priority on wellbeing, so I suggest the development of performance management systems that introduce a stronger emphasis on wellbeing, a healthier and more inclusive culture, and lower sickness absence.
HR and L&D (learning and development) are well-placed to raise issues connected with employee wellbeing and propose workable solutions. They can act as catalysts to identify the most important issues and to work at the team level to discuss and resolve local as well as organizational issues.
4. Becoming a fast learning and adaptive organization
The pandemic has put pressure to rethink the speed needed to adapt and change. L&D moved out of necessity with remarkable speed to transform face-to-face into online learning. In the same way, this will mean adopting and changing practices, letting go of some cherished areas-and those that haven’t revised their ideas will be at a disadvantage.
Today’s management lesson on learning might be ‘unlearning’, to avoid clinging to old ideas that used to work well; be skilled at picking up warning signals and test out new solutions, discarding old ones.
The pandemic has undermined some well-honed assumptions and forced a rethink: for example, in the supply chain that success comes through efficiency via long-term stable integrated relationships with a few, big reliable partners. HR can be a facilitator in introducing new ideas. From an L&D perspective, managers need coaching and support to successfully achieve such cultural and behavioral steps as:
- Setting and defining new performance goals
- Shaping activities through mutually agreed learning
- Reflecting on experiences and translating them into workable actions
- Encouraging new and different ways of behavior and performance
- Creation of a climate where risks and mistakes are treated as a means to learn.
A number of organizations have adopted the proprietary agile set of principles since many of its themes chime with new realities of rapid learning.
5. Talent development for real
Right now, some organizations are experiencing the negative effects of weak talent development: difficulty recruiting vital roles from within the organization and this is reportedly a big problem in some sectors just now, as the economy starts to pick up and change.
A revealing survey of 6,000 people by the recruitment firm Randstad found that nearly a quarter of UK workers are taking active steps in the next few months to join the ‘Great Resignation’ and move organizations. This has many causes, but a weak talent development framework is bound to make it easier to cut ties with an existing organization.
Side by side with learning, there should be a thriving talent development process that feeds people to take on new roles. Some organizations have benefited from bringing in a new broom from outside the organization who will promote fresh ideas in new ways, but it can be risky introducing unknown people into a new culture. More have benefited from thorough and consistent ‘grow-your-own’ talent development.
HR and L&D professionals should be prepared to take an active role in their organizations in facilitating discussions on a stronger talent management strategy that will meet today’s pressing issues and then be active in putting it into practice ready for tomorrow’s needs.
This article has set out an HR and L&D agenda spurred on by the pandemic for implementing and sustaining key people factors which are fundamentally affecting today’s significant changes.
HR and L&D must step up to play a lead role as catalysts for making this happen. Against each of the five themes highlighted in this article, I suggest using the following checklist as a starting point to discuss each of the issues arising out of the pandemic.
Use it as a means to get teams and key groups involved in making decisions on priorities and actions:
- How strong is our current approach to focusing on people in the five areas mentioned?
- What HR and L&D processes methods are we using? Are they relevant to today’s issues?
- What are the top priorities for HR and L&D to support these areas?