HR and the democratisation of crisis management

As any HR professional will realise, the pandemic has triggered a number of organisational trends. 

One particular note has been the democratisation of the crisis management function.  Simply put, COVID-19 demonstrated that crisis management is no longer the remit of just a  select number of senior employees or subject matter experts. 

Instead, it is now a task dealt with horizontally across an organisation, an agnostic practice to serve for the good of all. 

Global crises impact organisations globally, so employees at all levels have had to roll up their sleeves in this respect. Necessity has meant they need to have a part in crisis management. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in HR teams. As HR professionals are now becoming more influential regarding the shape and execution of their company’s crisis management strategy and plans. 

Findings from International SOS’ APAC Trends Watch survey highlight this, as 79% of relevant experts predict that HR professionals will now have an essential role on crisis management teams, particularly as we work towards an endemic Covid-19 in Singapore. 

As business leaders and the authorities map out strategies to return to travel, facilitate a  larger proportion of employees in the office, and return to business as usual, crisis response scenarios need to ensure a level of agility and adaptability to survive and thrive. This requires establishing framework conditions conducive to the proper conduct of the practice.  As HR is regularly responsible for the skills and development of individuals within a  company, it can play a vital role in the acquisition and/or integration of these key elements into crisis management planning in the near future.

Why is this trend accelerating?

HR should always have been an integral part of crisis management. Very often the lack of  HR integration is due to either a poor structure by the design of the crisis team or to a silo approach that compartmentalises crisis management to a single entity. No matter what the scenario, crises are intrinsically linked to people, thus to HR. 

HR teams are gaining more responsibility for many different functions out of necessity. In contrast to many previous crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant cause of disruption for a long period of time – it’s a marathon not a sprint. 

It is this dynamic that’s causing more personnel, including HR professionals, to become involved with crisis management, as the impacts on employees are different to a “normal”  business crisis. 

Notably, the impact on mental health has been significant. Given mental health policies often fall into the domain of the HR function, it is understandable that HR professionals are now becoming more involved in crisis management and response, particularly as we move into the recovery phase of the crisis. 

But there has now been an increased level of positive integration of HR in supporting the staffing of crisis management teams in situations of exhaustion or burnout. 

HR, for example, played a decisive role in identifying replacements or in providing organisational support for staff engagement; valuable support to business leaders. 

How can HR teams respond to this new dynamic? 

With HR professionals now becoming more involved in crisis management, the need for agile responses before, during and after a crisis and then proactive planning for the recovery phase is more important than ever. 

In preparation for a crisis, HR teams should try, through regular simulation, scenario planning and benchmarking, to identify where they have gaps in knowledge and capabilities, and then proactively find partners who can provide specialist support in these areas. 

Looking at COVID-19 specifically, the need for medical knowledge is clear, and many HR  professionals have been looking for insight from experts and doctors into how to manage the situation and their duty of care responsibilities. 

“Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” President Eisenhower was right, and that is why it is key for crisis management teams to be able to train in immersive, dynamic scenarios to test their responses, processes and teamwork. 

Regular simulation and crisis planning sessions organised by HR, and to which HR will proactively participate (through their representative or as observers), can therefore be a  game-changer when making decisions in the pressure cooker environment of a crisis.

Recovery phase

With regards to the recovery phase of crisis management, HR professionals should work closely with their crisis management colleagues and/or key stakeholders that were involved to provide effective employee communications. 

Openness and transparency in this area are vital. Crisis management plans and strategies must be shared at different levels in order to foster a collective dynamic and proactive  (re)actions. 

Furthermore, clarity is key, as confusion is likely to cause further stress for employees.  Specifically, regarding COVID-19, employees are likely to be anxious about various issues. Fear over catching the virus, uncertainty about any planned return to the office as well as feeling under strain from the blurring of work and home lives due to work from home experiences. 

In this situation, the response of HR professionals in managing crisis recovery can be key. Not only can actions be taken to improve staff morale affected by the pandemic, but also processes can be improved to account for the changing working environment. 

It’s almost inevitable that the working environment that organisations and employees face post-pandemic is going to be different to the one that preceded it. 

However, while the challenges that the HR function faces might now differ, it’s clear that the crisis management lessons that should have been learnt during the pandemic (through an  After Action Review or a global Gap analysis) need to be remembered. 

By embracing the responsibilities of supporting and being a key part of the crisis management team, HR professionals remain at the heart of the battle and can ensure that their organisation’s recovery is an effective one, improving both business outcomes and the productivity and morale of their workforce.