What is the role HR leaders must play in ensuring business continuity in the face of Covid-19?

Paul Groarke our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 24 April 2020

How are financial services companies responding to the challenges and what will the future hold in the new economic environment? What is the role HR leaders must play in ensuring business continuity in the face of Covid-19?

These are unprecedented times, and the situation continues to change and evolve by the day at the time of writing. Human Resources leaders, like other members of the C-suite, are being challenged in a period of extended disruption few could have predicted or planned for. We at Hanover have been keeping in close contact with our clients in Ireland, the UK, the US and in Asia – typically international financial services and professional services firms – and there are some shared behaviours and actions from the HR leadership community which have set certain businesses apart. The challenges to business continuity are multi-faceted, but recurring themes include mental health, new risks and effective productivity.

Certain learnings can be taken from shared client experience in Asia, which has been dealing with the complex  issues relating to Covid-19 for a more protracted period of time. Mental health is a critical issue, and HR leaders are at the forefront of maintaining health in the workplace. Employees are facing a barrage of changes: from isolation to abnormal working conditions, ranging from balancing professional demands with caring for children. Teams may be challenged by evolving client requirements in market conditions which are tough and getting tougher; technology at home may be less sophisticated and slower; there is also the challenge of work and home life blurring, with an inability to switch off at the end of the working day.  

To address these business continuity issues, HR leaders must first drive a culture of better communication. Corporate communication needs to increase in frequency and quality, to balance the requirements of the business with building morale and setting expectations. Schedule regular virtual check-ins and ensure that other leaders are doing the same.  As we all adjust to meetings via Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and Microsoft Teams, HR can lead the improvement in how creatively and efficiently those meetings are run. Ensure that boundaries between home life and work life are respected. Encourage staff to take exercise or to meditate. Support team members who are struggling with an extended period of change and are discovering that they may not have the skills to adapt quickly, perhaps in areas like networking and creating routines that drive efficient productivity.

Mind your own mental health. Many HR leaders within the IFSC will know their industry peers – every organisation is facing the same challenges, so reach out to colleagues in different businesses to share best practice and support each other.

As part of the C-suite, HR leaders must get to grips with the new risk environment. Some threats have been exacerbated, and some are simply new. Some business controls may not be well equipped to handle risks presented by working outside of an office environment; customer demand and financial markets may be unpredictable; there may also be concerns about speed of response if something does go wrong. Keep close track of employees’ capacity, as well as any reliance on third parties. Remind staff that the same high levels of professionalism and compliance are required wherever they are working; ensure they raise issues and concerns in good time.

While in the current environment HR leaders may feel that they are trying to catch numerous falling knives, organisations which move most quickly to plan and prepare for the post-crisis environment will steal competitive advantage. The requirement for transformation and innovation in many sectors of international financial services was apparent before the crisis struck. How will the sector respond to this extraordinary period of disruption, at a time when consumers and clients have come to expect financial institutions to support their requirements in more innovative, responsive and digital ways? It is difficult to imagine that the crisis will not impact on how people work in the future – while unexpected and unwanted, it will nevertheless be a real test of the effectiveness of working from home. How will AI, data, technology and human resources evolve and adapt to deliver new products and services?

Some organisations will use the crisis as a reason (or excuse) to downsize and save costs – and some may find the reputational stain of cutting too deep and too quickly difficult to shake off. Others will look more creatively at new business models which may change them forever, and which will change future HR challenges and priorities, to include deployment of resources. Some of the same questions were raised after the 9/11 attacks, in particular whether a physical financial services cluster had a future. While that discussion didn’t gain much traction, technology to facilitate different ways of working has improved so much in the past two decades that the post-Covid 19 impact on financial services may be transformational. HR has to be at the forefront of shaping and driving the response, in order to be able to ensure business continuity in the face of future unknown crises.

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