Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
April 3, 2020

HR’s Leadership Moment: Four Observations on the Response to the COVID-19 Crisis

The events of the first quarter of 2020 will go down in history as among the most difficult periods for countries and businesses around the world. As we all know, society has faced economic and health scares in the past, but certainly not in the recent past has there been one as rapid, as global and as devastating in its impact as the current crisis.  

Many lessons will be learned, and we as both a society and business community will heal — eventually. In the coming months, a better picture of the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will emerge. But, amid the challenges individuals and organizations face today, it is valuable to step back, go to higher ground in this moment and reflect on some of positive aspects of this crisis that might be playing out in the haziness of the situation.

It has been evident to me and my colleagues across the firm that this is an exceptional moment for HR leaders: exceptional in the challenges it presents, in its complexity, in its ambiguity and its opportunity. Since this crisis began, my colleagues and I have talked to more than 300 senior HR leaders about how they are dealing with the effects of the crisis and what they are learning. Here are four early observations about some potential positive outcomes from their collective responses to the crisis.

1. Need-based collaboration
One doesn’t have to look far to see the incredible connectivity that people have quickly established with their peer groups to discuss best practices, get advice, leverage tools and move fast. Collaboration has been a consistent theme in leadership circles, but something about this current situation has exponentially accelerated the interest in it. I am seeing alumni communities from companies like GE, Pepsi and several others quickly reconnect for the purpose of problem-solving. These relationships can transcend time and distance and have proved to be vital for peer-to-peer learning — and coping. Small, local city groups are forming while other large professional associations such as SHRM, HR Policy Association, G100 and World 50 have also provided rapid access to collaborative networks. Hopefully these networks will continue to explore what worked and what didn’t during the crisis to ensure that the learning and advancement of the function extend beyond this single event.

2. Renewed compassion and empathy
Most of the HR leaders I’ve encountered, by the nature of their career choice, have above-average compassion and empathy. As the world moves faster and the role demands greater strategic and business focus, one consequence, say many CHROs, has been the loss of a certain amount of compassion and empathy. The current crisis, however, has forced, enabled and challenged HR leaders to focus on the health and wellness of employees and their families first. Bill Conaty, former CHRO of GE, used to stress that the best HR leaders are skillfully able to balance being a people advocate and a business partner at the same time. We are seeing this skill set on display at a very high level across the country and the world. The simple fact that almost every conversation, whether with a stranger or a friend, now begins with the questions, “How are you doing?” and “How is your family?” injects a positive and empathetic dimension back into our daily dialogue. This, too, we hope will continue long after the crisis.  

3. Rapid, agile innovation and process deployment 
The speed with which this crisis hit, along with its magnitude, has challenged even the most prepared companies’ crisis response teams. Nearly every HR leader has found a way in fewer than 30 days to redeploy all of or a large portion of the workforce to operate from home. Before the crisis, the idea of moving to a 100 percent home office model would have required a task force to study the pros and cons and recommend a decision only after several months of study and consideration. Many HR leaders, in conjunction with their C-suite peers, pulled this off in less than two weeks. 

Similarly, the traditional “employee handbook and policy manual” has been thrown out in many cases, and HR leaders have embraced agile processes to move very quickly on any number of other human capital fronts. Decisive leadership, often aided by investments in digital infrastructure, has allowed HR leaders to move boldly to redefine work rules and roles and accelerate communications across remote workforces almost daily. While most HR leaders were never formally trained in processes such as lean, agile or design thinking, many have been relying on techniques such as rapid prototyping of solutions as they respond to the crisis. This lesson in speed and creative problem-solving should become part of the future playbook. If it does, HR will continue to help transform companies much faster. 

4. Future-of-work scenario planning
The COVID-19 crisis is already having a devastating effect on employment, at least in the short term. The U.S. Labor Department reported that a record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in one week in late March. The previous high was 695,000 in October of 1982.

Reductions in force are perhaps the most difficult activity that HR leaders engage in and, fortunately, something that hasn’t had to be done in large numbers since the financial crisis. This exercise, while deeply challenging, provides a critical opportunity for every company. The re-examination of the workforce offers an opportunity to (re)define the key skills and roles that are essential to the future and develop clarity about who are the critical workers within the enterprise. Workforce planning is something that has been around HR for years, but this muscle will be developed significantly over the coming months.

A positive and noticeable difference thus far in this cycle, are the collaborative efforts we are seeing by HR leaders to find creative solutions to finding employment opportunities for workers. For example, we’ve seen examples of companies that have had to already lay off workers connect with and redeploy portions of their workforces to companies that are still hiring aggressively during the crisis. As the economic impact of the crisis unfolds, we hope such creative approaches to workforce planning and redeployment can help the economy avoid deeper recessions both now and in the future. 

This crisis will undoubtedly have long-term impacts on how work will be done in the future. How will the advent of social distancing play out? Will any remaining stigma of remote work be lessened? Will the steady migration to urban centers be re-evaluated? What about our social norms like shaking hands, pats on the back and high fives? Then there is the mental health aspect of pandemics. Much to consider in our post-COVID-19 future of work.


In summary, human resources leaders are being tested as never before in this crisis. Now more than ever, courage is an essential competency for CHROs to possess and instill in their teams as they strategically advise operating leaders on incredibly complex decisions. It is truly their moment to shine, as they are providing an invaluable service to their companies and communities in this difficult time. While it is too soon to know what the long-term implications of this period will be, the compassion, creativity and agility with which HR leaders are responding is inspiring and no doubt will continue when the crisis finally abates. Balancing the needs of all stakeholders in the complex equation is not easy, but definitely will have lasting impact for years to come.

On behalf of the entire Spencer Stuart HR Practice, we continue to offer our support, encouragement and appreciation for their incredibly difficult and important role.