Coronavirus Forces Continued Decisive Action
Economic shock waves from coronavirus (COVID-19) have significantly challenged
business continuity. Whilst business planning can always experience surprises in any single year, no one expected an event that had the potential to simultaneously impact multiple corporate business functions worldwide.
Business continuity impacts are not new but typically are localised to certain geographic areas, specific verticals or even functional areas like finance. Examples: Asian Financial Crisis (1997); 9/11 (2001); SARS (2003); Tsunami (2004); Global Financial Crisis (2008); H1N1 (Swine Flu 2009); Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami (2011); as well as many other disruptions from geopolitical events, earthquakes and increasingly extreme weather conditions.
Coronavirus hit hard and fast with transportation, border crossings, and quarantine rules still being increasingly susceptible to short term change. With staff initially scattered, not to mention disruption at home due to schools being out, this is a very different type of crisis playing out today and one that requires decisive leadership.
Corporates quickly rolled out formal or informal business continuity plans and this saw a variety of approaches being put into operation that included some closed office locations, different forms of rostering, and all being further fine-tuned on-the-fly as the virus continues to spread globally.
Strong leadership during uncertain times differentiates corporates and protects brand reputation with management having an immediate responsibility of duty of care to staff for their health and safety, as well as to customers and suppliers etc, and all of this against a backdrop of having to maintain fiduciary duty to stakeholders, a role that includes ensuring data integrity if remote workers access corporate systems from home.
HR’s role is to proactively support transitional changes as staff work from home by executing practical policies with guidelines, including what is to be expected from them. Tricky issues will continue to emerge like the handling of any employee who becomes infected with the virus or staff going privately to a virus hotspot, as this requires working through fuzzy lines regarding notification to others from a privacy perspective not to mention various specific country differences on how to legally handle ongoing payroll calculations.
Working from home for most, at least at the beginning, meant remotely accessing work systems for video calls, emails, as well as other corporate messaging systems to receive instructions issued by leadership as well as ongoing assessments from all as to what extent work duties could be performed remotely, if at all.
For many HR related operational functions, the reality is today that there are no technical reasons as to why remote working is not possible, but there are practical considerations to take into account like having appropriate software licensing in place to achieve this and ensuring that processes have in fact been securely enabled for remote workers, including data loss functionality considerations for cybersecurity purposes.
Agile systems proactively support change for ongoing business continuity. Examples include various future planning scenarios, new roster types, or special leave types. Any new policies can be tagged for follow up to ensure that they have been implemented correctly during times of turmoil. As changes are executed within the system, compliance checks are maintained against regulatory rules and underlying data logs are captured for later reference.
Ongoing digital transformation enables many operational gaps to be solved noting that HR systems in general have lagged other areas of software deployment, meaning that corporates can be at different stages of their ESS roll outs. Typical areas tackled include: Expense Management; Appraisals; Procurement (core and sundry purchasing); Time & Attendance across varying locations; Timesheets for billing including those used across multiple projects; Learning & Development, all which continue to be rolled out for in-office and remote use together with their appropriate approval flows.
Processes can also be extended to other countries to ensure consistent end to end operation as well as controls for compliance. This opens other angles for the ongoing leverage of senior management now or in the future through the leveraging of senior HR staff to subsidiaries by involving them in various non personally identifiable information (PII) related processes with examples like aged approved but unfilled hires, attrition by department, gender pay ratio groupings, processes for complaint handling etc.
Efficient systems are critical to free valuable time for crisis management. Examples: revising budgets & forecasts; different rosters to segregate staff for ongoing business continuity; agile operation of single or multi-level approval flows due to absenteeism; revised rules for sick leave including maximum days allowable with pay, and whether to actually require medical certificates so as to further reduce risks by avoiding their possible exposure to the virus at a medical centre; establishing rules for unpaid / paid leave; and one off issues like the handling of employees who cannot travel back to continue their employment due to both foreseeable and unforeseeable travel or quarantine restrictions.
API’s have become an important key enabler in this digital age and illustrate a key difference between simply on premise cf digital enabled systems. Examples: integrated end to end recruitment flows; ongoing training development processes with automated external or job progression based reference checks; leverage of Open Banking API’s for expense reimbursement; integration of regional payroll flows within the global treasury function; seamless processes for providing e-gift certificates at the intersection of where performance, recognition and compensation meet. Integration of HR with API’s for the internet of things (IoT) also opens more opportunities. Examples: hot desking including logical groupings for interns; ongoing multiyear initiatives for reduced power consumption as part of ESG reporting initiatives.
Remote access is one thing but management of productivity is yet another and expectations must be set. For some roles and functions moving from a work to a home based scenario would not have been an issue as critical “in process” productivity KPI’s are already in place and access to digital documents enabled if necessary. However this is certainly not the case for all office based roles where historically remote based access to systems was not deemed necessary or indeed practical.
Coronavirus have been thrust upon us all for a while now. It is time for us to review and revisit our HR policy including HR system and HR practices for the contingency plan, which we usually ignore under normal circumstance. For example, we should start planning for contingency situation during the process of HR system implementation. Moving forwards corporates will have to assess their HR priorities recognising that current HR softwares can be further leveraged and not necessarily replaced, such as thinking about whether HR system cloud or HR system with open source should be applied for the company. We are a lucky one since there are various choices of HR system in Hong Kong. We could consult with different HR system providers to know their HR system design and features before choosing the most suitable one. Reflecting on current process pains and solving them helps us to strengthen our problem-solving skills and makes us all better prepared for the foreseeable incidents whenever they arrive. Since there are increases in cross-broader interactions and travels, the virus is easier to spread around the world these days. We should prepare for the worst to ensure that business can go on as usual even facing these situations and minimize the risk. Time for HR to step up!
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Ashley Clarke, COO, FlexSystem Ltd