HR Priorities For Navigating The Second Wave Of COVID-19

HR Priorities For Navigating The Second Wave Of COVID-19

HR supported organisations through the 'new normal'. This year, it has the daunting task of dealing with the 'total abnormal'.

The year 2021 began with an optimistic hope for restoring normalcy all around after successfully living through the pandemic. It seemed that the worst was over. However, the impending second wave turned out to be far more dangerous and fatal compared to the previous one. Last year, HR supported organisations through the 'new normal'. This year, it has the daunting task of dealing with the 'total abnormal'.


The pandemic situation has taught us that we need to always be prepared for unprecedented and unforeseen circumstances. To navigate the extreme VUCA world, HRs must be at the forefront, anticipating challenges, alerting the management, chalking up solutions, and supporting employees and families in dealing with the consequences of the pandemic’s second wave.


1. WELLBEING – From ‘Physical & Mental Wellbeing to ‘Saving Lives’


Employee wellbeing has always remained a priority for organisations. In the last year, though, the meaning and approach have totally transformed. When there was a sudden and inevitable decision to opt for work from home (WFH), wellbeing had more to do with understanding stress levels due to WFH, finding ways and means to keep employees engaged, and managing the associated emotional and mental drain.


However, the problems encountered during the second wave of the pandemic were of incredible intensity, having to deal with a large proportion of the company’s own workforce and their families getting affected by COVID. This caused not only business contingencies but also extreme stress, depression, and fear. This time, wellbeing meant doing everything to save lives and diverting all resources towards employees and families affected by COVID.


Human Resources became a SPOC to help employees who required isolation centres, beds in hospital for routine and critical care, ambulances, plasma donors, oxygen concentrators, and now ensuring that all are vaccinated. Programs that helped employees in their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing are were also organised.


2. FLEXI TIMINGS – From a ‘Situational Solution’ to a ‘Permanent Possibility’


Sometimes, the best of solutions emerge from the worst of scenarios. The pandemic cannot be considered an ideal trigger to bring about lasting changes, yet some very positive outcomes were brought about in workplaces in the last year.


Studies have shown that remote working increases productivity, is flexible and more inclusive, and opens the doors of talent through a global workforce. Therefore, leveraging the advantages, organisations opted for Hybrid Workforce Models where some roles were declared to be permanently WFH or at least for a few months from now. Companies that never imagined that work could happen outside of offices seamlessly adapted to remote working – facilitated and supported by HR.


3. POLICIES – From ‘Mere Compliance’ to ‘Benevolent Compassion’


Organisations remain dynamic when policies are conducive and relevant to the current times. During the first wave of the pandemic, the initial few days were spent rewriting policies, processes and norms that enabled functioning in the virtual world.


However, this year, HR had to go back to the drawing board to find solutions to support families after the untimely demise of employees due to COVID-19. Continuing to pay a salary or providing possible employment to the family, taking care of children’s education, one-time support to meet immediate needs, and many such compassionate measures were taken up.


The compensation and benefits strategy was also revisited to balance employee wellbeing and how much an organisation can stretch in the given situation. Communication forums were designed carefully to be more agile while addressing the sensitivities at hand, and performance metrics were revised for effective outcomes.


4. LEARNING – From ‘Plain Learning’ to ‘Reskilling, Upskilling and New Skilling’


L&D is one area that seen a nearly revolutionary and 360-degree turnaround is L&D. Earlier CRTs (Classroom Trainings), OJTs (On-the-Job Trainings), and experiential learning were the most preferred means of L&D, which has now changed to online, virtual and e-learning.


Moreover, the skillsets and competencies required to improve the organisation’s effectiveness are changing at a faster pace than before. HR needs to create a culture where people are adept at reskilling, upskilling and new skilling, which will help organisations to be effective in the dynamic world.


Even on the softer and behavioural aspect, more work is required to understand the skill and competencies required to manage dispersed and hybrid teams, physical and psychological challenges, and issues related to a diverse and multi-generational workforce.


5. SAFE WORKPLACE – Not Only Physical Office Spaces but Also Remote Ones


Companies provide safe workplaces for employees. The efforts doubled up on all aspects of basic hygiene, which included sanitisation and disinfecting every nook and cranny with increased frequency. Furthermore, this year the definition of “safety” just got a little more elaborate.


Since organisations are gearing up for resuming operations from the office, the readiness of office space in all aspects would be prominent on the agenda.


HR is also working to ensure that all employees and their family members are vaccinated, which is one solution to keep the workplaces safe. Most companies are not only bearing the cost of vaccination but have also enabled workplace vaccination centres for priority and safe vaccination.


6. DIGITIZATION & TECHNOLOGY – For Actual Conversations, Not Only Automation


The digital ecosystem has provided multiple channels and sophisticated tools for speedy and precise process automation, data crunching, and analysis. However, sometimes it is not just about finding quick work solutions but having actual conversations that solved undefined problems.


Until now, accelerated adoption of technology was necessary to speed up doing things and to remain relevant. While that remains, the same technology was put to optimal use to improve human connections. This ranged from getting the pulse of the organisation to gauge the mood and connect one-on-one, address physical and emotional sensitivities, gather data for meaningful analytics, and bring distant teams closer to enhance collaboration.


7. LEADERSHIP – Inspiring Confidence, Apart From Driving Results


The beginning of the financial year is typically about performance dialogues, budgets, taking stock of how things were, and what to look forward to in the coming year. With everyone going through horrific experiences, everything else temporarily took a back seat. The need of the hour was for someone to step forward and instil confidence with full conviction.


HR worked with leaders to enhance the overall leadership in the organisation. People Managers connected with and motivated employees to stay strong, become each other’s support system and face the calamity together. Leaders attempted to address various concerns by ramping up communication and connect events. All this created positivity and resilience among employees, who were then ready to drive results.


Keeping the Agility Quotient High!


In this changed scenario, HR has taken on a sensitive, influential, and dynamic role. With things returning to normal, it would be good to reminisce the lessons learnt and move forward by anticipating change and remaining agile with solutions that are inclusive, wholesome, and diverse.




Sushma Bhalkikar is currently heading the HR function for GMR Varalakshmi Foundation (GMRVF), a CSR arm of the GMR Group of companies. She has been with GMR Group for over 13 years, having previously worked with Nagarjuna Fertilizers and Chemicals Limited. With more than two decades of multi-faceted experience, she has extensively worked in the areas of talent acquisition and management, compensation & benefits, L&D, policy formulation, etc.


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