When news first broke of the pandemic in early 2020 and the world first caught a glimpse of how much was about to change, many industries — and the leaders behind them — found themselves in a state of shock. Entire supply chains and hierarchies were paralyzed, and for many organizations, it fell to HR to quickly grease the cogs and set the wheels back in motion. In this way, HR leaders represented a veritable frontline in the early stages of the pandemic as they rushed to coordinate with management about how to best take of organizations’ most important asset: people.
HR is a people engine. And that engine went into overdrive over the past two years, piecing together the first response and seeing it through to recovery and beyond. Stanton Chase recently surveyed HR leaders in the life sciences and healthcare industry from around the world about their experiences, for better or for worse, since early 2020. They shared with us what lessons they’ve taken from the crisis and the stories of how they and their organizations coped. Despite being from varied companies, and countries, our respondents echoed similar sentiments, showing several trends: the rise of empathetic leadership, the increased role of HR, and new ways of communication that have since become indispensable.
The pandemic brought more attention to the life sciences and healthcare industry than arguably any time in history, as people around the world anxiously followed the developing news about national responses, treatments, and ways of preventing the spread of Covid-19. It all happened so quickly, many of the respondents marveled, leaving many in a state of denial. Because the crisis was so unprecedented, even when the first indicators came out it was not very clear that everyone was in this for the long haul.
“We were looking for answers to questions no one had faced before – there was simply no reference,” said one respondent. It was easy to underestimate the extent to which the day-to-day runnings of business were affected — nobody had seen anything like this before. HR leaders had to think fast and act even faster, and it was their instincts on the ground that held their companies together.
“We were looking for answers to questions no one had faced before – there was simply no reference,” said one respondent.
“The first thoughts were that nothing would ever be the same again,” shared another HR leader. “We used expressions like ‘the new normal’ and ‘unprecedented,’ and it was clear that we would have to adapt.”
When the news broke, which was a slightly different timeline depending on where in the world they were located, the first thing HR leaders did was meet with senior management. Very quickly it became clear that HR was shifting into a new, ever more crucial role: that of “first responders” at the company level. Most of our respondents were ushered into emergency meetings with senior management to decide on a course of action, ranging from cutting costs to sending employees to a remote office to ramping up production of urgently needed medical equipment.
“HR became the voice of reason between the employees and the leadership management,” one respondent told us.
“Companies realized how HR can be a pivotal function – managers can lean on them and offer an important support role in many ways,” said another.
The priority, however, for HR leaders was taking care of employees. In those meetings with management, it was HR that spoke up for the workers and the issues of how best to care for a workforce that was now being sent home in many cases — to work remotely in most, and a few were laid off or furloughed.
One HR leader said that in those first crucial meetings, “we developed several disaster management programs, and within 48 hours 90% of our workforce had gone virtual.” And that focus stayed on employees: “For two years into the pandemic, we did not fire anyone as a policy. Annual performance appraisals went on the back foot. We were sensitive giving feedback to employees.”
One HR leader said that in those first crucial meetings, “we developed several disaster management programs, and within 48 hours 90% of our workforce had gone virtual.”
HR leaders had to think on their feet and figure out ways to upskill their employees in order to meet the challenges and demands wrought by the crisis. For many during the pandemic, this meant looking for ways to stay connected with employees and to keep morale high. One way of doing this, one revealed, is that “we encouraged snowball leadership so that the team members took turns in leading consecutive calls. This way the introduction and enhancement of tools and skills for remote working were introduced. We also carried out many remote coaching sessions.”
There was a quick shift to online training and support for employees, especially when it came to onboarding new people. Now more than ever, it was HR’s job to make sure that new employees felt welcomed into the company culture and that they can happily find their place within the organization.
Another respondent said, “We rolled out more coaching interactions to support our already efficient onboarding plans, but as it was evident that the newcomers needed support, we provided additional team coaching. Any transformation should be supported with considerable investments in training people for what is about to come.”
Even though the pandemic and its repercussions were so unprecedented, HR leaders went out of their way to ensure the safety and well-being of employees. They realized that this was an uncertain, terrifying time — and that a safe, empathetic workplace could make all the difference — and it did. For a majority of our respondents, this involved heightening the levels of communication and connectivity between leaders and employees – made all the more important by people working from home.
“We work with global teams, and hence respect for the individual’s time zone and maintaining work-life balance increased,” says a respondent.
They found ways to “be empathetic and understand about the staff’s and their families’ health and opened multiple communication channels to get feedback and do the best for our employees.”
Another leader said that being in the life sciences and healthcare industry gave their company a different experience than peers in other sectors. “We were much closer to the changes happening,” they said. “We got first information on the medicine and oxygen supplies. We arranged all the supplies for our employees beforehand.” Through his process, they “realized the importance of human interaction,” they added.
“Our sector is obviously more experienced in knowing how long a drug can take to reach the market, and this helped with the understanding that this would be a time-consuming process,” one respondent wrote. “Pfizer and Biontech worked at lightning speed, but it still took about a year. We saw some industries being hit hard in the first phase (hospitality, travel, airlines, etc.) and I’m proud to say that we didn’t let go of anyone.”
Nearly every respondent mentioned the importance of empathy in their company’s initial response. Communication and connectivity were now more important than ever, as leaders had to communicate urgently with senior management and employees and connect with their local governments and health authorities to find out the latest rules on lockdowns and safety precautions.
A number of our respondents hailed from the medical devices subsector of the life sciences and healthcare industry. For them, there had never been more pressure: the world’s eyes were upon them as they raced to meet demand. One respondent said their company had to increase weekly orders to 10 times: “Staffing was the key focus, and other local manufacturers and engineering companies were able to support [us] such as automotive and aerospace factory operatives.” They added that their employees went above and beyond in response to the gravity of the situation. “The team did not want to be off work and instead wanted to courageously front-up the challenges in the business and they just got on with it,” they said.
“My company was able to pull together and manufacture and supply tens of thousands of ventilators in six months, saving hundreds of thousands of lives,” another respondent told us. “This involved a strong team effort from manufacturing, marketing, field service, and HR. This was a huge human effort and was achieved through the goodwill of their employees – often having 17-hour days to get the job done!”
For many, it was a breakthrough time in terms of the business world realizing just how important HR is. “Companies realized how HR can be a pivotal function,” a respondent said. “Managers can lean on them and offer an important support role in many ways.”
Plans and projects that were already in the pipeline were fast-tracked, often feeling like a shot in the dark. “We were working closely with the team as there were no guidelines for dealing with such a situation,” said another leader. “We carried out a massive digital acceleration. It would normally have been a five-year project, but we achieved this in a very short time, and this was a great opportunity.” They added that their firm turned to training to push internal resources further and accelerate them.
Once the vaccine against Covid-19 became more widely available and businesses passed through their immediate recovery phase, HR leaders – like many other of their peers – took stock of what transpired throughout the crisis and what lessons could be perhaps gleaned from the past two years. While it became clear quite early on in the pandemic for many that there’d be no eventual return to ‘normal,’ the crisis went on to spur and accelerate new ways of working that ultimately proved both efficient and employee-friendly.
“At the time, it was horrendous and unknown, but it was also a test of resilience,” said one respondent. “It helped humanize the workplace.” “People are savvier. It has made everyone have a high tolerance for pressure and ambiguity,” they added.
Many of the HR leaders who took part in our survey echoed the sentiment that many positives were coming out of the crisis, such as new leaders coming into the spotlight and having the chance to truly shine.
“It has become clear who is a leader or has become a leader throughout and since the pandemic,” said another respondent.
“Empathy and compassion will be the key skills to look for in a leader in the near future,” said one HR leader. “We already had a business continuity plan in place, but the pandemic made us humanize the procedure and make it more people-centric.”
He added that his company saw positive takeaways from the pandemic. “The instrumental part was how business leaders across industries came together with the government to fight the pandemic and made a significant difference that goes to show the power of what we can achieve in India and turn things around in a very short period of time,” they said. “We can achieve a lot when we work together, not only within our organization but across the globe.”
“The biggest lesson was about humans’ indomitable spirit and the will to find a way in any crisis,” confirmed another.
“The biggest lesson was about humans’ indomitable spirit and the will to find a way in any crisis,” confirmed another.
One respondent said that it would have helped if they could have known at the start how long they’d be in crisis. “I mostly struggled with “is it going to end or how fast will we find a cure,” they said. “I understand that people sometimes lost hope, struggled, became impatient. We saw a lot of divorces. Knowing that in two years this would go [away] would have helped in handling it.”
When asked in what ways they are better prepared should such a crisis ever be repeated, many cited the improved lines of communication that now exist between senior management, HR, and employees. For one leader, this includes some specific steps that their company is now ready to take. “For the recruitment of blue-collar workers, keep shortlisted candidates ready. Save time on sourcing,” they said. “Reduce the time required for recruitment by proactive actions. Every Saturday and Sunday we go on collecting resumes and taking interviews. [We are also now] better equipped to provide medical support to our employees.”
The pandemic also forced leaders to reprioritize, leaving firms in a much better standing now that the crisis has passed – including the need for a higher level of flexibility on the part of HR.
“HR leaders were also a strategic partner to business, and this has become more prominent,” writes a respondent. “As a function, HR will need to adapt to what your business and people need. HR playing a balancing act between business and the safety of their people will be more important. HR has evolved to be more collaborative, which will be the case going forward.”
The lessons that HR leaders learned from the Covid-19 pandemic will be taken forward for years to come in a new, streamlined landscape necessitated by crisis and yet, ultimately, created and sustained by people. For those in HR, it’s people that matter most, and HR has come out of the crisis stronger, more resilient, more involved, and more in tune with employees’ needs and best interests.