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Human resource lessons from coronavirus pandemic

By Robert Owuor | June 5th 2020

Since the declaration of the first case of Covid-19 in March this year, businesses have generally been engaging in a gazing game on how to manage and to pull through.

At first, it seemed like a fatal short-term crisis that most businesses invested all their attention on how to navigate the supposedly 2 weeks, or at most 2 months of the crisis to be.

Initially, and going by the imported knowledge on the virus, employees got engaged in the theatrics of sanitisation that saw sanitisers vanish from shelves within a day sending panic, minimum touchpoints within the office, social distancing, and non-cash transactions.

Then different theories on the virus transmission began, the work from home, curfews, and cessations to the current suffocating masks that have become illegal not to ware.

What was even worse was the reality of death, going by videos shared of people falling dead on the streets, and the number of deaths reported, especially in Italy. Death being the ultimate fear of living beings, definitely swept everyone under their feet at the workplace.

This has caused panic and uncertainty never anticipated before, not even with the Business strategy spin-doctors, whom none has surfaced to offer the much needed coping mechanism. ‘Maybe everyone literary went home.

Being a crisis that directly touches on people, this has become a direct concern to the human resource management (HRM) function in any organisation. It is no doubt that people are the most valuable resources in an organisation, and that they determine the success of a business. Any matter that undermines productivity is a direct threat to companies.

With lessons learned, and we continue learning with the current crisis, organisations should invest seriously in staff wellbeing and productivity at the workplace. One of the Key Performance Indicator, (KPI), for HR managers, is the managing of HR Risks.

These risks range from; incapacitation of staff due to diseases, injuries, movement, to critical staff turnover. Staff incompetency due to technological advancement and leadership also poses threats to productivity. In particular, and related to the current situation, Employee welfare, health, and safety, has proven to be a major area of concern in managing HR risks.

One of the strategies that organisations should consider to tackle is to invest in Think Tanks committees within the management, and regularly do a SWOT analysis on Employee Welfare and Health and Safety functions of the organization. HR can also regularly run campaigns with the staff to get ideas on possible risks they encounter, looking at worst-case scenarios, and coming up with possible mitigation strategies if not elimination strategies of such risks.

From my non-professional observation and going by the experience of Covid-19, I can state that this virus, just like Flu, is going to be part and parcel in the list of possible diseases one can contract in our day-to-day life going forward.

This in a way brings out an interesting aspect on some of the risks that employees rub shoulders within the course of work, hoping not to occur, but remains a risk. It is like a version of the existing Flu that has gotten out of control. We do have other similar risks in our environment, with the possibility of directly affecting employees. Just like Covid-19 that had been glaring at us, the risks are well within our premises.

Just to mention examples of risks exposures for an organization to get a better perspective to my assertion, wish to give some examples below;

This is currently associated with terrorists, normally perceived to be existing in some other world away from our place of work. ‘Maybe the perpetrators are not human beings but some creature we cannot associate with our offices.’ What we forget is that some of the radicalized persons turned terrorists, are brilliant professionals that would otherwise make up for our best employees. ‘What if one of your employees was radicalized and manages to get to the office armed!!’ we don’t wish for this, but depending on its impact, this can be a major disruption that can bring a business to its knees.

Based on our Kenyan experience, we can rightfully confirm that it is an invisible being living amongst us. It seems to be a homely present. I may not have a definite definition/description of its meaning so far as the workplace is concerned, but can confirm countless examples of how it manifests itself at our workplace. The main agents through which it finds its roots to companies are people. This risk has forced companies into their deathbeds.

Sexism and Racism
Though currently addressed within our legal system, it has become a potential risk to the very existence of organization. Just like the others, its main and only agent is the people within the organization. We have heard in the recent past where senior executives in the certain organization were found guilty and even caused losses of grave magnitudes to companies. Organizations have collapsed purely on these bases.

Mental Health
There has been much mention of this topic in the recent past that I would not wish to over-emphasize. Just to mention that stress at the workplace has been confirmed to be one of the causes of mental health disorders. Stress is mainly resultant of employee relations and interaction. If not checked, it can affect human capital and adversely affect productivity.
Cyber Crime and Fraud

With advanced technology, nearly everything has gone virtual. Most of the business processes are automated and information stored in computers. Access to this information is online using passwords. With the increased rate of cyber-crime, this has become a major area of exposure.

Employees handle sensitive data of the organizations that if mishandled, may result in serious dangers to its existence in the market.

These risks among others, which might come out of a SWOT analysis exercise carried out in our organization, should form part of the areas that to be looked at in ensuring Business continuity. HR should develop policies based on recommendations from such committees to support implementation.

It will be important as HR professionals to be ahead of the game always and to ensure compliance. Some of the things we currently take for a joke may end up being worse pandemics for our organizations.  

The various Health and Safety and Staff Welfare interventions at the workplace can go a long way in mitigating some of these risks.

This, therefore, requires HR practitioners to take their rightful seats in the Boardrooms and steer the BCP forums of their organizations. Just like the current Covid-19 experience, we will need to face reality and avoid the taboo of not interrogating worst-case scenarios at the workplace. Let us test our preparedness in all possible circumstances at the workplace, at least if not avoid, but get prepared for eventualities. BCPs will be our safer tools to insure risks at the workplace.   

The author is Group Head – HR Apex Steel Ltd

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