How to reset your businesses and make changes in a post-lockdown world

Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR
By Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR

I originally wrote this piece back in May 2020, which seems like a long time ago. Back then, we were emerging from our first lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and were all hopeful that life would return to something akin to normal.

Eighteen months later, we know that what we knew as 'normal' may not come back for quite a while, if at all (I doubt anyone would want to lay a bet on the future right now). COVID-19 is very much a part of life and we are finding ourselves adapting to that reality.

The country has been in and out of lockdowns, and we have entered the COVID-19 'traffic light' Protection Framework. Many businesses are re-opening their doors, or welcoming back their staff, while others are feeling their way through the framework's restrictions and how vaccination passes work.

We are still looking at a local and global economy that is grappling with the effects of the pandemic, and for most NZ companies, these are still challenging and uncertain times. Sadly, some businesses will fail (or already have). Others are returning to business as usual - or more like business as unusual - over the coming months.

But if this unstable time has taught us one thing, it’s that people and collective effort really matter. So as we regroup and focus on 2022, it’s a great time to review your people processes and focus on your team and its culture, so you can seize opportunities as they arise (or respond to any future disruptions).

At MyHR, the past 20 months have been flat-out, as we help companies respond to the economic impacts of COVID-19, lockdowns, and changing alert levels. We’ve dealt with a huge number of staff restructures (some months were 800% higher than our average prior to COVID), so we stand alongside many kiwi businesses responding to these challenges.

Here are some key points we wanted to share about areas of your business and people management where you can focus attention and rally your efforts.

Retain your good people

In normal conditions, your talented employees are integral to the success of your business. In times of flux and rebuilding, they could prove lifesavers. 

Your best employees know the business, and can work with you to identify opportunities and act on them quickly. They can help you make sound, speedy decisions if the business needs to shift focus. Or these people may be your hardest workers, so they’ll be at the forefront of your business recovery.

Keeping your ‘A team’ together and focussed will put you in a much stronger position to weather storms and to bounce back. You also won’t lose all their experience and knowledge and then have to start over again with new people.

Work your budgets however you can, but do what you can to keep the stars.

Get strategies for retaining good employees.

Be transparent

It’s hard to be sure of much at the moment, whether that’s what the next 2 months will look like or what will happen over the next year, so making commitments to the good people you want to retain might seem hard. But don’t forget, they’re going through an unstable period, too.

While it is a cliche, we are all in this together. Be honest with your people and talk to them about the company's situation and prospects. They will have a good sense of the state the business is in and will be able to help you work on solutions. 

Share recovery and contingency plans, give everybody some skin in the game. If the situation and traffic light settings change in your region, people will want to know how the business will  handle this and how the business will keep employees safe. 

Be creative with planning & structures

During the pandemic, we’ve helped lots of businesses explore personnel changes to keep them viable, and we always encourage exploring every option, even things you normally wouldn’t consider, like short-term tweaks or interim structures.

We've seen plenty of employees be willing to work reduced hours or take temporary pay cuts and then slowly increase them as the business picked back up. Other businesses have made roster changes to be a little more flexible than usual. 

Flexibility is key; everyone needs to be open to possibilities and finding the best outcomes. Work with your team members to come up with strategies and options for keeping the business viable and adaptive. It’ll also create a strong sense of loyalty in your staff.

Make tough choices quickly and correctly

Hopefully, your business has withstood the testing times and you've kept your team together, either by adapting or making it through using the government wage subsidy or other assistance.

However, there may be times ahead when you’ve explored all the options and find there is no way to avoid reducing staff numbers. If so, then don’t miss the opportunity to set up a better business.

We all know restructure and redundancy occurs for commercial reasons, not individual performance reasons. Uncertainly and economic pressure can present very compelling commercial reasons to look closely at the way your business is structured and make changes for a quick recovery and better long-term future. 

Do you have the right roles? Doing the right things?

We always advise people to step back and look at the whole business and its future first. Too often, redesigned organisations are developed by only looking one or two steps ahead. Jobs are cut, new roles created, and everybody hopes things will work out. Instead of this approach, start by defining (or redefining) your company strategy and objectives, which will define the work that needs to be done, which defines the roles required to do that work.

So strategy > work > roles.

Remember, a restructure is as much (if not more) about the people left behind as it is about those who are leaving. If you treat departing people with honesty and respect, act in good faith, and honour your contractual obligations, you’ll minimise the risk of grievance while demonstrating to those left behind that you are a good employer.

This is where MyHR provides help to hundreds of businesses. Don’t feel you have to wade through these tricky processes by yourself.

Remember: Employment law hasn’t changed

Throughout the pandemic, the government has been clear that there are no shortcuts for employers who want to make changes. The process for doing restructures or altering the terms of a person’s employment is the same as it was before COVID-19 came to town.

A downturn in business might give you the commercial justification to restructure, but all the normal rules of good faith, fair and reasonable process, and consultation with your team members apply.

Your time frames might be shorter if you need to make urgent changes, but the process is still the same: investigate, propose, consult, consider, decide.

Find out more about the restructuring process.

Use outsourcing to your advantage

This is also a compelling time to investigate outsourcing non-core business activities, such as HR.

Credible, quality outsourced providers give you flexibility during times of downturn as well as times of growth. You not only outsource the work to committed experts, you also outsource all the staffing hassle. Outsourced options are more cost-effective too.

Maximise technology

During the pandemic, lots of people have become accustomed to working in different ways, whether that's working remotely or having new routines. As a result, people mightn’t be so keen on being tied to the workplace or office hours as they once were.

Technology has made this easier and people are often more productive and motivated if they have more flexibility and better work-life balance, so remain open to these options. Workplaces are going to need to maintain some form of physical distancing for the foreseeable future, and you’re going to need people’s best efforts and results more than you’ll need them to be wed to routines. 

HR technology, coupled with video-calling apps, can allow you to undertake all people processes seamlessly while maintaining legal compliance, so you can easily and effectively monitor performance, sign documents online, seek advice, and engage in consultation on most employment matters.

Reinforce company culture

In challenging times, it can be easy to forget about your company culture, but a good culture should rise and help carry the business through.

All businesses are social systems that work best when they are united and communication is open and honest. Your people should feel invested in helping the company find a positive way forward. 

If you have the basics right, with good systems in place, your team can focus on the work at hand (and what's up ahead).

Learn more about maintaining a strong company culture.

Motivate and drive performance

This could be another thing that’s easy to overlook when your adapting to external pressures, but examining what you do as individuals and as a group, and how you do them, can help you focus your efforts. 

What are you good at? What things could you do better? 

Foster a climate of safety and trust so your people can feel confident in contributing their ideas and efforts. Work on setting clear objectives and follow up with regular check-ins. Smart systems that people can easily understand and use will make this much easier, so you’ve got an unobtrusive platform rather than a time-consuming hindrance. 

A good HR system will also help keep your staff connected and engaged, which is especially important if all or some of them are working from home. 

Deal with any issues

Just as your performance management shouldn’t stop, nor should your issues management. There could be all sorts of things cropping up for your employees right now. Some people may not feel comfortable returning to work or have concerns about vaccinations. Some may be under serious financial pressure. Others may have got used to the different pace of lockdown life. 

While you should be understanding of this, you need to address any obvious drops in performance or bad attitude before anything gets too major and requires more formal resolution. 

If you uphold your obligations, endeavouring to keep your employees safe and treating them fairly, they should respond and apply themselves to doing what’s needed.

Find out more about resolving issues without needing disciplinary action.

Be compassionate! Look after your people

Pretty much everyone has been affected one way or another by the pandemic. Just as business owners have been tested and may still worry about the viability of their companies, employees may be worried about the threat of COVID-19, or losing their job and having to find a new one. 

As an employer, it’s essential to be kind and supportive in times like these. People could be stressed and anxious. Maintain your compassion and put your team members’ wellbeing at the centre of your decision-making. Doing right by your people is always the right thing to do.

Retain your existing Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services if you can. If you don’t have them, it may be worth getting. Talking to a professional can help people deal with times of stress. Remind your employees that they can also call or text 1737 any time for free support from a trained counsellor.

And don't forget to care for your own health and wellbeing, and seek support if you need it.