Media and advocacy

From crisis to opportunity

1 December 2020, 
Sarah McCann-Bartlett

Can you believe that this time last year we were just weeks away from seeing the initial impacts of a global virus that would fundamentally change life as we knew it? I never imagined I’d look back on a 12 month timeframe with a sense of nostalgia, but it really does feel like a lifetime ago. It has been a year where days seemed to pass slowly yet hours, weeks and months flew by. A year in which so much happened, while most of us felt we didn’t do much at all. A year where we were pulled apart from one another yet became more connected than ever before. The paradoxes of 2020 have been dizzying. It has been a year awash with uncertainty, grief and stress. People have lost loved ones, jobs and their sense of self as their home and work lives bled together. Their dining tables became not only a place to convene for a family meal, but also a boardroom table and a place to coach children through their times tables.

Despite all this heartache, as a country we’re in an extremely fortunate position. While we still have pockets of COVID-19 cases in Australia, thankfully we’re not experiencing the alarming numbers seen overseas. Traditionally, the end of the year is a time to look reflect on what we’ve achieved, how we’ve grown and where we can improve. In previous years, we might have pointed to a few catalysts for change and lessons borne from them. This year, the bucket is overflowing with lessons. HR professionals have been at the centre of all these lessons and proved to their organisations just how valuable the people management department is. As is discussed in this month’s HRM cover story, HR’s influence has never been so powerful and that will only continue as we move into the next stages of this crisis.

Before we move forward, let’s pause and reflect on the excellent work HR has done this year. In February-March the crisis emerged and quickly grew. HR and workplace leaders made the rapid shift to get entire workforces online (where possible) and spent countless hours trying to stay abreast of changing advice and legislation. In April-May we experienced the national peak of the crisis and employees’ mental wellbeing became the thing keeping HR professionals up at night. Working from home meant many staff were lonely, stressed and often without support. Leaders also had their own unique challenges. Some struggled to support and manage their people from afar and the lingering uncertainty about the future meant planning ahead often felt like a futile exercise. Employees’ workloads increased and stand downs and redundancies became more prominent – again, HR was at the forefront of it all.

For now, we’re in the recovery stages. We’ve come to terms with the complexities of operating a COVID-safe workplace, balancing employees’ needs with that of the business and thinking of innovative ways to future-proof our organisations. There’s plenty of work still to be done, but it’s important we acknowledge the incredible effort that has gone into pulling businesses through to the tail end of 2020. We can head into 2021 with a healthy level of positive realism. A vaccine is still some time away.

In the meantime we can lay the groundwork for the workplaces of the future. We can think of the skills our people will need, the structures we’ll need to build and the support mechanisms we’ll need to design. Rather just dream up these big ideas, we will need to act on them. We’ve been given an opportunity to do things differently, to do them better. Let’s not waste it.