From a “rowing” to a “rafting” approach: how Covid-19 has shifted our people processes

Written by Professor Ajantha Dharmasiri Wednesday 23 June 2021
How can we put our people first, and get the decision-making conditions right to help our organisations through crises?
People in a boat, white water rafting

Crises require confident, competent and committed leaders – but to truly unleash the leader’s potential, the organisation’s culture has to be receptive to it.  The real challenge is that humans are neither rational nor irrational; they are natural, or “a-rational”, if I am to coin a term. There is a high degree of unpredictability in human behaviour, which can make a leader’s response to crisis potentially impulsive.

Managing people is an art and science in that respect. It needs an appeal to the head, with structure, direction, and control that is being scientific. It also needs an appeal to the heart, with purpose, passion, and positivity – that is being artistic. Hence, a carefully planned set of “head” and “heart” strategies should be on offer. This is relevant As individuals, as interactive teams as well as institutions, we need to have a carefully planned strategies that meet the criteria of both the heart and the head

In an increasingly competitive world, people have become a cutting-edge factor. Is it just any people or right people? As the typical HR mantra says: the right person at the right job, with right targets in the right environment, will produce right results within the right time. This will be more critical in post-Covid-19 era where vision, understanding, confidence and agility (VUCA 2.0) forming the foundation of the new “new normal” for people professionals. And when circumstances are changing rapidly, how do we create the right environment for our people to make the right decisions at the right time?

The “new normal” is interpreted in multiple ways in multiple perspectives. As Forbes magazine recently described, “the Covid-19 coronavirus is becoming the accelerator for one of the greatest workplace transformations of our lifetime...How we work, exercise, shop, learn, communicate, and of course, where we work, will be changed significantly.”

A people professional, also called a Human Resource (HR) professional,  is a manager with experience and qualifications, handling the responsibilities associated with the HR function of an organisation. We often hear the rhetoric that every manager is an HR manager. There is a truth in it in the sense that every manager has a people management role to play, yet, the reality is that a manager coming from a specific functional background might not have the required capability to handle all the specific people management aspects.

Covid-19 has swiftly shifted us from mostly a “rowing” world to much of a “rafting” world. Why do I say so? Unlike in rowing, rafting is much riskier. It invites you to wear a life jacket and to be vigilant in passing through sharp stones with an abundance of turbulence. Instead of following a uniform set of instructions, you need to take on-the-spot decisions based on the situational realities. In essence, one needs to be fast, focused, and flexible in a “rafting” world.

One key aspect for people professionals is to demonstrate the essence of empathy. They should be regularly in touch with the employees in listening to them, guiding them, and communicating with them in an understanding manner. That is crucial for survival. It reminds me of what Andrew Carnegie said some time ago. “Take my key people and leave my factory and it will be full of dust and cobwebs; demolish my factory and leave my key people, and they will build a better factory”. It simply highlights the power of human spirit which needs to be preserved even in the midst of a severe pandemic. Employee-care is the surest way to ensure customer-care, in the past, present and future as well.

Professor Ajantha Dharmasiri, assistant secretary

The writer is a Professor in Management, former Director and the Chairman of the Board of Management, Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), University of Sri Jayewardenepura. He is Adjunct Professor, Division of Management and International Business, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA, and Past President, Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPM), Sri Lanka.

He can be reached on email.

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