COVID-19: The role of HR & People Analytics in the crisis

Too slow, too complacent, too late, too chaotic, not transparent enough. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic by the UK Government is perhaps only surpassed in its ineptitude by their erstwhile partner in the ‘special relationship’ across the pond.

There in the full glare of the media at one of his daily crisis briefings, the President of the United States recommended the injection of disinfectant as a potential cure for Covid-19. No, it wasn’t an episode of South Park. It really happened.

Our political leaders are being tested like never before and those that appear to score high on narcissism and low on empathy are failing dismally. It’s interesting that those political leaders who combine competence, transparency and empathy and are using data and science to inform their decision making appear to be performing much better.

As our political leaders are being tested like never before so are our business leaders. In the opening preamble to my collection of 120+ Covid-19 resources for HR and People Analytics, I opined that the crisis was an acid test for the Business Roundtable group of 181 CEOs representing some of America’s biggest companies.

Why? Because only last summer the group committed together to provide value to all stakeholders – not just shareholders but customers, employees, suppliers and communities as well. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that some of these organisations have reverted to type. Refreshingly though, many others – Walmart, Microsoft and IBM are just three examples that come readily to mind – are actively pursuing a people first response to the crisis.

One initiative that caught my attention is People + Work Connect, which has been developed by Ellyn Shook, the CHRO of Accenture together with counterparts from Lincoln Financial Group, Service Now and Verizon. The initiative brings companies who are having to reduce their workforces together with those that are hiring rapidly during the crisis in order to help people get back to work. An analytics platform that facilitates continued employment is one of many great ideas we’ve seen generated by the HR community.

This week I participated in and co-hosted PAFOW Europe Online together with Al Adamsen. Over the three days, I was amazed to see the work People Analytics teams are doing to support their organisations and workforces through the crisis. The way the community has come together has been both inspiring and heart-warming – and this includes the HR Tech vendor community as highlighted by Stacia Garr and Priyanka Mehrotra in their excellent presentation of the People Analytics Technology Landscape (see below).

In this article I have gathered together resources and provided commentary aimed at helping HR and People Analytics teams care for their workforces and support their organisations during the crisis and beyond as we hopefully begin to emerge on the other side. It is designed to complement my earlier collection of 120+ Covid-19 resources for HR and People Analytics.

I have grouped the article into the following topics: The role of HR, Leadership & Culture, People Analytics & Strategic Workforce Planning, Employee Experience and the Post-Covid Future.


With The Economist likening the role of the Chief People Officer in the pandemic to the central role played by the CFO in the Global Financial Crisis, the HR function is at the fulcrum of the response by organisations to the crisis. With health, job security and remote work being at the forefront of employee concerns, HR’s role in influencing a people first, economics second approach is critical as HR helps companies navigate each phase of the crisis.

The people priorities for HR (see example in FIG 1) to focus on have been as myriad as they have been plentiful, and this will continue throughout the crisis and beyond as we begin to emerge on the other side. The seventh priority in BCG’s analysis involves speeding up digital readiness. There are several examples of this already happening due to the crisis such as Novartis shifting its two-year plan to roll-out Microsoft Teams across its 125,000 employees to a two-week timeline. In another example, Isabel Naidoo shared in a panel I moderated at PAFOW, that FIS stood up a new virtual onboarding process and module for new starters over a weekend.

As well as rapidly implementing digital tools to support remote working, many HR teams are having to re-examine existing processes. For example, one people analytics leader I spoke told me that his company had switched off 900 reports to support demand and had only had to switch back on 10% of these – meaning they could shift capacity to support requirements relating to the crisis.

The shift to remote working presents an unexpected opportunity to experiment with the way we work and ensure that people are empowered and motivated at home. There is a plethora of resources available to help HR support managers and employees with regards to remote working – both during and after the crisis. Some of the favourite ones I’ve come across from Dorothy Dalton, Aaron Hurst, Matt Mullenweg and Kurtis Morrison are listed below.

As Patrick Wright, Director of the Center for Executive Succession at Darla Moore School of Business, succinctly puts it the crisis is a crossroads moment for HR:

Great HR will help guide these organizations to navigate this shock in a way that brings them out on the other side with greater capabilities, better positioned to compete, and with a reputation as a responsible corporate citizen. Poor HR will not. Which will you be?

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FIG 1: Covid-19 responses for seven key people topics (Source: BCG)



The pandemic is without doubt an acid test for leaders, presenting a challenge of the type that the vast majority will never have dealt with before. The brilliant Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who spoke at PAFOW this week, believes that the crisis will accelerate the retirement of outdated leadership profiles and highlight the need for competence, intelligence, integrity and empathy. One can only hope this proves to be the case.

I also recommend reading Gianpiero Petriglieri’s excellent analysis of the psychology of effective crisis leadership along with Michaela Kerrissey and Amy Edmondson’s essay on why in a crisis you need to overcome your instincts to lead effectively (see also FIG 2). Amy’s research on psychological safety inspired Google’s Project Aristotle on what makes an effective team. Psychological safety allied to transparency from leaders in not hiding bad news in times of crisis creates the right climate for employees to speak up so leaders can understand and then act on their concerns.

McKinsey provides a comprehensive playbook to guide leaders through the crisis as well as a helpful six-step guide on how to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis. Other helpful resources provide below include how to build resilience in your teams, a helpful guide to managing remote teams, Amy Gallo on the need to show compassion and some helpful advice on how to answer an unanswerable question.

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FIG 2: Source: Michaela Kerrissey & Amy Edmondson, HBR




As well as highlighting the critical role of HR, the aforementioned article in The Economist also highlighted the increased relevance of people analytics during the crisis.

I’m fortunate to spend a significant proportion of my time with people analytics leaders through my work at Insight222 and without a doubt the crisis has elevated the field and made people analytics even more important. This was emphasised even further this week during PAFOW as people analytics leader after people analytics leader provided examples of how their work has provided critical support to the business and the workforce during these troubled times.

As Thomas Rasmussen succinctly put it in his speech together with Sally Smith on how people analytics has supported National Australia Bank’s response to the crisis:

People Analytics is truly more impactful than ever in the current crisis – it’s gone from being a strategic differentiator the best CHRO’s demand, to an absolute essential to manage the crisis

Much of the work of people analytics teams in the early part of the crisis was focused on integrating public health data into HR dashboards to support employees, allocate resources and focus, measure impact and plan ahead. David Shontz has graciously shared the work he and his team have been doing at Nokia in the series of Crisis Management Open Forums that Visier has been hosting.

Other areas of focus for people analytics teams have been around employee wellbeing (see later section on Employee Experience), workforce planning, return to the office and business continuity and understanding the impact of remote working on areas such as collaboration, productivity and burnout.

As Blair Hopkins of EY remarked in our panel at PAFOW this week, the crisis means that workforce modellers are suddenly as much in demand as supermarket delivery drivers. What was already an increasingly complex profession due to the shift to need to plan around skills/tasks from jobs has been further complicated by Covid-19. One thing is clear: the post-pandemic workplace will hardly look like the one we left behind.

Part of this challenge involves, as Dave Ulrich neatly puts it, imagining how returning to the office can stimulate reinvention. With Gartner reporting that 74% of CFOs intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently, many experts predicting how the crisis will redefine jobs and i4CP finding that two-thirds of organisations have established a return to the workplace ‘task force’, people analytics teams can expect to be busy.

This third phase of the crisis – ‘Return’ as Josh Bersin writes here, is fraught with complexity. From modelling who returns to the workplace and when, and how this will vary in different locations to modelling social distancing between workers and customers, to buying masks and other safety equipment and factoring in scenarios relating to potential second waves of the crisis and actual fear from workers of returning to the office – and these are just some of the considerations that models will be based on.

BCG argue that in the face of so much uncertainty, we should focus on framing potential scenarios and use them to develop a robust plan of action. Also advocating its use, Alicia Roach explains that scenario planning can help prevent organisations from making make short-term decisions that destroy their long-term viability.

The crisis has spiked further interest in Relationship Analytics as companies seek to understand the ramifications of the biggest remote working experiment in history. Many organisations we work with at Insight222 are using ONA to answer questions such as the ones Manish Goel highlighted in our recent article (see FIG 3). Also on Relationship Analytics, I highly recommend you read Maintaining Connections in an Age Of Social Distancing, which has been compiled by the Connected Commons team, and McKinsey’s article around building a network of teams.

For clues on what other questions people analytics teams are likely to have to answer in the coming months, engaging with business leaders to understand what is on their mind is essential. Those people analytics teams that have strong stakeholder equity are likely to be the ones that get involved in helping to answer the most important questions such as these five questions for CEOs from McKinsey. Two other articles around bringing an analytics mindset and the role of Chief Data Officers in the crisis are also well worth a read (see Resources below)

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FIG 3: Covid-19 related use cases for Relationship Analytics / ONA (Source: TrustSphere)



I must admit I was rather surprised by the title of Josh Bersin’s Covid-19 may be the best thing that ever happened to Employee Engagement article. Granted the companies that are taking a ‘people first, business second’ approach based on trust, empathy and transparency probably are seeing a more ‘engaged’ workforce. Moreover, the study from Willis Towers Watson that Josh cites in his article does show that engagement is going up and some companies are moving heaven and earth for their workforces.

However, the Willis Towers Watson study also found that only 31% of companies had surveyed employees as a result of Covid-19. We also know that several million people around the world have lost their jobs or been furloughed (1 in 5 workers in Europe according to the FT) as a result of the crisis. One doesn’t have to think too hard to wonder how engaged these unfortunate people feel. Certainly, analysis of Glassdoor reviews mentioning layoffs has spiked.

It seems there are (at least) two very distinct approaches. One that puts people first, and the other that doesn’t. It will be interesting to see future studies into the crisis once it ends find, as Anna Tavis suggests, that focusing on employee experience is key to recovery post-Covid.

One of the key themes that emerged from the Virtual Discussion Forums we held recently with our clients at Insight222 was the concept of ‘rally to the flag’. This means that in times of crisis, workers tend to say they are more engaged – perhaps because they are grateful to still be in work? Perhaps this is also why many companies I’ve spoken to have shifted focus from measuring engagement to measuring wellbeing – around topics such as connectedness and mental health – and are taking appropriate action based on what they are finding. Some of the early published findings around the impact of remote working show that hours worked are increasing, the number of meetings are also increasing but so is manager responsiveness (see FIG 4).

The response to the employee survey vendor community to the crisis has been pretty phenomenal. If this is of interest, do check out what the likes of Qualtrics, Glint, Perceptyx, Peakon, Qlearsite, Ennova, Mercer, Medallia, Willis Towers Watson and others are doing.

Finally, on this topic, with the change and turbulence the crisis brings many organisations are reimagining the employee experience both in our current reality of remote working, but also for when we start to return to what will be very different workplaces. This means we need our imaginations more than ever in what is a moment of truth for people at work.

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FIG 4Key metrics tracked by Worklytics before and after the move to WFH (Source: Philip Arkcoll, Worklytics)




Whilst many leaders are asking questions such as How should I forecast my revenues? When will this be over, and when will we return to ‘normal’? Perhaps the current situation is too abnormal and too uncertain. Indeed, Alec Levenson councils in his article in MIT Sloan Management Review that we are a long way away from an economic ‘new normal’.

BCG recommends that companies should be focusing instead on framing potential scenarios and using these to develop a robust plan of action. The five-step plan offered by McKinsey recommends companies act across five horizons: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagination, and Reform (see FIG 5). Strategic thinking like this will likely shape our future way of operating and how we rethink our organisations. But let’s hope that empathetic leadership and a more human-centred approach are core to the mix.

Josh Bersin’s article The Big Reset, which also emphasises the importance of resilience, is getting a lot of attention and rightly so, and Josh’s session at PAFOW this week also shared insights from leading CHROs on what the recovery will look like. Similarly, the five principles outlined by Dave Ulrich for a post-Covid world seem to offer a remedy for a better future.

Ultimately whatever the future direction and pace of evolution in HR, it seems fairly certain that the pandemic is, as Heather McGowan captures in her twin articles, creating an inflection point and accelerating the future of work. Similarly, Ben Waber also provides a helpful perspective on the impacts of our current reality on the future of work. Gaby Hinsliff, writing in The Guardian, cautions that automation is likely to be the next disruption from coronavirus.

More insightful research from McKinsey examines digital strategy in a time of crisis whilst a fascinating piece from BCG looks at the rise of the AI powered company in the post-crisis world.

Whatever the future of work looks like, one hopes that leaders will realise that quality work is infinitely superior to quantity of work, and that a better response should be rewarded more than a faster response. With work-life balance being further blurred in the crisis, the ideas outlined by Bobbi Thomson and Heather Williams warrant serious consideration.

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FIG 5: The Path to the ‘next normal’ – five horizons (Source: McKinsey)




I provided a list of people and organisations who are providing regular content, analysis and resources on the crisis, particularly with relevance to those in the HR and People Analytics communities in my earlier collection of 120+ Covid-19 resources for HR and People Analytics.

But once again, I’d like to highlight a number of formidably good resources that are regularly being updated and provided immense benefit to those in our space:

My two personal favourite sources of information during this crisis come from BCG and McKinsey (see below). Whatever direction the HR and People Analytics fields move in through and after the crisis will surely emanate from the path business heads in, so it’s worth seeing the thoughts of the consultants advising the world’s leading companies. These resources are updated daily.

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FIG 6: Four categories of workforce for the immediate post-shelter-at-home environment (Source: McKinsey)


Partly due to the inclement weather in the UK this week but mostly due to hosting PAFOW Online for three days with Al Adamsen, I didn’t actually leave the house from Sunday afternoon until I went for a run on Saturday morning. We are living in very different and very troubled times. The latest data from Johns Hopkins advises we are approaching 3.5m confirmed cases worldwide and 250,000 deaths – and sadly this is only the tip of the iceberg.

First and foremost, this is a health and people crisis – and the response from organisations must put this as their first consideration. The world will be a very different place when this is all over. Until then stay safe and stay well.

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