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Building a Resilient Workforce

HR's Role in Times of Change


There’s no better evidence for the critical role human resources plays in supporting organizational change than the past few years: A global pandemic that fundamentally changed the way we work. Social and racial upheaval that required organizations to take a new role in addressing long-simmering employee concerns. The Great Resignation followed by quiet quitting followed by the Big Stay. You get it, I’m sure – you’ve lived through all these challenges just like I have.


Yet despite all this, many HR leaders still struggle with how to be effective in times of change. They slip into execution mode (which is easy to do when it feels like everything is a priority!), forgetting that building workforce resilience and adaptability pays long-term dividends to get all the important work done. So, in an effort to get back to basics, I’m sharing some of HR’s non-negotiable responsibilities during times of change.


Establish clear and honest communication channels

HR should work closely with leadership to develop clear, consistent messaging that addresses employee concerns while remaining as transparent as possible. This includes regular updates on the status of the change, its impact on employees, and the support available to help them navigate the transition. Open and honest communication fosters trust, a cornerstone of a resilient workforce.

Too often change communications overemphasize the positive or make grand promises. But employees are smart and know when they’re not being told the full story.

Transparent messages about how change – even the good kind – can be uncomfortable will resonate more than those written with rose-colored glasses, provided they come with reminders of the existing support resources and a safe place to ask questions.


Seek and follow up on employee feedback

Communication is a two-way street. HR should establish channels that encourage feedback and questions from employees, and provide opportunities for two-way dialogue with leaders. Town hall meetings, focus groups, or surveys can be effective ways to foster this dialogue and help employees feel like they have a voice in the change.


It’s important to remember, though, that feedback with no follow-up erodes trust. It’s not a check-the-box exercise. After gathering employee input it’s critical to let people know what actions are being taken to address their concerns – or, at the very least, to let them know they’ve been heard. A simple, “We hear your concerns and we’re going to work on a plan to address them” goes a long way.


Build leadership capacity

Leaders play a crucial role in modeling behavior and setting the tone for their teams during times of change, yet many of them are processing the change or upheaval in real time along with their employees. It’s critical for HR to support leaders and equip them with the skills to communicate effectively, manage conflict, and maintain morale. This may include coaching or training on change management, emotional intelligence, and situational awareness.

More importantly, it also means giving managers time and space to build and deliver on these new leadership skills.

Now, I recognize that additional leadership development or training programs during a major organizational change may be a hard sell, as leaders (and budgets) are often already stretched thin. But it’s HR’s job to take the long view and to persuade leaders to do the same. Organizations that don’t invest in building leadership capacity risk becoming part of the stark statistics showing the high failure rate of most large-scale change.


Support employee health and well-being

Let’s face it, as humans most of us aren’t wired for change – literally. Change requires forcing our brain to resist well-established behavioral patterns and work against our automatic, unconscious processes. Resisting long-established habits all day every day can leave us depleted and more susceptible to stress, anxiety, and even physical health issues.

HR should proactively address these concerns by promoting well-being initiatives, such as reprioritizing non-critical work, additional resource support, mental health resources, stress management workshops and tools, and flexible working arrangements.

More than anything, though, HR should model (and encourage leaders to model!) behaviors that support health and well-being. It’s important to walk the talk – no one wants to hear their company promoting stress-management counseling while also being expected to respond to emails at all hours of the day.


Retain key talent

During periods of change, organizations are at high risk of losing valuable employees who feel uncertain about their future. HR should work with leaders to identify key talent in two areas: those who hold critical skills and knowledge necessary to enact the change, and those high-potential employees who will help the organization succeed in the future.


HR should work with leaders to enact retention strategies as soon as possible when change is announced, including targeted retention bonuses, career development opportunities, or tailored benefits packages. They also need to remind leaders that regular check-ins with top talent can nip concerns in the bud and ensure people remain engaged and motivated throughout the transition. Take time in these one-on-ones to understand the individual’s personal goals and show how they align with the future vision.


Monitor and Measure Progress

In addition to business metrics, HR should take the lead on tracking key measures of employee sentiment. These include things like employee engagement, turnover rates, and productivity. They should also carefully monitor well-being and potential burnout by tracking things like PTO usage, overtime, and uptake of well-being programs. Conducting regular pulse surveys or focus groups can help identify areas for improvement and allow HR to advise company leaders on any necessary adjustments to the change strategy.


Celebrate Successes and Milestones

Organizational change often happens over a longer time horizon, like a merger that takes several months or, I don’t know, a multi-year pandemic. But it’s human nature to crave immediate gratification, so celebrating successes and milestones along the way can help maintain morale and reinforce positive behaviors.


HR should collaborate with leaders, especially those with high social capital in the organization (i.e., the ones people most like and respect) to recognize employee achievements, acknowledge team efforts, and commemorate significant milestones along the way.


If you’re like me, you probably feel like you’ve already lived through a lifetime of change in your career so far. But I promise, more is on the way. That’s just the nature of the modern workplace. We never know what’s coming and the only true way to prepare is to build our resilience and adaptability, at both a personal and an organizational level. HR plays a vital role in this process, and when your time comes to step up and support employees, leaders, and your organization as a whole, I know you’ll be ready.


Interested in learning more about building human workplaces? Send me a note at Katherine@worksproutpartners.com.


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