Business leaders must plan for Omicron HR challenges

14 December 2021 4 min. read
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As a new variant of the coronavirus threatens to sweep the world, executives in every sector are preparing for an uncertain start to 2022. According to experts from Korn Ferry, one of the most important things a leader can do is be transparent with their staff about the situation.

In spite of travel restrictions being imposed after South African scientists alerted the world to a new strain of Covid-19, the Omicron variant is still “spreading rapidly” in the UK. With the spread of the strain still thought to be in its early stages, little is known about this particular brand of Covid-19 – though it is widely expected to have a heightened ability to evade the vaccines which had been previously touted as a ‘route out of the pandemic.’

At time of writing, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has confirmed over 3,000 cases across the UK, and at least one death, while the actual figure of infections is expected to be much higher. This is because experts predict “hundreds” of cases are circulating undetected because not all PCR tests are sequenced for variants.

Business leaders must plan for Omicron HR challenges

After a brief period of hope, as the coronavirus declined amid an early surge in infections, Britain now faces the possibility of being shunted back to square one. The one thing that is different, however, is that this time, individuals, businesses and governments have two years of lived experience to draw upon with regards to their response. So, what can business leaders do to prepare for the worst – while still hoping for the best.

Writing on the company’s website, David Vied, Global Sector Leader of the Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice at Korn Ferry, advised, “Call your people. Ask how they’re doing, how they’re reacting, how their families are, and whether they have loved ones overseas.”

“We’ve learned more about Omicron in three days than we learned about Covid-19 in three months in 2020,” Vied added. As a result, officials and executives alike are much more prepared for communicating during this fork in the road.

Rather than delivering a missive, as business leaders might have been used to pre-pandemic, two-way conversations can help subtly provide feedback and context. This can help businesses make good policies in the weeks ahead, while showing employees they are valued and included parts of the business.

At the same time, Juan Pablo Gonzalez, Professional Services Sector Leader at Korn Ferry, suggested firms should avoid rushing to put out definitive statements at this stage. Instead, he insisted this was more a time to listen.

Gonzalez went on, “Do not lay out an edict unless absolutely necessary. Stay close to your people and think through what people are experiencing.”

While listening, firms should also look to pick up on emerging best practices in the places where Omicron has become most prevalent. For example, African businesses are days ahead of the US or UK in terms of the outbreak. As such, they can provide a bellwether of what will soon be happening closer to home.

Human resources teams in particular should be on the lookout for challenges relating to this though. As with previously geographic links to strains of Covid-19, there is likely to be a backlash aimed at BAME employees.

“Racism toward African employees will likely rise, just like it did for Asian employees when the epicentre was Wuhan,” said Korn Ferry’s ESG and DE&I specialist Andrés Tapia. “Underrepresented talent will have greater vulnerabilities and barriers around Covid-19.”

Planning ahead

On how leaders should address fears of their staff, Korn Ferry Workforce Transformation Practice Leader Elise Freedman said, “This is an opportunity to reinforce that you care about safety, and to reach out and make connections. Be sensitive to the fact that many folks have no choice about where and when they work, and continue to frame these topics carefully.”

With that being said, Freedman added that she felt the emergence of Omicron should not reverse back-to-office plans. Instead, firms need to adapt their plans to be more resilient in the future, as variants and lockdowns will come and go.

“At some point, you’ve just got to make your plan and walk forward. If we continue to allow every hiccup to derail plans, it’s just going to get harder and harder to get back to the workplace,” she added.

This was a view echoed by Jane Stevenson, Global Leader of the CEO Succession practice at Korn Ferry. Ultimately, she asserted, this is “the new normal,” and there will “always be some variant going on” as “viruses subside, but they never disappear.” But in this context, how do businesses show they are taking steps to ensure workplace safety, even as they forge ahead with the return to the office?

“Ultimately, the real answer is testing,” Stevenson noted. “If it’s a large company and groups of people are getting together in person, then testing is going to have to be part of the equation. Vaccination alone is not enough.”

Just as was the case with the earlier variants of the coronavirus, Korn Ferry’s experts also noted that if businesses can work in this way, opportunities will emerge. According to Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s Vice President of Global Benefits, every organisation now has the chance to “redefine itself.”

He explained, “It’s the rare opportunity to look at every operational aspect of your business and see what makes sense.”