Winning on the Curves: Transforming Your Workforce When the Pressure is On

Winning on the Curves: Transforming Your Workforce When the Pressure is On

The following post was shared by Karen Oliver-Behee, an HR strategist and business consultant specializing in workforce transformation.

Formula 1 racing fascinates me. Drivers flying around a course at super high speeds. It appears to be a race for the fastest, most aggressive driver to win. Yet strategists argue that these races are not won based on speed down the straights—you win on the curves.

Navigating business in a “normal” environment is like racing on the straights. Your path is relatively clear and you feel in control. You can go hard and fast, following your strategic plan and action steps. Business emergencies, on the other hand, “throw us for a curve” and require recalibration. Most companies know that surprises will inevitably arise, so they have some form of contingency plan in place that allows them to simply adapt their “normal” plan to a new curve.

Yet what do you do when you hit an unfamiliar and sharp curve, such as our current global public health crisis? Most businesses and corporate leaders have been taken by surprise and don’t have an easily adaptable roadmap to guide them. Companies of all sizes and industries must now rethink their business strategies to effectively navigate this bend. The decisions you must make can be confusing and stressful because yesterday’s business rules no longer apply in the same ways. Your field of business might be severely altered by the current crisis, and the people who make your products or utilize your services could be greatly impacted by your decision-making. As a leader, your response to this curve could fundamentally change who you are and what you do professionally.

Based on my experience helping companies of all sizes successfully navigate significant growth and change, there are three steps you can take to make the best workforce strategy decisions for you, your company, and the communities you serve.

First, pause and gather the facts.

In Formula 1 racing, the driver brakes as he heads into the curve. Although your world appears to be spinning at an accelerated pace, take a moment to pump the brakes and gather the facts.

Pull your team close. Ask them to define the current situation and articulate the problem(s) you are needing to solve. Your team—sales, marketing, distribution, etc.—is likely closest to your customers and clients. Listen to what they say they are hearing from your consumers. Also listen to what they identify as the big-picture problems they foresee for your business. And listen to what they are asking for their teams and for themselves as employees. What is their advice and what are their asks?

In addition to your team, seek the guidance of outside, objective trusted advisors. These can include HR and business consultants, employment counsel, or financial planners. Such guides can help you and your team clarify the current state of your business and articulate the problem(s) you face.

Second, prioritize the problems and define solutions.

When the Formula 1 racecar is entering the curve, the driver chooses a line to best navigate the corner. For each curve, there are always more options to consider than actions the driver actually takes.

Now that you and your team have defined the problems that need to be solved, it is time to prioritize those and choose your line. Align with your team members on the priorities for these key issues. Having your team involved provides a variety of perspectives, which creates better solutions.

As your team defines potential solutions, each will have trade-offs. Reflect on your company strategy and culture to determine what is most important to achieve. Some solutions may solve a financial challenge while creating an employment brand challenge. Others may solve the employee engagement challenge in the short-term yet be risky to sustain in the long-term.

When working through this stage of determining your new workforce strategies, you will benefit in particular from the guidance of your employment counsel. They will be able to bring an objective view regarding short-term and long-term risk, as well as perspective on the effort it will take to execute each strategy.

Different companies can run through the same options and yet arrive at distinct solutions based on their decision criteria. The right answer for you is the one that aligns with your company’s business strategy, workplace culture, and commitment to the community you serve.

Second Step Snapshot:

Making Workforce Strategy Decisions in the Age of COVID-19

When financials feel desperate, a lay-off can seem like the only solution to managing the health of your company. Competitors may have already executed one, making it appear as the sensible option. Your board members may have already laid-off workers at their own firms, pressuring you to do the same. But before you jump to that conclusion, review and prioritize your options to discern your line.

Evaluating the options:

  • Furloughs: short-term unpaid leave for specific classifications of employees due to work stoppage. Although disruptive, this provides a ready workforce when demand picks up in the future while immediately managing cash. For the employees, they can maintain their benefits while on unpaid leave.
  • Pay cuts: reduce base pay. A cut maintains your existing workforce and current level of work, while immediately managing cash. Employees receive steady pay and normal business operations continue. It can be administered across all employees, allowing all team members to be a part of the company solution, as everyone tightens their belt to get through this public health crisis. A pay cut can also be implemented by defined criteria. As a leader, you should consider cutting pay from top-earning executives before you move to reduce wages from lower-earning workers who are more vulnerable to economic hardship. This humane approach will establish goodwill with your workforce during a stressful and worrisome time and ensure good morale when your business is back to flying down the straights.
  • Reduction in hours: cutting back on hours worked can allow employees to continue to earn their existing base wage but on a reduced work schedule. This requires a corresponding slowdown in business operations to balance the decreased work hours. An hour reduction can be more challenging to quickly execute in a unionized workforce and may be impractical for managing costs in a fully exempt workplace.

If your company believes the current work slowdown is temporary due to social distancing and the work will return once the pandemic declines, a furlough or pay cut might be the best solution. If your industry has been fundamentally disrupted and the consumer demand for your product will be slow to recover, a lay-off might be the best solution for you.

Before deciding on a new workforce strategy, discuss with your employment counsel and consider the benefits being offered in new financial relief programs from our federal, state and local government.

Third, communicate and go!

In Formula 1, once the driver has entered the curve and chosen their line, they accelerate to exit fast.

Similarly, once you and your team have made your decisions, it is time to launch into execution and accelerate. Create communication points anchored in your business strategy and culture to effectively identify and explain to your workforce the solutions you have developed. Show how your workforce transformation will help lead to the long-term success of your business. Then empower all team members in your company to become engaged in implementing the solutions to the greatest extent possible. Try to find creative and mutually beneficial ways in which your employees can support your strategic solutions. Perhaps the curve has revealed opportunities for new kinds of growth or additional areas of development.

Take each curve one at a time. Explain where you were, what problem you were solving, and why you chose the solution you did. You need to keep the big picture in mind, yet your communications can guide your workforce through the changes step-by-step. This allows everyone to feel informed and stay connected, and enables your team to celebrate the victories together at each step.

Winning on the Curve: As you and your company make workforce strategy decisions to navigate sharp new curves, remember the careful methods of a Formula 1 driver:

  1. Pump the brakes and gather the facts.
  2. Find your line by prioritizing problems and determining effective solutions.
  3. Accelerate out of the curves through effective leadership and communication.

Karen Oliver-Behee, M.B.A., is Founder and Principal of on-River HR, an independent, woman-owned business consulting firm that specializes in translating an organization’s strategic objectives into actionable value-creating priorities and plans. Leaning on her more than 20 years in HR consulting, Ms. Oliver-Behee assists CEOs and executive teams in defining HR investments to strengthen business performance, accelerate value creation, and reduce cost. Get in touch with Ms. Oliver-Behee by filling out this form.

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