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Why HR is critical to putting people first in times of crisis

Blogs Business Transformation

It is a tough time to be in Human Resources right now.

A little over three months into the COVID-19 pandemic and almost six months since the first outbreak in China, and things are still changing day by day. The health crisis is still leaving an enormous impact on the global economy and has also introduced a psychological crisis. Social isolation, grief over the loss of loved ones, fear of getting infected themselves, lack of financial and job security are just some of the concerns that have taken a toll on everyone’s wellbeing, which in turn all affects how a person performs at work.

It’s no surprise, then, that HR’s role has expanded in the past few months. HR has played a vital role in crisis management to guide stakeholders to align decisions with the company’s culture and values while helping employees cope with the disruption. Finding a balance between the two priorities can be tricky but achieving this is the key to building an organisation capable of facing any new crisis in the future.

So how can HR professionals effectively navigate this time of the pandemic, while keeping an environment that allows their employees to do their best work and feel supported and cared for despite existing restrictions?

What do your people need?

It can be tempting just to replicate things that worked before the pandemic, but it may not necessarily be as effective now, or in the future with the way things have changed. Business leaders and HR professionals at this time need to take a step back and listen to their people first—whether through communication sessions or using engagement survey tools—and then act.

One useful theory worth getting back to in crafting a sustainable strategy to help your employees thrive in this time is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, the Hierarchy of Needs provides five stages of human motivation and the idea that before a person moves up the next level, each of the lower levels must be satisfied first. While the theory has been around for a while, and actually relates to the whole person, one’s professional life has a significant contribution to these needs, as people spend the majority of their waking hours at work every week.


Level 1: Physiological Needs

The first level of in the hierarchy points to a human’s physiological needs, which are fundamental to one’s survival such as food, water, sleep, shelter and clothing. In the professional setting, the basic need of each employee is their pay.

People go to work to get paid, and the salary is their starting point to access the needs here and at the next levels. Getting paid right helps ease an employee’s stress and anxiety, knowing that they have what they need to put food on the table or purchase necessary protective equipment for themselves to keep them safe from the virus. While pay is fundamental and an easy need to meet, it can also be easy to mess up, with all its complexities particularly in changing statutory and legislation, and even more, if you operate in a multi-country space. Payroll technology can easily help lessen the risk of getting pay wrong by automating manual processes and keeping data in a secure system. Payroll outsourcing can also give HR teams a sense of security, knowing that a dedicated organisation is in charge of getting their payroll out the door, whether there is a crisis or not.

Another aspect is ensuring employees still have access to their basic benefits such as vacation and sick leaves, health insurance and access to salary loans if needed. Better yet, maybe this is the time to provide employees access to their pay on-demand, so they can access their pay whenever they need it, and not worry about paying off credit or loans they incurred during the pandemic.

Level 2: Security and Safety

The second level refers to one’s need for security, the ability to protect themselves, and have control in their lives. At work, this can refer to having a stable and safe work environment. This can refer to moving to remote working, providing a flexible working schedule so employees can attend to other priorities at home, enabling work from home through the right tech and tools. New benefits such as hazard pay, pandemic leave may also give an additional sense of security.

Compliance to legislation also helps in creating a safe work environment. Support packages like Jobkeeper in AustraliaEconomic Response packages in New ZealandOne-off Cash Assistance in Malaysia and Job Support Scheme in Singapore are the government’s way of providing for their citizens, and organisations who comply not only help their employees, but they also protect their reputation and avoid additional costs for non-compliance.

Finally, providing access to factual, reliable and objective information to employees is a way to provide security. Through communication materials and sessions, access to specialised online training on safety practices, courses to help manage remote work and training sessions on proper home sanitation, hygiene and health gives a sense of security to the employees and avoid ‘doomscrolling’ or ‘doomsurfing’, the excessive consumption of coronavirus content to the point of agitation and anxiety.

Level 3: Belongingness and Love

The third level refers to a person’s psychological need for belongingness and love from intimate relationships and friends. Studies have shown that employees having work friends and time to socialise with colleagues during the day are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and do better at taking care of their customers. But COVID-19 has severely limited our social time with the necessary safety precautions. With everyone working from home and face time interactions limited to video calls, how can employers meet the needs of their people at this level?

Aside from the virtual town halls and communication sessions to keep employees informed, HR can plan other fun, non-work-related activities to give employees a break. It can be something as simple as having weekly drinks over a conference call or showing off your workstations or pets in your company’s internal social media, or it could be as grand as organising a company-wide pub quiz night, as what Ascender employees did early into the quarantine.


Ascender teams held a virtual quiz night early into the quarantine to promote socialisation


Another thing to add here is mental health and wellness in the workplace. Poor mental health affects one’s ability to make healthy decisions and can cause severe disease like heart disease, high blood pressure and weakened immune systems. Psychological health support, especially during a crisis, is now seen as essential, and employers can provide this through Employee Assistance Programs, access to counsellors and meditation and mindfulness services, and online group yoga classes can give employees a much-needed break to connect with colleagues virtually and unplug away from work in the absence of in-person socialisation.

Level 4 and 5: Esteem and Self-actualisation

As we move up the hierarchy, human needs become more complex and less concrete than the ones in the earlier stages. HR plays an even more essential role in achieving these levels.

Reward and recognition programs, remuneration and feedback help employees celebrate their achievements and cultivate a sense of pride to meet the needs of Esteem level. Learning and development, performance management provides opportunities for personal development and career advancement, while recruiting and onboarding new staff allows them to help someone else do the same, meeting their Self-actualisation needs.

It is important to note that the majority of HR processes require in-person interaction and a paper trail, both of which can pose a risk of exposure to the virus. Switching to HCM technology for these processes can help provide a smoother and safer experience for employees and enable them to do their best work, regardless of the circumstances. Besides, automating these processes lessen the risk of the HR team’s exposure, meeting their safety and security needs, too.

Make the right choice

In reality, companies do not have an obligation to put their people first in times of crisis. Business leaders may just choose to focus on their bottom line and not take any suggestions from HR at all—after all, companies need to make a profit to provide for the needs of their people, and if there is no profit, then there would be no people, right?

However, the reverse is also true: without people, there will be no profit. And studies have shown that companies who invest in people’s wellness, especially in times of crisis, are the ones that manage to thrive and bounce back strong, as well as keep and gain a more loyal customer base. When people’s needs are met and feel valued and cared for, they will have a greater sense of purpose, higher levels of engagement, leading to customer advocacy and better business performance, regardless if there is a crisis or not.

With restrictions slowly starting to ease across countries, businesses are slowly defining their return plans into what is now known as the ‘new normal.’ And while there is no clear timeline or picture of what the future will look like yet, HR will continue to play a significant role in helping employees thrive in any situation.

This is the third article in Ascender’s Business Transformation series. We talked about leadership and adapting to crises, and business continuity to help your organisation thrive.  The final piece will cover how we will sum up all our discussions as we look at what’s in store for us in the next normal.