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Hitting the Reset Button: Dealing With a New Business Reality

Posted by Elaine Varelas  April 4, 2011 08:00 AM

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By Elaine Varelas

The first day of spring emerged last week amid snow flakes and numbing temperatures. But those few mild days we have this time of year remind us that warm weather is right around the corner, even if we have to trudge through sleet and freezing rain to get there. Our climb out of the recent recession is taking a similar path. There are signs within many organizations that the economy is starting to thaw and that growth is imminent. We’re over the recession hump, but here’s where the analogy with the weather stops. Most likely we’ll be in early spring mode for months. In fact, some things about the way we do business will be forever changed because of the economic downturn. If your organization is waiting for the big rebound, stop. It’s fruitless to wait for things to “get back to the way they were,” because they won’t. We’ve hit the virtual reset button on the economy and this is the new business reality. If we keep waiting, we’ll be missing out.

Many organizations (HR managers are guilty too) are notorious for reacting to immediate situations. We see an urgent threat or opportunity and we pounce. Instead of always reacting to situations, we should be planning and preparing. This is an opportune time to take a step back and refocus. If there won’t be any momentous occasion for the market to bounce back, HR managers should be looking at their strategy now. Here are some areas that may be forever altered by the recession. Going forward, how will these shape your HR initiatives?

Shifting landscape
The recession has most likely reset some things in your organization. Take a fresh look at your company on the other side of the downturn. What impact did it have on the organization? Is your mission still accurate? Has your business changed? If so, by how many degrees? Do your people have the skills the company needs now? If not, you may need to look at training and development. It also might be time to change your hiring criteria. What should employees look like today, next year, and five years from now?

Evolving mix of employees
Employees are opting out of early retirement--and it isn’t just because of the recession. Not too long ago, it was a given that a certain percentage of people (around 10%) would choose to retire early when they hit their late 50s or early 60s. This isn’t happening as much anymore. While the economy plays a part in this trend, it has more to do with people’s lifestyles. Many people are getting married or having children later so their kids are still in elementary school when they hit their 50s. Others are taking care of children as well as their parents and can’t afford to stop working. How does this trend affect the culture? Is there a lack of “new blood” in the organization? How can you foster fresh ideas and progress with less turnover? Programs to help employees brainstorm new ideas and the creation of cross-departmental teams can help invigorate employees and foster innovative thinking. Also, it may be time to redefine retirement. What does full-time mean? Can retirement-eligible people work part-time or as consultants if they choose? Are sabbaticals encouraged? This is a great way to increase knowledge and give employees more freedom. Can the organization accommodate new ways of working?

Transfer of knowledge needs to be deliberate
The transfer of knowledge from leaders to managers to employees used to happen on an informal basis. It would trickle down from the top and across departments. Teaching employees about jobs other than their own was done by a manager or mentor. Often, organizations would have employees overlap responsibilities to account for promotions and turnover. Today, organizations are becoming so skinny that there is no overlap. Many employees are becoming individual contributors instead of members of a team that share what they know. In addition, as companies become global and more people telecommute, there is less face-time among employees. Without a deliberate plan for capturing knowledge, it can be lost. Mentor programs are a great way to transfer knowledge within the organization. Many companies have also turned to video to record specific technical, cultural, or even anecdotal information.

Employee pool is more diverse
There are more different kinds of people in the workplace than ever before; a vast range of ages, races, and cultures make up today’s workforce. Because of the recession, a new type of worker is making a mark (and growing in numbers) in organizations across the country--the temporary contract worker. Organizations that are skittish about bringing on full-time, permanent employees in a faltering economy are turning to temporary and contract workers and consultants to fill positions. Increasingly, these temporary positions are on the leadership team. This can have a far-reaching affect on the culture if temporary employees aren’t invested in the organization. But it doesn’t always have to be a negative experience. Short-term employees can bring insight, new ideas, and fresh approaches to work. HR managers can encourage the positives in these situations--and mitigate the risks--by making culture part of the hiring criteria.

The virtual reset button has been hit, and as a result, many of the traditional ways of doing business are changing. HR managers can’t put off investing in new initiatives until they receive a more significant sign that the economy is improving. Instead of waiting for the marketplace to get better and then reacting to any opportunities, now is the time to make conscious decisions about HR strategy and put a plan in place for the current economy.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Keystone Partners, a career management company based in Boston. She can be reached at

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.