Today’s world is full of uncertainty. COVID-19 has completely changed the way the world looks, feels, and operates. The impact on a vast majority of businesses— small to large, can easily be seen. Each day seems to present a new set of challenges and can feel like a complete change in direction. An HR professional can feel overwhelmed if there are changes to an organization’s strategic plan. At ExpressJet Airlines—a North American regional airline exclusively providing services to United Airlines—things are no different. At the beginning of 2020, the organizational strategy was laser-focused on three main objectives: growth, culture, and improvement. In Q1 2020, we acquired nearly 40 additional aircraft and forecasted 50 percent growth. Now midway through Q3 2020, ExpressJet must change course. By the end of 2020, we will have wound down our flying partnership with United Airlines. COVID-19 and its fallout have been formidable adversaries for HR professionals; however, a strong, yet dynamic strategy is your best armor to adapt and survive.

It is easy, especially during uncertain times, to abandon your strategy and turn your attention to the immediate needs of the organization. After all, the likelihood of the needs of the organization will be the same in 3 months, which is extremely unlikely. However, ignoring your strategic plan, or worse, masquerading a task list as a strategy, is a recipe for disaster. The HR function has come a long way over the past few decades, transforming from merely an administrative function to a trusted advisor and partner. Abandoning all strategic thinking and acting in the “now” pushes the team backward, erasing all the growth and advancement. Additionally, abandoning a strategic plan can have dire consequences on the organization. Engagement can suffer, morale can drop, and the organization’s most important asset— its people can feel ignored.

During times of uncertainty, I try to take a moment to gain perspective on the situation, trying to ignore the noise. This is usually accomplished early on Saturday or Sunday mornings or late in the evening, when the noise and chaos of the day is less intense. It is during these times, I can focus; I can assess; I can plan. I am able to utilize our strategic plan that we envisioned when the world was more stable, and determine what parts of our strategy are relevant, working, or need to adapt. The pieces that are stead fast make up my foundation, continuing to lay the path forward. For example, growth strategies quickly adapt to survival strategies, but culture, engagement, and continuous improvement often remain. In situations where no pieces remain, building the path forward is a little more challenging. With so much unknown, leaders must have a dynamic approach, often with multiple paths, to manage and adapt to the tumultuous change. However, the foundational objectives are steadfast. Uncertain times presented an easy opportunity to deviate from the strategy; don’t listen to the noise. Focus on your strategy, use your foundation to thrive, adapt, and survive.

COVID-19 and its fallout have been formidable adversaries for HR professionals; however, a strong, yet dynamic strategy is your best armor to adapt and survive

Over the past several months, COVID-19 and its fallout has forced me to put this in practice. My HR team’s original top three 2020 objectives were:

- Achieve talent acquisition targets by improving and integrating 1) the function and 2) the strategy;
- Improve and solidify the company culture, as well as our internal and external engagement; and
- Continuously improve by identifying, optimizing and improving operations and activities.

When travel demand collapsed, our plan of growth was tabled. The focus on talent acquisition, our #1 priority for 2020,vanished,however, the other pieces remained. Working remotely immediately challenged our culture, and it was quite uncomfortable, at least initially. We engaged our employees through frequent remote working pointers and provided weekly COVID-19 updates, and eventually, remote working became the new normal. Continuous improvement originally meant simplification to maximize profitability, but a fundamental shift was required. Immediately, we refocused to survival, meaning aggressive cost savings and optimization. We accelerated ideas for simplification and cost savings, forcing us to question “business as usual” processes that no longer made financial sense. The death of George Floyd pulled inclusion and diversity initiatives, planned for late 2020,to center stage. We found ourselves questioning where we stood, asking whether we were combating or contributing to the problem. We needed to assess our culture. We launched an anonymous Inclusion and Diversity Survey to obtain employees’ views of the company and assess progress on inclusion and diversity initiatives. As we were putting together our action plan, ExpressJet learned that United decided to wind down our flying operations. Again, we need to adapt our action plan, but our core values remain steadfast.

With 2020’s relentless environment, flexibility and adaptability are a necessity, a requirement for survival. As a HR professional, a dynamic foundational plan allowed me to keep positive and more importantly, my sanity. I was able to focus, assess, and plan. Often within days, the needs of the organization changed. The pre-pandemic vision for building, guiding, and enhancing company culture and engagement, as well as continuous improvement, unfortunately, looks different today. Despite the need to wind down our flying operations the foundational held true, just with a different perspective.

If we had abandoned our strategic plan, focused only on the immediate tasks, our organization would have stumbled and suffered during this crisis. Our strong foundation enabled us to stay fluid, refocusing priorities and deliverables. As a result, it allowed us to 1) effectively implement improvements, while focusing on cost savings; 2) wind down our operations efficiently and as seamlessly as possible; and 3) keep true to our culture, focusing on our employee transitions. We still have a lot of work to do. As we assist the thousands of employees exiting the organization through furloughs or terminations, helping as many as possible feel the company guided them through the transition, as smoothly as possible, our commitment to our culture and engagement foundation will be critical. Obviously, this wind down is not what we wanted, but we strive to inform departing employees on how this transition process will work and that every employee leaves feeling respected and appreciated. This is our sense of duty as a HR professional.

2020 is probably one of the most important and impactful times we will have in our careers. It is during this uncertainty; it is easy to focus on the immediate task, losing your perspective, abandoning the strategy until times are less tumultuous. Benjamin Disraeli said, “Change is inevitable. Change is constant.” In 2020, abandoning the strategy until times are more stable would mean abandoning strategy all together; we are waiting for the calm.