The value of education in a time of crisis

Through the first weeks of crisis and into the new normal, Queen’s IRC has developed new resources for HR leaders to meet any change and challenge

The value of education in a time of crisis

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and HR professionals saw their world crashing down all around them, Stephanie Noël got to work. The director of Queen’s IRC knew that the professionals her Centre served were facing the biggest changes of their careers and the IRC needed to step up as a resource for them.

Rather than going back to the textbooks, the IRC drew on its deep bench of talented facilitators and instructors, launching a series of webinars designed to address the rapidly changing needs of HR professionals. They weren’t preaching from on high, though. Their webinars hinged on Q&As and participant questions submitted before the session. The IRC team looked for the key trends in what their participants were saying they faced, and sought to address them through the free, hour-long webinars.

“We launched our first in week five or six of the lockdown,” Noël says. “It was via zoom and we could see all the participants’ and speakers’ faces. When we saw them, it gave us all an emotional lift, because we’re already feeling so isolated.

“When we first started to offer the sessions, we said ‘maybe 20 people will come maybe 40 people will come, won't that be exciting?’ There are more than 500 people registered for our next session.”

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In the middle of a crisis Noël and the IRC team knew the education they offered had to serve the challenges of the immediate. They worked with urgency to keep HR professionals informed in the face of an ongoing crisis. Now as organizations try to survive in our ‘new normal’ of remote work, social distancing, uncertainty, and change, the IRC is deepening its educational opportunities to meet those challenges. They’re building on their strengths in change management education and integrating them with lessons learned in the first months of the pandemic. They’re offering a suite of programs that show HR professionals that continuing education is key right now, because of, not despite, the crisis.

“Managing and dealing with the substantial waves of changes during a pandemic could be broken down into four Rs: react, respond, rebuild, and reinvent.” Noël says. “Now we’re out of the react and respond zone for the most part. As we move into the rebuild and reinvent stages we have to design our organizations for increased flexibiliy and resilency. Because there’s been so much change so quickly, HR leaders are asking how they can diagnose the challenges ahead, and start to design the right solutions going forward. We’ve built our foundational programs to give them those skills.”

The Labour Relations Foundations program is one of the two hybridized online-in person offerings the IRC plans to launch in the Autumn. It will be taught with some participants physically present and socially distanced, and others attending remotely. Labour Relations Foundations will cover a buffet of key skills like conflict handling, fact finding, grievance handling, collective bargaining, and change management, which has become so crucial in our current time.

The second course, Noël says, was selected because it touches on a theme she’s been hearing about constantly over the past 90 days: trust. The IRC’s Building Trust in the Workplace program has been retooled to meet the demands of workforces and HR leaders unsure of how trust can be built in the long term and now with an increase in remote work Trust was a deeply difficult concept to define and build before the pandemic. Now, Noël says, there’s a need to understand what trust means in our current era and build upon it.

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While the IRC is stepping up its educational offerings to meet the times, a past director, as well as a former participant of the centre, agree that HR leaders should invest in developing new skills. Even as the crisis keeps HR leaders stuck in the day-to-day, they say a look at the bigger picture is crucial.

“Historically,  when times get tough, learning and development is the first [aspect of HR work that] gets cut,” says Paul Juniper, former director of the IRC and a veteran HR director with over 30 years of frontline experience. “In this environment that we're in now, I think that’s proving entirely the wrong thing to do.”

He says that as organizations face completely different circumstances, they need their teams and their HR professionals to wield the most up to date skills possible to manage a state of ongoing change. Even in an environment of strained resources, Juniper says that ensuring HR leaders can manage change effectively is not a discretionary spend.

Juniper says that change management has been woven into the fabric of Queen’s IRC. It’s something, he says, that serves middle managers especially well as they feel squeezed by changes that may cost them their jobs. For those key people, learning to get ahead of changes and manage shocks as they come can ripple out throughout the organization, reducing overall anxiety and giving a better sense of overall preparedness.

“My organization is essential so we never stopped running,” says Melanie Winter, the Organizational Development Advisor for hygiene and tissue manufacturer Cascades Inc. and a past participant of several Queen’s IRC programs. “The ability to pivot quickly was vital because we didn't even have time to stop and shut things down, we had to figure it all out on the fly.”

With word coming down from governments daily, employees voicing a range of concerns, and demand for hygiene products at a panic-driven high, Winter had to rely on the change management skills she honed at the IRC. She says that through her education she learned to manage change through a human lens, and could ensure that every part of the organization was able to react and cope well with the huge stresses they faced.

“The lessons I learned were really important not just to make the changes so the business could keep running,” she says. “We could make the changes that kept the business running safely, where the employees felt heard, they felt safe, and they felt taken care of.”

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