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Shaping the new normal: Insights from Deputy Secretary Rob Heferen

This time last year, if someone had told you the APS would be taking on historic new measures, redeploying large parts of the workforce and enabling huge numbers of staff to work from home – all in a matter of weeks – would you have believed them?

Probably not. And yet as COVID-19 has forced us to rapidly rethink the limits of our capability – as public servants and as HR professionals – that’s exactly where we find ourselves.

Rob Heferen, Deputy Secretary of Higher Education, Research and International at the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, sat down with us to discuss the nature of this rapidly changing environment, and what it means for HR in the APS.

Strategic, informed advice: the role of HR

“Can you imagine the process even a year ago, if someone requested staff really urgently?” Rob posed. “It would have taken weeks. Contrast that with the situation today… In just three days we identified 500 people who could immediately move to Services Australia! The health crisis mixed with the economic crisis has enabled this change.”

In such a rapidly changing environment, HR obviously has an important role to play, and there is an incredible opportunity right now for our profession to demonstrate its worth. Even at this moment HR professionals around the country are improving systems, removing barriers to shift people to areas of need, and coming up with ways to collect the pertinent, accurate workforce information that’s so crucial right now.

But what are the key areas we should be focusing on as HR professionals?

Rob was quick to highlight the importance of HR providing strategic, informed advice, and being at the heart of the response to the crisis.

“In previous years, an HR representative would probably give advice and it probably wouldn’t be taken with a lot of gravitas,” Rob said. “Now HR is a lot more authoritative, and the APS Professional Stream has put it up another level. It’s making it a lot better, because people are going to have a lot more credibility when bringing solutions to the table.”

Of course, to make your strategic advice valuable to business, you need to have the right information. “There’s a need for all areas, particularly HR areas, to be more curious,” Rob said. “We need to always be looking at what’s happened in other places, and taking those lessons to apply in the workplace.”

This extends to knowing your own workforce, and having the right data on hand. Rob emphasised the importance of using detailed, accurate information about staff experience and skill sets to make the right decisions. He used the example of redeploying staff to frontline roles, saying: “If we want people to go to the call centres, then we need to know: do we have staff with experience there? Maybe people who would only need a small amount of training to get them ready? We need to have that information available so we can make those high-level decisions.”

Where we’re going next – and the risks we face

There’s no doubt that this crisis will have a long-term impact on all aspects of society, and it’s no different for our profession. HR has the opportunity to thrive, and come out of this crisis stronger than before. As Rob put it: “When you have a big shock to the system, you can cut through things really quickly… There’s a saying in a lot of social science areas: never waste a crisis.”

But is there a danger that in such a rapidly changing environment, we could end up unintentionally setting things on the wrong path?

Rob certainly thinks so, and cautions against thinking this is just a “black swan event that we won’t see again”.

So what are the risks we run, and the potential consequences for HR and the APS?

Doubling down on his earlier statement about the importance of staff information, Rob cautions about the potential long-term impacts to the way sensitive data is handled. He points in particular to health data, saying that “personal health and personal circumstances are becoming more and more important, because if someone’s in poor health, you don’t want to expose them to extra risk of the coronavirus. You don’t want to put them on the phones, for example, in close proximity to lots of other people.”

While that information is obviously necessary to the work we are doing now, Rob warns us to be aware of the precedent it might set: “What used to be called very sensitive or private will change. We’re already seeing this with millennials and younger generations, and what they’re willing to share about their personal lives.”

It's just one example of how the decisions we make here and now, in the heat of this crisis, will have long-term implications – both positive and negative.

A final word

There’s no doubt in Rob’s mind that this crisis will shape the future of the APS irreversibly. He compares it to another keystone change from many years ago: “There was this massive shift in the workplace where there were hundreds of people moving out of the typing pools, and it caused a lot of disruption… That was the start of the APS making way for computers.”

But Rob points out that even that change pales in comparison to what we’re going through now. “That transition was a big shock to the system and the people,” he said, “but the pace of change, while massive, still happened over a number of years.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-generation event. Events of this magnitude can't help but have a unique impact on society, where previously unthinkable shifts take place in social norms. And sometimes these are based on decisions made in the thick of the moment.

The challenge is that those making many of the fast decisions to help us get through this crisis, and those responsible for considering the long-term implications of those decisions, are one and the same: HR professionals.

So we must remember to strike the right balance between supporting business and looking after our people, as we look ahead to the future. We can’t forget that we will be the ones responsible for the impacts of those decisions.

No matter what times we are in, be they peaceful or turbulent, we must always be the voice of reason and evidence-based thinking.

Last reviewed: 
17 April 2020