2020 was a hard year – I think no one of us would disagree with it. Business-wise, it asked many companies to adapt quickly and bravely in times where structured planning was almost non-existent. As people, we were catapulted into a new way of working and living. For us at gategroup, it was especially challenging as so much of our business is directly related to the airline industry, which was decimated by COVID-19.

From an HR perspective, this was an enormous challenge – we had to find a viable path between the often-conflicting forces of business continuity, financial restriction, organizational restructuring and terrible, terrible human costs. There always is a path, but where and how to find it?

Dave Ulrich once described the role of HR as “paradox navigators” – and at some point, in our career we have all had to face these paradoxes. The paradox I’m now facing is one of surviving and thriving: ensuring the going concern of gategroup and preparing the phase after the crisis while enabling the path out of the crisis. Both are required, but they require different activities, skills, and mindsets – and the root of the paradox is simple: it’s not achieving one or the other, but both.

For context, airline and airline-related industries have been hit dramatically by COVID-19, with the most optimistic estimate for recovery being by mid-2022, and more pessimistic estimates reaching as far as 2026. For gategroup, this was unprecedented. With no planes, no food is needed on the planes, and even with planes, meals have been restricted to a minimum. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand the impact this new reality has had on our organization, business, and people.

The realities of the world as we had come to know them had fundamentally changed, and we unprepared and wondering what to do next. Obviously, we had to continue, and the company must remain a working concern – a situation demanding immediate and decisive action to impose and maintain cost control, reorganize the business, and keep the organization functional in what had abruptly become an extremely challenging environment. In turn, this requires that as HR professionals we are obliged to implement some unpleasant necessities as the company is brought back to stability.

That in itself is a challenge.

But this once-in-a-century catastrophe also offers an equal opportunity. Planned or not, we are freed from the constraints of the old structure and given the freedom to dream of something new, different, and better. Our new organization can be built better and stronger, if we can manage the paradox.

Business continuity demands immediacy – short term, rational thought and decision making based on the hard demands of survival. Without survival, we cannot thrive.

But if we cannot thrive, what point is there in survival? We must ensure that despite the pressure of surviving the now we don’t lose our vision of the potential of the future. It’s like the classic metaphor of the penguins on a melting ice floe. To ensure the survival of the many, some of the group must go explore for new possibilities.

It is our responsibility not only to do what is necessary to help the organization survive, but also to keep a human focus and a vision to the future. The question then becomes, how can we empower our leadership teams to embark on a path to a thriving future, and how do we support them, our teams, and the organization in general as they do it?

Vision, perseverance, and cultural change.

On the business side, management must have a clear vision of what is needed to survive, and the perseverance to carry it through. However, thriving takes something more. It requires a culture of exploration and change.

As the COVID crisis grew, nobody was thinking about the people strategy – in fact nobody was thinking about the people. The unthinkable had happened, and everyone was completely focused on the demands of the present. When I joined gate, I immediately started an HR community to sharing experiences, building resources and gathering information, and establishing a sense of unity that would allow us to break out of the trajectory imposed by the crisis.

In the beginning, it was a hard sell. It seemed counterintuitive – paradoxical, even – to pull resources from survival to talk about a future nobody seemed ready to believe in. But after the first few meetings, it began to pull together, to make sense. Everybody needed a framework to grow into after the crisis, and we all gained strength from having the direction and motivation by presenting something positivistic and aspirational to look towards amongst the occasionally heartbreaking work of managing people in the midst of a crisis.

It turned out that having the ambition to thrive is an emotional escape valve, a source of solidarity. It gave us what we needed to shake up system from within, set up new behaviors, respark engagement, and ultimately get those things done that we need to survive. Cultural change turned out to be a very real business driver.

Thriving culture, culture of thriving

Building a thriving working culture is quite pragmatic, once started. It’s a constant reinforcement of the need and the tools for a forward, visionary perspective. It’s a matter of keeping things human, and supporting your people in their dreams and aspirations. If driving change is challenging, live it. Be the role model, and inspire behavior by living it. Act within your own sphere of influence.

I saw so much commitment and passion and willingness to sacrifice throughout the COVID crisis that I needed wanted to create an environment where that passion can be fulfilled and the rewards reaped. After all, how successful would your organization be if we enabled our people to do their best at all times?