HR Austria | Between crisis- and change management

Historical ties and an understanding of multiple different cultures make Austria, and its capital Vienna, the gateway to Central and Eastern Europe, and home to the headquarters of over 600 international companies. Austria’s HR executives have played a pivotal dual role during the lockdown, from ‘fire brigade’ to ‘strategic companion’ on the journey towards a new normal.

In June 2020, Amrop Jenewein surveyed a select group of HR executives to understand their perspective on this rapidly unfolding situation. In this report you will find their insights fresh from the frontlines.

  • How is the function of HR defined in the context of the corona crisis?
  • New Work - just a question of digital tools or a question of the right mindset?
  • Leadership - how to create a culture of trust without losing control?
  • What are the priorities for human resources in the future?

Main findings

HR professionals report that the crisis is accelerating an underlying trend

The role is evolving into a dual function: ‘fire brigades’ and ‘strategic drivers/designers’. This demands a balance between maintaining operations and preparing for the future state. HR professionals must act as a strategic partner at top management level, whilst articulating the agenda towards employees. This balancing act, already underway pre-Covid, has been intensified by the demands of the pandemic.

A hybrid workplace is sought-after

The digitization boost provided by the coronavirus crisis should be treated with caution, say HR executives. This is not a case of ‘either/or’ thinking. The majority (also based on the wishes of employees) seek a blend of home office and office presence. Half of those surveyed are ruling out a 100% move towards home working.

A new working culture means new tools and a new mindset

Based on recent experience, and looking forward, most HR executives are emphasizing the inter-personal dimension. From internal communication and collaboration, to corporate culture, employee motivation and satisfaction, a leadership culture of trust building sits at the center of a packed agenda. And employees have a critical role to play. Success will depend on fostering a team spirit, the sense of belonging, and counter-acting alienation. A continuous information flow and a practice of efficient autonomy will be pivotal.

Managers must resolve the paradox of trust and control

Whilst employees may accept the reality of rapid crisis management, patience with the measures may well begin to fray, it is sensed. Given this, providing a sense of stability and security has never been more important. At the center of this shifting landscape sits a core paradox: maintaining a culture of trust, without losing control.

Action will be needed to operationalize the new

The new modus operandi and the cultural changes that are needed cannot happen by osmosis. They will need to be anchored in practical measures: HR executives foresee the need for extra training investment in areas such as remote employee management, or working with digital tools. Ensuring internal communication, performance management and knowledge transfer will require a re-definition and re-structuring of cooperation, work and organization.

Right now, the focus is on stabilizing the ship

In the coming weeks and months, the key priorities identified by HR executives lie in the areas of stability and guidance, stabilizing the organization and dealing with the financial fallout of Covid-19. In their sights are a range of measures to make the organization water-tight: short-term work management, re-organizational measures (including cost-cutting) securing cash flow, cost monitoring, and the retention of valuable employees. Added to these measures, the establishment of the hybrid workplace infrastructure will be key.

It’s important not to lose strategy in the operational jungle

Given the sheer breadth of the measures underway, HR professionals emphasize the need to preserve the strategic focus of developing a new working culture. Strategy must be underpinned with increased process optimization and digitization, often on the basis of planning reviews and change management. Corporate strategy (including HR strategy and operating models), as well as the development of new business models, will play a central role in the months ahead.

Four key learnings will shape the coming months

  1. Change (especially towards the new way of working) is often possible faster than expected, if the pressure is high enough.
  2. In times of crisis, it becomes clear who stands by the company
  3. Communication and a culture of trust are crucial
  4. In-depth exchange amongst experts, and the anticipation of crisis, will be critical



For all of us, the months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been a time which we will never forget, say the authors of the report, Amrop Jenewein Managing Director Andrea Viehauser, and Managing Partner Günther Tengel.

We experience hope, fear, uncertainty, and yet - particularly as entrepreneurs and managers - we have to make decisions and facilitate transformation. We are longing for closeness, but should maintain our distance. We are establishing new rules, but are stuck in familiar routines. We are talking about digitization, but should realign our mindsets. Yes, the crisis accelerates the opportunities for change - in many cases it acts as a fire accelerator. These times of crisis demand tremendous amounts of communication, control and organization from us, and an even stronger focus on all members of the company in order to support and motivate them; addressing their worries, fears and questions – all of this, however, via digital tools, in compliance with social distancing rules, refraining from valuable etiquette such as shaking hands.

How is leadership going to change in the future? Leadership has always been a balancing act between stability and dynamic agility, order and risk, feasibility and immobility. We are required to rethink guidance and leadership; to reassess the significance of proximity and distance.

Ultimately, it will always be about people. Human resources are the linchpin for the most important decisions. Will human resources be able to accompany a new culture of collaboration in a digital world? Can human resources help building bridges between different groups and interests within companies? Will human resources become a driver for a new culture of trust?

We are all in a real-time natural experiment. We see forked roads and reassess priorities. We are all faced with the same challenge: We are seeking cooperation, an exchange of views, and trust. For without trust, there is no motivation. And, motivation is what we will require in order to work together to create the New Normal, and the New Way of Work, in such a way that we will enjoy living in it.

Read the Full Report