John Whitaker Change Management, COVID-19, Employee Relations, Leadership, Managing People, Recruiting, Talent Strategy

Years ago, I started writing about “The Physics of HR.” I based my theory on Newton’s Laws of Motion and their respective applicability to our work in Human Resources. In case you need a refresher, here’s a quick Schoolhouse Rock reminder of Newton’s three laws of motion:

  1. An object in a state of motion will remain in motion unless an external force acts on it.
  2. “Force” equals mass x acceleration. 
  3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

These simple rules would become the foundation for my philosophy on Human Resources, leadership, performance management, and life in general. I still keep a Newton’s Cradle on my desk and at home (gotta stay on brand, my friend.) The genius of Newton’s “laws” is in the every-day applicability – once you start plugging scenarios into these three rules, you can begin explaining (and possibly predicting) outcomes using a new language. 

For instance; your company makes the decision to go from a twice-monthly pay period to a bi-weekly pay period by the end of Q2, 2020. Sounds simple enough at first blush but plug it into Newton’s Laws. The force of change depends on the “mass” and the “acceleration” that accompanies the change. In this example, the change would impact 100% of your employees (mass) and you are trying to accomplish this task in roughly eight weeks (acceleration.) That’s quite a bit of external force applied to a process that had followed the same course of motion prior to the new cadence. And with this force will come an equal and opposite reaction, i.e., prepare for an uproar from your employees who will now need to budget differently, adjust any auto-pay installments, and (on paper) are now receiving a smaller paycheck, albeit more frequently. I went through this exact exercise 10 years ago while in middle management and the executive team was shocked by the pushback. They shouldn’t have been – Newton would have told you buckle up, ‘cause this is gonna hurt.

Now, in 2020, we’re hit with the single largest force in the history of our modern civilization. The mass is enormous, and the speed/acceleration was unlike anything we have ever seen. I remind myself that just eight weeks ago, on March 10th, my company’s Board of Directors enthusiastically listened to our business segment updates; we had just completed the single highest performing Quarter in our company history.

For Human Resources, my update included workforce planning to handle the expected growth in Q3 and beyond, as available talent was scarce. Unemployment was at an all-time low. As a country, we had more open positions than we could fill. And now? Fffffffffft. One unprecedented set of events was replaced with another unprecedented set of events seemingly overnight. An equal and opposite reaction of such magnitude, we are still feeling the effects. That Board meeting not only seems like an ancient memory, it’s a painful one as well.

From the lowest unemployment rate in history to the highest in the history of the United States. How many of you were shocked, as I was, when we learned this rate of unemployment even exceeds the Great Depression? The jobseeker absolutely controlled the job market just two months ago, able to consider multiple job options from a position of strength. Many of these same people are now adjusting to a new life of filing for unemployment benefits and dealing with the fear of unsafe working environments.

And now what? The laws of physics will not be suspended, right? What will the next reaction be? There are over 30 million people out of work. State governments are varying their respective approach on how to phase back into a working economy. There will be some unexpected and problematic reactions as a result. Prime example? An overly generous, if well-intentioned, government stimulus plan that is actually incentivizing many people to remain unemployed. 

This is a reminder that the changes you make will not happen in a vacuum. Each will come with a reaction, many of which may not be on your radar – but none should be unexpected. Consider the magnitude of each – how many will be impacted? How quickly will it be implemented?

Your expectation should not be perfection, only preparation. As Newton himself said: “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”