Author and entrepreneur Peter Hinssen released his new book 'The Phoenix and the Unicorn' at the beginning of March. It outlines how companies can rise from the ashes like phoenixes through innovation and attributes a crucial role to HR. In times of corona, his recipes acquire a special connotation. "Corona can hurl HR into the 21st century," he says bluntly.


Many describe the Corona crisis as a tipping point for the relationship between companies and their employees. Do you agree?

"It's a tipping point and everything happens at high speed. Just as the banks had a stress test in 2008, the companies are now undergoing a digital stress test. As a company, you are now learning whether you can still function in a world in which digital is the norm. How fortunate that we've gone through this digital evolution faster at home than at work. Everyone has broadband, because we wanted to watch Netflix, allowing us to make use of it now. I see the impact on the relationship with your employees as a kind of rollercoaster curve. At some point we're going to miss the workplace too. Once this is over, we'll be so happy to get everyone back together again. I'm expecting some sort of rebound effect. The human touch in employee policy becomes something of a premium."


What do you think is the most important lesson for employers?

“Most importantly, employers need to start thinking in a certain way about a range of elements that are in need of revision in this new reality. How are we going to measure the output of our people and how are we going to reward them? Hours of performance is a concept from the industrial era. This crisis makes it clear that performance revolves around an employee's output and that means you have to deal with trust in a different way. If companies want to adapt their operational model to this rapidly changing context, then trust as a cultural factor is super important.”

In other words, companies that want to strictly control their teleworkers are not doing a good job?

"It's understandable, because it's an extension of the control culture from industrial thinking. Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about Frank Van Massenhove, who pioneered the successful introduction of working from home at the FPS Social Security. His biggest opponents were initially the trade unions, because they feared it was a way to make people work even more. They insisted on measurements up to the microsecond, but after a while they were amazed by the positive impact on the quality of life of the employees. Measuring automatically became a total absurdity. In this way, you automatically shift to another control: no longer in time, but in output. Such a change of mentality takes time, but now we're going to gain momentum because there's no other way.”

In 'The Phoenix and the Unicorn' you explain how companies can resurrect like phoenixes thanks to innovation. How can you prepare departments such as HR and R&D in the midst of a crisis?

"This is an incredibly good time to see where the pain points are. It would be a pity if after this crisis we do the same thing we have done for the past ten years. This is the time to think: how will my company become more focused on employee output, how will we deal with trust, control and incentives in a different way? In concrete terms, this means that you now have to think about how you can better motivate people to take responsibility for concrete topics. Things like training or taking holidays, for example.”


What are good examples of companies that were already doing this before this crisis?

"I like what banks like KBC and Belfius are doing. These are companies that have had a very hard time, but have turned out enormously well. They fought the digital battle, but at the same time they were looking for a new balance. They had to integrate new people and get their existing people into their new organisation as much as possible. They became beautiful examples of companies that really try to do things differently. Also in the field of HR. These are the examples we have to cultivate in Belgium.”

Looking at the practical level, what should you as an HR department be doing during this crisis?

“At the moment, we need to keep some sort of diary or report on all the points of work that are reviewed for HR. You can then tackle them the moment the dust settles a little. Is it still useful to draw up annual budgets? Does it still make sense to start from those old hierarchical structures? HR has to move away from the purely transactional role of the past and is becoming crucial in changing corporate culture. HR can really be the driver of change within the company. It should shift the emphasis to bringing inspiration and motivation to work in a different way. In that role you can see the resurrection of HR. At the same time, I think that HR services are also gaining insight into the skeleton and into capacity issues. This stress test shows how many people you really need in your company. This is an exciting period for estimating employment capacity."

What impact does this crisis have on the future of temporary work?

"Businesses will have to become more agile, which means flexibility will gain in importance. This flexibilisation of labour will be very intense. That sounds strange because this is anything but an obvious period for the temporary employment sector. A company like Randstad can become a phoenix because the need for flexible labour will increase. Although the government will also have to cooperate. This was the last bastion still somewhat behind in digitisation. We now see an enormous opportunity to look at employment in a different way in the public sector, for example. Because, make no mistake, this won't be the last crisis. We will have to learn to respond to crises, and work must not be an obstacle in any way."


More information about the Phoenix & the unicorn?