Shake, rattle and roll

I’ve done some odd things in my nearly 20 year HR career, and I’ve seen and heard almost everything you can imagine to do with people and organisations. People are endlessly fascinating as are organisations.

It’s fair to say I have a fairly senior role and I blog about different elements of HR based on my knowledge and experience. But occasionally something happens that they don’t teach you in the textbooks or the CIPD course.

This time last week (Sunday night as I write this) I was working. Two hours earlier the Wellington region had been rattled by a 6.5 earthquake. Our house shook violently for about 20 seconds and it seemed like the ground kept moving for at least two minutes afterwards. News quickly started to filter through of widespread damage.

I’ve lived in Wellington for 16 years and experienced many quakes in that time. This however was the strongest, most vigorous shake I can remember. I don’t mind admitting I was scared. Those of us who choose to call Wellington home live with the knowledge that we are in an earthquake zone and long overdue “the big one.” I thought the big one had arrived and there were those terrible few seconds when you wonder whether the ceiling will come crashing down on you.

When the big Christchurch quakes happened in 2010 and 2011 with large loss of life we were shocked. Christchurch was not expecting or well prepared for it. We all thought something like that would only happen in Wellington. We thought we had dodged a bullet.

Fortunately, last weeks shake happened early on a Sunday evening when the central city was largely deserted, not on the lunchtime of a working day like the Christchurch quake. Unlike Christchurch, no one was killed or seriously injured and no buildings collapsed. We dodged another bullet.

However, for the second time in three years I found myself in the midst of an HR response to an earthquake. When it became clear that trains would not be running on Monday and workers were being asked to stay away from the CBD until at least lunchtime we made the call as a management team to declare the office shut for the day along with many other large businesses until we could be sure our office building was safe. Further quakes were expected. I was still making phone calls, sending emails and staff comms out after midnight.

We put our business continuity plans into action and everything that needed to happen in the business on Monday was done by people working remotely and going the extra mile. The building was declared safe late on Monday and it was business as usual from Tuesday.

One week on and there are still some office and car parking buildings out of bounds for safety reasons in the CBD. But life is pretty much back to normal for most of us.

I remember the aftermath of the Christchurch quake well. My then employer had an office in Christchurch and we waited anxiously for everyone to be accounted for. It had been the middle of the day when the big one struck; many staff were out at meetings or at lunch. They scattered in all directions.

People just dropped everything and got out of the city as fast as they could. Belongings, phones, laptops were left behind in the office as the staff evacuated little knowing it would be months before they would get their things back.

I remember three staff members turning up in my office in Wellington the following day with no possessions and dressed in the clothes they had been wearing the day before. Unable to get back to their central city flats, they hitched a lift to the top of the south island and then caught the ferry to Wellington the next morning just happy to be out of there, happy to be alive.

The road back to normality for those staff and all the other people of Christchurch has been long and tough. I hope nothing that bad will ever happen in Wellington. But the chances are it will one day, and we got a sharp reminder of that last week.

To be honest, you can’t ever really prepare for this stuff. Because the one thing I learned about Christchurch is that it all comes back to people. People react in different ways to life changing events. The initial shock, the ongoing stress, the pressure from terrified families wanting to move, the difficult conditions they are living and working in, the grief of those who have lost friends and family, the constant reminders of what has happened.

That’s when HR needs to make a difference and that’s what HR needs to be prepared for. Forget all the bollocks about strategy and having policy adherence, sometimes we just need to be human and remember that people really ARE our organisation’s biggest assets and that, just for a while, the “real” HR stuff really isn’t that important.

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