The COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of HR as a strategic business partner.
By Simon Kent
With the greatest impact of the pandemic falling on an organisation’s people, it is not surprising that the past year has increased the need for strategic and strong leadership within HR. Research from HR software provider Personio shows the HR function has played a critical role in the business response, with eight out of 10 respondents saying HR has been integral to helping their organisations successfully adapt to the new normal. Encouragingly, nine out of 10 rated the function’s response as “good” or “very good.” Overall, 71% of respondents believe HR has added strategic value to the business during the pandemic—with the same amount saying the HR function has been more closely involved at the board and senior level.
The heightened status of HR is confirmed by the experience of Laura Welsh, HR director at LHH UK and Ireland, although she is swift to note that HR cannot rest on its laurels. “Our research shows that the board shows greater appreciation for the HR function. It’s great to have that recognition, but in order to claim that seat at the top table, HR needs to stop being viewed as a transactional function, but as an important part of business strategy. Many HR leaders can easily fall into a relationship with their peers that is operational and reactive, which immediately downplays their importance. These are issues that the HR leadership has advocated for years, and proactively pushing a people-first strategy will be key in being viewed as a leader of the business,” she says.
For Regine Buettner, global executive vice president of HR for DHL Express, HR has always been regarded with a high status in the business. However, she says COVID-19 made the function’s importance even more clear. “What the pandemic has done for us is reaffirm that there really is no such thing as a ‘support function.’ Our frontline couriers and operations colleagues have been nothing short of heroes during this time, but every function in the business has been integral in supporting that endeavor, including HR.”
Among HR’s role was keeping employees safe, helping them adapt to remote work, and supporting them through the personal and professional challenges that arose as a result of the pandemic. However, DHL’s HR team also took the lead in innovative practices, including the rollout of a new employee app and conducting a global “Future of Work” project, to guide the company’s longer-term business goals.
“This period has really shone a spotlight on the role of HR, and I expect this expertise will become even more valued going forward,” says Buettner. “As we emerge from the pandemic, HR will continue to be responsible for shaping the future of the workplace as well as changes to policy, leadership, engagement, and well-being that will be required as a result of a shift in working patterns and practices.”
HireRight’s CHRO Chelsea Pyrzenski also describes a mix of providing ongoing support for a high-performing culture and taking a more strategic role. “HR has led business continuity plan communications, alignment, and overall strategy for our teams as we have responded to global and local changes caused by the pandemic,” she says.
Pyrzenski reports that her HR colleagues from other businesses have also experienced a similar shift. “I have heard from my network of other HR professionals that HR has moved from the peripheral to front and centre of their businesses’ strategic focus, providing an organic opportunity to put HR in the driver’s seat of business significance. The traditional talent and teamwork initiatives that may have seemed like fluff in the past are now being seen as bottom-line indicators of the success of a business, especially around cost of regrettable loss or cost of lowered productivity,” she says.
With vaccinations becoming more widespread and business slowly returning to normal, HR leaders’ fate will not simply rest on what they have achieved already, but on what they can do over the next few months and years.
“HR has not just navigated businesses through to the calmer waters we can see ahead, but the industry has played a pivotal role in business transformation too,” says Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of HRi. “This is a role that will continue far beyond the pandemic and one which will determine whether the organisation survives until its next crisis. HR has been able to justify its position at the leadership table, and in my opinion, it is here to stay.
“Never has the role of an HR professional been so well respected and, indeed, highly sought after,” Cornish adds. “The HR industry has grasped the opportunity to prove its worth and claim its long-deserved place at the leadership table. When the dust settles and we start to move to a brighter future, all effort must be made to ensure this critical voice in business continues to be heard.”
In this respect, however, Cathy Acratopulo, co-founder and managing director of LACE Partners, sounds a note of caution. She believes there will be a significant churn within HR departments where organisations feel less than satisfied with their people management performance.
“The intensity of the pandemic is slowly being turned down and company executives have time to reflect on how well their team has responded to this crisis, and ultimately, whether their HR director (HRD) was up to the job,” she says. “The churn of the HRDs who did not make the grade may well be added to by those that did but have been burnt out from being at the forefront during an incredibly difficult time, under significant and prolonged pressure. Some HRDs may want to take a break and disconnect.”
But just like the last year, the future remains uncertain. “For HR directors that have excelled, CEOs will be more committed than ever to acknowledging the value that HR brings to their organisation,” concludes Acratopulo. “Whether HRDs can expect to keep their heightened board level status is not just a question of their past capability but also their readiness to engage with the challenges that are still yet to come.”