From wellness to management, HR leaders share how the COVID-19Â pandemic will impact the world of work now and in the future.
By Simon Kent
As the global pandemic forced businesses into lockdownÂ and new challenging ways of working, the pressureÂ on HR to adapt, instruct, and cope has been immense.Â It is interesting to note that a recent poll by the CIPDÂ of HR teams in the UK found that 63 per cent of HRÂ respondents saw no change to the headcount of theirÂ teams, whilst an additional 2 per cent said they wouldÂ actually be growing the function. This is just oneÂ indication of the ongoing role HR now has in makingÂ businesses work in the new normal.
âIn these challenging times, the role of HR is crucial asÂ many people have questions, need advice, and oftenÂ just want to have a sparring discussion what to do,âÂ says Ingrid Kraaijbeek, HR leader of people solutions atÂ Bridgestone. Her company has put into place a numberÂ of initiatives across EMIA to support employees inÂ all countries. She explains the business doesnât wantÂ employees to worry about pre-set goals that may nowÂ not be achievable. âIt is all about connecting withÂ our employees, making sure they can work in safeÂ circumstances, having them speak up about workload,Â help them prioritise, and stay focused, and for them toÂ know that our leaders are there to help them.
âWe have amazing people who have been showingÂ commitment and dedication, they are facing a very highÂ workload at the moment and helping them to prioritise,Â focus and feel at ease in these circumstances is key,â sheÂ adds. âI am fortunate that my manager does the sameÂ with me.â
âProductivity is a difficult thing to measure in theseÂ challenging times,â admits Amy Tomlinson, head of HRÂ at MetLife UK, âbut there are some basic milestones,Â such as call volumes, that we can compare before homeÂ working was implemented.â
Tomlinson emphasises that her team is aware thatÂ employeesâ new workspaces will have a huge impact onÂ their productivity. âWe understand that working fromÂ home, for some, comes with children needing to beÂ homeschooled and dogs barking at the postal worker,Â for example. We want our people to feel comfortableÂ changing their working patterns to accommodate theseÂ challenges. Teams have embraced this approach and weÂ trust our people to monitor their own productivity. WeÂ understand finding the balance can be tough for manyÂ with so much going on and we try to offer our people asÂ much support as we can wherever possible.â
Ellen Petry Leanse, chief people officer for Lucidworks,Â also highlights the need for HR to keep a firm gripÂ on the compliance side of managing the newlyÂ homebound workforce. âMy team has been diligentÂ about understanding changes in law, policy, and evenÂ benefits at this time so we can keep employees in theÂ know and let them focus on the work theyâre thereÂ to do,â she explains. One part of this has been theÂ creation of a âVirtual Care Package.â This programmeÂ offers a wide array of physical health, mental wellness,Â and productivity tips along with resources forÂ entertainment, exercise, and family activities.
Employee wellness is also a concern for Regine Beuttner.Â The executive vice president of global HR for DHLÂ Express is managing a workforce that is still very muchÂ active and working in its usual environment, althoughÂ it is now under added pressure and risk. âWhilstÂ employee recognition has always been central to theÂ way we operate at DHL Express, now more than ever,Â we need our workforce to know how much their effortsÂ and commitment is appreciated. Now is not the timeÂ for business awards or accolades, but for authenticÂ and frequent acknowledgement of your employeesâÂ everyday efforts,â she says.
The current climate is pushing companies to be agileÂ in their approaches. âTypical responses wonât workÂ today due to the size and pace of economic change,Â the urgency of the demands, and the unpredictabilityÂ of what comes next,â says David Pierce, executive viceÂ president of global commercial at Axiom. âThe recessionÂ will force teams to reset how they resource work.Â In order to stay in control amidst hiring freezes andÂ budget cuts, leaders must recalibrate their legal spend,Â retaining control over risk, resources, and their teams.â
In other words, HR is only at the start of what will beÂ an incredibly challenging time. Moving forward, PierceÂ advises managers to be transparent in what they do andÂ set realistic expectations of their workforce. LeadersÂ also need to be empathetic and acknowledge theÂ uncertainty and doubt that employees are facing, andÂ they must stay connected.
However, the issue of staying connected is by no meansÂ simple in the maelstrom of conference calls, messages,Â WhatsApp conversations, and webinars directed atÂ employees. HR needs to strike a balance betweenÂ communicating with employees and ensuring they donâtÂ feel overwhelmed by the wide breadth of channels.
Julie Chell, chief people officer of public sector softwareÂ firm Civica, is keen to find out what her employees areÂ experiencing from the frontlines. âAs weâre currentlyÂ unable to get a sense of how people are feeling throughÂ normal, ad-hoc conversations, weâre rolling out regularÂ pulse surveys to understand the issues that our peopleÂ face around the globe, so we can proactively andÂ quickly improve things and make sure colleagues feelÂ supported,â she says.
âI feel we have two choices at this time,â says PetryÂ Leanse of Lucidworks. âThe firstÂ would simply be to get sucked into the vortex and spendÂ our day obeying the commands of various technologiesÂ to log into this, respond to that, text everyone anÂ update. Weâd get a bunch of nice little dopamine joltsÂ from all of that, for sure, yet we might miss the chanceÂ to be satisfied by real productivity and contribution. TheÂ other choice is to use this time to shift our behaviours,Â reclaiming time for focused, deeper work that canÂ actually generate better results and more satisfaction.â
For Leanse, this means encouraging employees toÂ schedule their days with key objectives in mindâidentifying what makes a difference rather than justÂ what keeps people busyâand advocating employeesÂ to block work time on their calendars, join the regularÂ learning sessions the company now offers, and toÂ embrace their new âno meetings on Fridayâ policy.
As practices have changed, people are acknowledgingÂ that just as the world will not revert back to the wayÂ it was any time soonâor possibly everânor willÂ HR. Agility has always been important to retain theÂ competitive edge, but these changes go further toÂ impact on how employees work together every day.
Ute Schouten, HR director at water and waste companyÂ SUEZ Germany, reports that the new way of workingÂ has brought with it some clear benefits. âEverybody hasÂ noticedâsometimes with surpriseâthat many thingsÂ can be handled much easier than before,â she says.Â âMany managers had mixed feelings about regularÂ remote work for their teamânow it works quiteÂ naturally and performance is good.â
Within her own function, unnecessary bureaucracy hasÂ been reduced and systems became more efficient as aÂ result. âIn HR, we consider every personal signatureâifÂ it is really necessary or if we could do it with AdobeÂ sign. Very often, we decide that Adobe sign will do.Â We are more than happy about the digital HR files andÂ have developed new processes to store documents moreÂ easily. Those are procedures which will not be changedÂ back. The use of the camera in digital meetings is quiteÂ common now, and sometimes we have the impressionÂ that discussions are even more intense and focused thanÂ in a personal meeting,â she says.
Chell agrees that some COVID response practices willÂ now stand firm for Civica. âWeâve also already gotÂ one eye on the future,â she says. âWe all know thatÂ future working needs to be more agile, similar to howÂ weâre currently working. In this global crisis, weâreÂ being more innovative and creative than ever as weÂ look for solutions to the everyday challenges of socialÂ isolation, uncertainty, and supporting each other andÂ our extended families through sickness and personalÂ challenges.â
Considerations for the New Normal
Whilst the pandemic can never be viewed as havingÂ a positive impact for any business or any person, HRÂ professionals are already ensuring their reaction is notÂ just defensive and negative. Managing people throughÂ the current scenario is rapidly giving way to creating aÂ better workplace and way of working for everyone inÂ the future. Here are some of the pieces of the workforceÂ puzzle that HR needs to navigate as the business worldÂ evolves during COVID-19 and moves into a new normal.
- Mental health. Organisations need to make anÂ extra effort to support their employeesâ mental well-beingÂ whilst they are working away from their usualÂ workplace and adapting in the coming months. SarahÂ McIntosh, director of people and organisationalÂ effectiveness at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England,Â encourages employers to reach out to colleaguesÂ regularly during remote working.
âKeeping connected as a team at this time can reallyÂ help those who are struggling by giving them theÂ opportunity to speak up and ask for help,â she says.Â âYou donât have to be an expert to discuss mentalÂ health. You can start by asking open questions like,Â âWhat are you doing to take care of yourself?â and âHowÂ are you feeling?â If they do open up, the best thingÂ you can do is be empathetic, actively listen, and offerÂ reassurance and support.â
- Employee safety. According to a CIPD report, just 5.3 perÂ cent of workers were regularly using their home as theirÂ main place of work prior to the impact of COVID-19. âTheÂ reality we face is that lots of people are working at home,Â possibly for a prolonged period of time and very fewÂ were prepared for this scenario,â says Dan Joyce, generalÂ manager for EMEA at SafetyCulture, an organisation thatÂ provides a digital platform to help HR check the importantÂ issues with their employees.
HR challenges in terms of health and safety areÂ wide ranging and will differ from sector to sector.Â SafetyCultureâs solution features thousands of templates,Â some sanctioned by CIPD, WHO, CDC, and otherÂ authorities and many specific to the coronavirus. Issues underÂ consideration range from compliance with working timeÂ directives to ensuring employees do not develop muscular-skeletonÂ conditions from poor seating or computer use.
- Leadership. One of the main stumbling blocks to remoteÂ and flexible working in the past has been management.Â Organisations have been wary of letting go of a âhands-onâÂ approach, with the switch to managing by outputÂ rather than input proving elusive for many.
Michele Don Durbin, senior vice president of marketingÂ for Evernote, explains that managers need to considerÂ how working and communicating has changed and createÂ ways that work for the here and now. Written messages,Â whether through email or message services, can beÂ misunderstood in content or tone, so if something needsÂ to be said just say it.
âAs a team, you should agree which communicationsÂ should happen via which channel,â she advises. âThis willÂ help to build cooperation, meet deadlines, and create theÂ trust thatâs vital to support working from home.â