As the complexities facing businesses due to COVID-19 continue toÂ accumulate, HR leaders are finding ways to adapt.
By Simon Kent
The initial shock to the system may be over, but theÂ coronavirus pandemic continues to dictate the actionsÂ of HR and businesses in general. As more operationalÂ choices open for businesses, HR is beginning to seeÂ which trends will move on and which are here to stay.
According to a poll carried out by Perosnio, 97 perÂ cent of HR directors report taking action to supportÂ their businesses during the pandemicâa figure thatÂ also raises the question, âWhat were the other 3 perÂ cent doing?â The research gives a snapshot of HRÂ activities, with 66 per cent providing support for remoteÂ working, 53 per cent focussed on increasing internalÂ communications, and 44 per cent offering additionalÂ mental health and well-being incentives.
âOne of the biggest impacts for HR has been supportingÂ the mental health and well-being of remote workers,âÂ explains Jonathan Holden, partner and national head ofÂ employment at Forbes Solicitors.
According to Holden, the task of looking afterÂ employees has become increasingly challenging due toÂ the limited physical contact now possible. âIt almostÂ leaves emotional intelligence redundant and limits theÂ effectiveness of management and team structures andÂ HR processes in spotting any of the warning signs ofÂ risks to mental health,â he says.
Holden warns against letting employees fall intoÂ presenteeism, or the practice of working whilstÂ sick. âThe whole situation has given HR much foodÂ for thought in terms of how it can effectively helpÂ employees avoid the always-on mentality and burnout,Â especially because thereâs much less distinction betweenÂ professional workplaces and personal lives,â he says.Â âHR teams are looking at how they can manage thisÂ challenge as remote and agile working seem to beÂ trends that are here to stay.â
Sunil Jha, group CHRO at pharmaceutical companyÂ ACG, lists remote working and measures to ensure theÂ safeguarding of employees as ongoing considerationsÂ for his team. As lockdown measures have eased acrossÂ the geographies in which ACG operates, some aspects ofÂ remote working have changed but others will continueÂ to aid business consistency.
âSome policies implemented for supporting digitalÂ infrastructure at home may be reviewed as and whenÂ the office comes back to normalcy, but for now,Â there is certainly a focus on utilising digital solutionsÂ where possible to ensure the safety of associates andÂ customers,â he says.
ACG has extended its current remote working policyÂ until 31 March, 2021, confident that workers will beÂ able to maintain the same levels of efficiency thatÂ they achieved pre-COVID. âThis digital presence andÂ collaboration have really broken down boundariesÂ between our global associates across cities, offices, andÂ countries and allowed us to communicate like neverÂ before,â says Jha. âWe have introduced flexible workÂ conditions wherever possible, which may stay for theÂ long-term.â
As Jha notes, co-ordinating the companyâs responseÂ has required careful communication across its globalÂ locations, with the business constantly monitoring localÂ developments in the EMEA region and beyond.
âWe communicated on a weekly basis with locationÂ co-ordinators and based on the local regulations andÂ decisions by the government in each of the countries,âÂ explains Jha. âAs a result, we made process and policyÂ changes like allowing remote working, changing workÂ processes, and reimbursement processes to facilitate theÂ ânew normal.ââ
Eye on Strategy
Co-ordinating the implementation of such a wide rangeÂ of talent management strategies shows that HR hasÂ upped its game, gaining a more strategic role. âHRÂ teams have had a unique opportunity to be more of aÂ strategic partner to their business, and HR has becomeÂ much more visible to the C-suite as a result,â says MattÂ Moralo-Langan, talent team lead at Personio. âGoingÂ forwards, HR managers are keen to continue playingÂ this strategic role in the future and having played suchÂ a pivotal role in companies this year, many HR teamsÂ expect to have more responsibility in their business asÂ they recover.â
Professor Christine Naschberger of Audencia BusinessÂ School in Nantes, France suggests it was partly theÂ suddenness of the pandemic that gave HR its strategicÂ potential. The task of adapting quickly to each countryâsÂ unique COVID-19 response has clarified the need forÂ HRâs international reach. Bringing unity to a companyÂ that operates across a region that includes the moreÂ liberal approaches of the Netherlands and SwedenÂ and those of Italy and France means understandingÂ differences in attitude as well as legal positions.
âNorthern African countries like Algeria, Tunisia, orÂ Morocco have adopted similar measures to France,âÂ she points out, âbut as unemployment is high in theseÂ countries and the majority of people are poor, they haveÂ to work to be able to surviveâso the safety measuresÂ are often not respected.â
Support for working from home may remain high onÂ the agenda for HR, but Naschberger says the nextÂ few months will also see the function dealing withÂ less attractive tasks. âThe negative side is now theÂ restructuring phase due to the pandemic crisis,â sheÂ says. âFor instance, Air France are laying off 16 per centÂ of their workforceâ7,500 employeesâuntil 2022.âÂ Getting this job done will also fall to HR.
If HR is to achieve and maintain its newfound strategicÂ role, Personioâs Moralo-Langan believes it will need toÂ secure the information it needs to carry out that taskÂ effectively. âEquipped with meaningful workforce dataÂ and insights, HR teams will be able to provide the bestÂ advice to leaders and keep on demonstrating the valueÂ of HR,â he says.
For Dean Corbett, chief people officer at Avado, HRâsÂ future will hinge on its ability to realise the humanÂ element of working for a company.
âWhatâs fundamentally different to the profession isÂ the deep need for human connection, which for many,Â now exists through the walls of a sometimes-blurredÂ computer screen,â he says. âThe difficulty here is thatÂ human connection is craved more than ever and frankly,Â itâs needed now more than ever, not only to enableÂ teams to navigate new challenges efficiently but fromÂ a general support standpoint for those that are findingÂ this new remote or virtual working scenario difficult.â
To this extent, Corbett is right to perceive HR not justÂ as a strategic resource that can design and guide theÂ management of a companyâs greatest asset, but also asÂ the glue that holds a company together.