As the complexities facing businesses due to COVID-19 continue to accumulate, HR leaders are finding ways to adapt.
By Simon Kent
The initial shock to the system may be over, but the coronavirus pandemic continues to dictate the actions of HR and businesses in general. As more operational choices open for businesses, HR is beginning to see which trends will move on and which are here to stay.
According to a poll carried out by Perosnio, 97 per cent of HR directors report taking action to support their businesses during the pandemic—a figure that also raises the question, “What were the other 3 per cent doing?” The research gives a snapshot of HR activities, with 66 per cent providing support for remote working, 53 per cent focussed on increasing internal communications, and 44 per cent offering additional mental health and well-being incentives.
“One of the biggest impacts for HR has been supporting the mental health and well-being of remote workers,” explains Jonathan Holden, partner and national head of employment at Forbes Solicitors.
According to Holden, the task of looking after employees has become increasingly challenging due to the limited physical contact now possible. “It almost leaves emotional intelligence redundant and limits the effectiveness of management and team structures and HR processes in spotting any of the warning signs of risks to mental health,” he says.
Holden warns against letting employees fall into presenteeism, or the practice of working whilst sick. “The whole situation has given HR much food for thought in terms of how it can effectively help employees avoid the always-on mentality and burnout, especially because there’s much less distinction between professional workplaces and personal lives,” he says. “HR teams are looking at how they can manage this challenge as remote and agile working seem to be trends that are here to stay.”
Sunil Jha, group CHRO at pharmaceutical company ACG, lists remote working and measures to ensure the safeguarding of employees as ongoing considerations for his team. As lockdown measures have eased across the geographies in which ACG operates, some aspects of remote working have changed but others will continue to aid business consistency.
“Some policies implemented for supporting digital infrastructure at home may be reviewed as and when the office comes back to normalcy, but for now, there is certainly a focus on utilising digital solutions where possible to ensure the safety of associates and customers,” he says.
ACG has extended its current remote working policy until 31 March, 2021, confident that workers will be able to maintain the same levels of efficiency that they achieved pre-COVID. “This digital presence and collaboration have really broken down boundaries between our global associates across cities, offices, and countries and allowed us to communicate like never before,” says Jha. “We have introduced flexible work conditions wherever possible, which may stay for the long-term.”
As Jha notes, co-ordinating the company’s response has required careful communication across its global locations, with the business constantly monitoring local developments in the EMEA region and beyond.
“We communicated on a weekly basis with location co-ordinators and based on the local regulations and decisions by the government in each of the countries,” explains Jha. “As a result, we made process and policy changes like allowing remote working, changing work processes, and reimbursement processes to facilitate the ‘new normal.’”
Eye on Strategy
Co-ordinating the implementation of such a wide range of talent management strategies shows that HR has upped its game, gaining a more strategic role. “HR teams have had a unique opportunity to be more of a strategic partner to their business, and HR has become much more visible to the C-suite as a result,” says Matt Moralo-Langan, talent team lead at Personio. “Going forwards, HR managers are keen to continue playing this strategic role in the future and having played such a pivotal role in companies this year, many HR teams expect to have more responsibility in their business as they recover.”
Professor Christine Naschberger of Audencia Business School in Nantes, France suggests it was partly the suddenness of the pandemic that gave HR its strategic potential. The task of adapting quickly to each country’s unique COVID-19 response has clarified the need for HR’s international reach. Bringing unity to a company that operates across a region that includes the more liberal approaches of the Netherlands and Sweden and those of Italy and France means understanding differences in attitude as well as legal positions.
“Northern African countries like Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco have adopted similar measures to France,” she points out, “but as unemployment is high in these countries and the majority of people are poor, they have to work to be able to survive—so the safety measures are often not respected.”
Support for working from home may remain high on the agenda for HR, but Naschberger says the next few months will also see the function dealing with less attractive tasks. “The negative side is now the restructuring phase due to the pandemic crisis,” she says. “For instance, Air France are laying off 16 per cent of their workforce—7,500 employees—until 2022.” Getting this job done will also fall to HR.
If HR is to achieve and maintain its newfound strategic role, Personio’s Moralo-Langan believes it will need to secure the information it needs to carry out that task effectively. “Equipped with meaningful workforce data and insights, HR teams will be able to provide the best advice to leaders and keep on demonstrating the value of HR,” he says.
For Dean Corbett, chief people officer at Avado, HR’s future will hinge on its ability to realise the human element of working for a company.
“What’s fundamentally different to the profession is the deep need for human connection, which for many, now exists through the walls of a sometimes-blurred computer screen,” he says. “The difficulty here is that human connection is craved more than ever and frankly, it’s needed now more than ever, not only to enable teams to navigate new challenges efficiently but from a general support standpoint for those that are finding this new remote or virtual working scenario difficult.”
To this extent, Corbett is right to perceive HR not just as a strategic resource that can design and guide the management of a company’s greatest asset, but also as the glue that holds a company together.