The chaos caused by COVID-19 has placed extreme pressures on the shoulders of HR leaders over the past few months. Many have been besieged with the responsibilities of effectively managing their workforce during this uncertain time, and HR departments have been called upon to valiantly lead on the frontline response.
Decisions previously made in the back office regarding staff, pay, virtual learning strategies and employee engagement have now been thrust into the spotlight, with all eyes now on the world’s biggest home-working experiment with over 88% of employees now working from home1. HR teams have had to rapidly adapt in order to respond to the crisis, leaving little resource or time to consider how they will prepare their organisation for its road to recovery afterward.
Despite the novelty and uncertainty that the current situation presents, considerations must turn to the future, and HR must be prepared for what comes next.
When COVID-19 lockdown restrictions ease, the fundamental structure and culture of many organisations will not simply return to ‘the day before’. Organisations will have to accommodate new ways of working that have been successful under COVID-19 restrictions, and the fallout from any rapid and reactive workforce decisions made in the moment will need to be reviewed and addressed.
In order to do this, HR departments will need to take a step back for a moment, and ask these 5 key questions:
What will our long term remote and flexible working policy be?
Being given the opportunity to work from home will have enabled many employees to better balance their work and personal priorities, giving them the autonomy to decide when and how they work. For many organisations, the shift towards increased remote working was already underway, albeit in a gradual way for some. At Monzo, over 40% of their workforce were already working from home pre-pandemic. This accelerated shift will encourage a more trusting and collaborative working environment; one that will no doubt be welcomed and result in increasing numbers of flexible working requests post-COVID-19. HR will need to be prepared to respond to this surge in individual requests, whilst also understanding the impact on ways of working, office space, and culture. Many will need to consider how they will upscale and refresh the policies and practices that underpin their existing ways of working, particularly for operational shift roles where there will be an opportunity for transformation.
How will we widen the talent pool?
With this anticipated shift towards more flexible and remote working, HR departments will have the opportunity to broaden their horizons when hiring in the future. The challenge of having employees spread across geographical locations or regions will no longer be a key concern for recruitment teams, presenting the opportunity for organisations to expand their range of recruitment partners, remove geographical restrictions and conducting interviews via audio/video applications including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Duo, etc. The diminished challenge of location and the multitude of digital tools leveraged to bridge the physical distance during COVID-19 will also enable HR teams to drive forward their inclusion policy and strategies. Digitising recruitment processes and promoting new flexible ways of working will attract a more diverse workforce in the future, equipping the organisation with a new set of capabilities and experience not previously targeted within recruitment.
What does an agile and resilient workforce look like?
The world’s response to COVID-19 has highlighted not only how volatile market conditions can be, but how inflexible organisational structures are when it comes to preserving business continuity in a crisis, or responding to shifting market conditions and customer expectations. The speed in which organisations have responded to the outbreak has been impressive, but if HR teams aren't prepared to enable the movement towards remote teams or if these teams don't have good communication and collaboration habits in place, the effects of COVID-19 could disrupt team connectivity, morale and accountability, and ultimately business performance. In the future, cumbersome governance structures and monolithic decision-making processes will need to be reviewed, and HR functions will need to consider how they rebuild a more agile and resilient workforce.
How will we retain our culture in a new, dispersed workplace?
After all of this, leaders will rightly be asking themselves: “Did our choices and actions during COVID-19 reflect the purpose and values that define us?”. Meanwhile, managers tasked with carrying out the guidance and witnessing the impact first hand on other employees may consider whether their organisation’s culture and values still resonate with them.
Communicating the lessons learnt and reconnecting the workforce after this period of uncertainty will be a key priority for HR, with a focus on the communications and initiatives aimed at furloughed employees. HR leaders, working with the corporate communications team must determine the right tone, frequency, and channels to reach both a remote workforce and frontline employees. For many who previously relied upon formal communications, a more informal message may now resonate with an emphasis on visuals and less structured channels such as Whatsapp and Ding Ding. Organisations should focus on key messages including, boosting company morale and reinforcing employee’s sense of individual value and community. An organisation’s culture can be rendered vulnerable in times of crisis when communications are scarce and financial survival appears to take priority over employee’s best interests. There is no technology solution that HR can leverage to preserve organisational culture and a commitment to employee engagement, constant communication and culture by leadership are the only tools that will work.
What data should we leverage to ensure we achieve the right balance of insight vs autonomy?
The path back to normal will be a long and cautious one for many organisations and HR departments’ will be leaned upon to support the transition to remote working and maintaining employee engagement, as well as protecting employees’ jobs2. During this time leadership will be keen to receive regular updates on the health of the business as it readjusts to the new normal, with many leveraging new monitoring technologies capable of measuring employee productivity when working from home. Whilst data on the ratio of employee time being spent on the web vs being on calls may be insightful, increasing the quantification of work activities can impact job quality and employee’s sense of autonomy and discretion in the workplace. Continuous data collection used to gamify work can introduce competitive, game-like mechanisms to the working environment, in turn placing excessive stress and pressure on employees to meet new demanding efficiency benchmarks. It will be down to HR departments to ensure that the motivation and overall well being of their employees is not compromised post-COVID-19 in exchange for increased surveillance and performance evaluations.
This period of uncertainty will not last forever, however, it’s impact could have a long-lasting and detrimental effect on organisation’s whose HR teams fail to effectively prepare for the road to recovery ahead of them. COVID-19 has undoubtedly been a catalyst for change within HR, forcing it to lead from the frontline. As the world attempts to return to normal in the coming months, HR departments should strive to ensure that they do not retreat, and instead remain at the forefront of key business decisions and processes in order to redefine the value they can bring to organisations.
Our recent work with organisations such as GSK, NHS South East and Rail Delivery Group to name a few means that we can bring unique insights into the range of challenges and opportunities HR departments will face when preparing for the world beyond COVID-19.
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