HR departments cannot be expected to predict spikes in the variant, writes Lynn Smith, but they can be among the first in an organisation to take proactive steps when developments emerge.
The case for flexible, agile working arrangements for typically office-based employees has been made frequently and forcefully since the first lockdown was imposed.
However, in the wake of a successful vaccine roll-out and general decline in positive cases, conversations began to ebb away from the benefits of hybrid working and employee wellbeing in a post-pandemic world and towards more conventional topics.
But then the Omicron variant was detected and humanity received a stark reminder that this pandemic is far from over. The discovery of this highly transmissible strain has shunted thinking back towards the need to not only implement more flexible working arrangements, but to implement them intelligently, with empathy, and with a responsiveness apt for an ever-changing situation.
But, organisations can take measures to protect their people and their operations from this and future disruptions.
HR to become the watchtower department
HR professionals cannot be expected to pre-empt mutations or spikes in cases. But they can be among the first in an organisation to take proactive steps when developments emerge.
If we take Omicron as the perfect example, upon its discovery, many people waved away concerns, citing the variant’s supposed relative mildness. And yet, it is proving so transmissible that in the space of a few weeks a raft of new measures have been introduced, including the recommendation that employees work from home.
This is where HR must take the initiative going forwards. Should new variants be identified in the future, it will be for HR to ensure complacency is avoided and that employees are aware that working practices may need to be altered. The only indicator HR departments may get is early news of a new variant but that is enough to put measures in place that protect the organisation and its employees should circumstances begin to deteriorate.
Responsiveness is nothing without differentiation
The ability to act with speed when external factors compromise daily operations is, of course, essential. Yet, in order to protect employee wellbeing and overall productivity, speed alone is insufficient.
A quickly responded to, company-wide order to work from home may help to stymie transmissions, but it will not be welcomed by all staff equally. Senior leaders need to consider what environments they are sending their people back to. Though some may return to tranquil spaces conducive to quality work, others will return to environments dominated by family dependents or abusive partners. Likewise, whereas some will return to homes shared with loved ones, others will return to isolation.
Leaders thus have a professional duty to their organisation and a moral duty to their employees to ensure all practical steps are taken so that each individual’s wellbeing and productivity can be protected. Though coordinating such a differentiated approach might seem an onerous task, leaders will likely find their employees appreciate the commitment to their wellness and will even suggest feasible solutions.
Every organisation will settle on different arrangements for their people, but for each it starts with open dialogue.
Strengthening lines of communication
Discussing suitable working arrangements with employees must also become part of a broader conversation about employee wellbeing, both mental and financial, particularly as the latter can deeply impact the former.
Indeed, recent data has discovered that 60% of employees have had financial concerns resulting in anxiety, stress and depression with 39% claiming their mental health declined as a result of their wellbeing not being supported during the pandemic.
Given the impact on productivity stemming from poor mental health, it is vital that employers put in place measures to support employees with their personal finances to at least eliminate money as a cause of distress. How this looks will vary from organisation to organisation but the most important step is ensuring that some form of support is available and that employees know they can access it at any time.
A perceived lack of benefits may prevent some employees from discussing financial wellbeing at work. However, with the right financial wellness infrastructure in place, employees will soon learn that by seeking help, they empower themselves with the tools and knowledge needed to safeguard their financial position.
Ultimately, through education, guidance, and advice, within a process that is monitored and responsive to feedback, organisations can build the apparatus that prevents financial worries from impacting their people and consequently business performance.
Uncertain times call for certainty of leadership
The term ‘post-pandemic’ is often used to describe where we are now as a global community, but it’s a misleading descriptor. Though we hope the worst is over, as Omicron demonstrates, we are very much still mid-pandemic.
Recognising this is perhaps the first step in amplifying the importance of having flexible and agile working arrangements in place. Of monitoring and reacting to the situation intelligently, of communicating with our people, and empowering them with the guidance and support needed to attain financial security and better mental health.
These continue to be uncertain times, but with a certainty of leadership that focuses on employee wellbeing first, they are times from which success can still be realised.
Lynn Smith is the Chief People and Operations Officer at Wealth Wizards