The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the importance of human resources and people (HR) professionals unlike nothing else. Over the last year, HR practitioners (both in-house and the independents) have become a sought-after resource for anxious business leaders at firms of all sizes who were on the hunt for clarity and alignment.

Quite frankly, the profession was been given no choice but to step up and lead the charge – and lead the charge we have. Read on to find out about the pivotal role HR has playing during the pandemic.

Steering the ship

When the first lockdown was announced, the speed of change and uncertainty ahead called for the type of skill and application only HR professionals had to hand. Our role as HR professionals was to steer businesses and leaders through crisis response and help with their preparation plans, interpreting rapidly changing rules and legislation, dealing with the stress and pressure of entire workforces, and creating new and efficient ways of working. And most of us did this whilst we were all battling our own issues too (home-schooling, caring for loved ones, juggling etc).

In my opinion, HR (both internal and external) has not just navigated businesses through to the calmer waters we can see ahead, but the industry has played a pivotal role in business transformation too. And this is a role that will continue far beyond the pandemic and one which will determine whether organisations survive long after.

Compulsory employee welfare

A focus on mental health and wellbeing of employees has always been of the upmost importance in the workplace. But these are extraordinary times and although we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, employers must remain conscious of the challenges that continued remote working puts on mental health. Mental health illness now accounts for 4 in 10 of all issued fit notes and millions of people are expected to need help far beyond this period.

Recognising the monumental challenges that stress and mental health problems present, organisations with HR support, be that in house or on a consultancy basis, have been moving away from voluntary support mechanisms, like employee assistance programmes (EAP). Instead, they have focused on embedding employee welfare strategies into the core of business, in recognition of the rewards that can be reaped from truly prioritising and protecting the health of employees and, in turn, the business. This key-change also brings a swing of focus for HR onto performance optimisation, staff development and non-financial rewards. Put simply, the importance of employee engagement can’t be overstated.

Flexible working vs remote working

We have also witnessed a forced a reassessment of working practices too. Covid-19 has certainly expanded empathy for work-life and has renewed the opportunity to make flexible working more standard practice. What may have taken years to come to fruition is suddenly seen as normal, albeit a new version of normal. Most notably, perhaps, flexible practices are no longer classed as a benefit or an allowance, but as an essential part of working life. Who would have thought this might happen just 12 months ago? Whilst this progress is positive, businesses must urgently recognise the almighty difference between working from home and working from home during a crisis. A pandemic brings extra baggage and an unrelenting weight on peoples’ everyday lives that would otherwise not exist. HR has been instrumental in catalysing and expanding new approaches to the support of work-life, particularly as businesses continue to realise that a flexible approach to working is business critical and will need to be embedded in the long-term.

Rewriting the handbook

When the crisis hit, HR and people professionals had to build their own innovative solutions – and they had to do so at pace. Put simply we have been rewriting the handbook. There was no guide book to get us through a pandemic, instead everyone had to think on their feet and quickly. For the industry, this meant holding up a mirror, looking inwards and questioning the rules and manual upon which it has been built.

The pandemic also made the practical and operational skills (often viewed to be at a junior level), more valuable than ever and hugely sought after by the business community. Suddenly, the most critical tasks involved employee safety and compliance, mapping socially distanced walking routes through offices, strategically placing hand sanitisation stations, stepping in as public health administrators and translators, and meeting the demands of remote working by becoming I.T. and privacy specialists. Things changed very quickly – and in my opinion those in HR were at the forefront of leading that change.

Without a doubt, those businesses who were forced to face the crisis with weak foundations have recognised, not just the necessity of a HR resource, but just how critical it is to the overall livelihood of employees and the health of the business. Independent HR companies have stepped in as the firefighters, using their skills to incorporate strategy and practical application to support these businesses through.

A seat at the table

Never has the role of the HR professional been so well respected and, indeed, highly sought after. For all the tragedy the pandemic has brought (and indeed continues to bring), the HR industry has grasped the opportunity to prove its worth. When the dust settles (which it will), and we start to move to a brighter future, I believe that effort must be made to ensure HR’s critical voice continues to be heard.