The HR function is not unaccustomed to reinventing itself. However, on occasions, HR has been accused of being ‘old wine in new bottles’. Over the years it has transitioned from policy processing personnel to that of a business partner, through to securing a seat at ‘the table’ and influencing strategic business decisions.

2020 has undoubtedly tested HR professionals to the limit. The unprecedented demands placed on HR professionals has, at times, felt relentless. Whilst the pandemic has changed the way of working for us all, it also provides an opportunity for HR professionals to take stock, to reassert their leadership and to influence how their organisation builds ways of working for their people that are inclusive and that will be sustainable for the future.

Change, enforced or otherwise, often results in a loss, and whilst the ending of something can seem painful, it can often make space for the beginning of something new. This article explores some of the ways in which COVID has permanently changed the world of HR.

Autonomy to approve flexible working

Rewind six months and flexible working requests were considered inconvenient by some and were often reserved for the minority. Covid19 has broken many traditions as organisations adhered to UK Government guidelines and where possible instructed their people to work from home.

However, working from home in a pandemic is very different to working for an organisation that has been purposefully designed for remote working.

HR Professionals will therefore need to educate, influence and lead when it comes to redesigning organisations that truly harness the power of flexible working. It is insufficient to provide an employee with a laptop, login and a headset and send them on their way with a weekly Zoom to check in. It will require a holistic wraparound of job architecture, flexible hours/working patterns, and clarity around job expectations. Trust and openness will be important, as will team collaboration and communication.

Team environment

Gone are the days when a quick team challenge, table tennis table or lunch together in the canteen was sufficient to re-energise and boost team morale. A loss of connection with colleagues can quickly lead to a change in working relationships, reduced employee engagement and a decline in productivity.

The change going forward for HR professionals will be to switch from creating traditional workplace/office based employee engagement solutions, towards upskilling the capability of line managers to learn how to understand what positive and well balanced remote team environment looks and feels like.

One which is built on strong connections and has an appreciation for the unique difference of each individual and where everyone can feel a sense of belonging. Where psychological as well as physical safety is important and the wellbeing needs are met. Where all employees are engaged, yet challenged and stretched, and colleague collaboration can truly take place beyond a daily zoom huddle to superficially check and issue instructions for the day. Where teams work together to deliver results, whilst at the same time ensure that they are well rested.

Onboarding

COVID-19 has enabled the widening of talent pools. Talent attraction is now longer restricted by geographical and physical boundaries, however a new challenge for HR is how to onboard new employees into the organisation virtually. Joining a new company can feel daunting at the best of times, but in the new socially distanced world we find ourselves in, creating an onboarding experience where employees can find their feet, feel the culture and reach out to someone trusted to ask the quick ‘silly’ question will be even more imperative.

HR have a key role to play in ensuring that the company purpose is described and communicated in such a way that it excites people, so that they understand the role that they play and teams pull together.

Employee Value Proposition

A rethink of the employee value proposition is also on the horizon for HR. HR should embrace this opportunity to close the gaps in Gender, Ethnicity and Disability pay. Consider how you will reward your people. What will the work content be and how do we create inclusive career opportunities? How can we enhance our wider affiliation and impact with the local community?

Employees are likely to want increased access to wellbeing and mental health resources as well as support for employees to understand how to manage their finances during these difficult times.

On-site gyms, dress down Fridays and football tables are superfluous requirements in a socially distanced world, so HR will need to reconsider job-associated benefits.

Of course, changes in virtual working have also had a positive effect on our planet with a reduction of pollutants in the atmosphere. Now is the time to embrace these, to consider the impact we have on the wider environment and rebuild for a better and more sustainable future.

Invest in Training

Whilst budgets may be squeezed, now is the time to ensure that managers have the competence and capability to coach, motivate and manage teams in different working environments.

Employees will look back during the pandemic and reflect on how they have been supported by their organisation and treated by their leader. They will consider what they need for the future, whether they have been supported or nagged and micromanaged through the pandemic.

HR play an important role in sourcing and/or providing support, coaching, training, models, and frameworks which will equip managers in this new world. This will help them to recognise their own strengths and to recognise how to flex their style. Managers and leaders need to build trust amongst teams, to encourage debate and empower accountability for success.

This is a new chapter for us all. Whilst it brings with it challenges and a level of responsibility for HR Professionals, it also provides an exciting opportunity to them to apply their professional standards, to influence leaders and to shape the creation of an inclusive culture where people can flourish.