Today (23rd March 2021) marks a significant milestone for the UK – a year of working in line with COVID-19 restrictions.

As HR teams enabled the rapid shift to remote working one year ago, HRreview asks experts about all the different ways the world of work has changed since March 2020 and what this may mean for the future of work.

The first lockdown in the UK was enforced on the 23rd March 2020 where non-essential businesses and schools were forced to close in order to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Since then, all areas under HR’s remit including work strategy, improving employee mental health, employment law and learning and development has seen a drastic change over the past year.

HR Strategy

Perhaps most clear to see was the change in the work system adopted. Whilst prior to COVID, most organisations required the workforce to be in-office full time, the pandemic has drastically changed this and altered the future of work in the process.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice Director at Peninsula, reflected on this:

Employers may have initially felt forced to implement homeworking but have since seen that not only can it work, but it can work well. As they look ahead, they may be considering making it a more permanent option, especially if it has been popular amongst their employees, if their workforce, in general, is keen for it to continue.

That said, it will be down to employers if they want to do this. They should bear in mind that there are several areas they will need to consider if they want to make homeworking permanent, which may be more difficult than allowing it temporarily.

There have been many organisations such as Twitter, Microsoft and Facebook which have offered full-time remote working options to employees following the pandemic, catering to the flexibility that more of the workforce is demanding.

However, some firms such as Goldman Sachs have insisted that office working is vital to their company culture, showing some companies do want to see a return to pre-COVID working life to some extent.

Hybrid working will likely be a popular option for most, with companies opting to reap the best of both work systems. However, internally, HR will need to figure out how this will work on a practical level with different members of the same team working across the country or continent and physically coming into the office at different times.

Employment Law

According to Sarah Evans, Partner at Constantine Law, “employment law has not changed during the pandemic” apart from specific funding areas such as the furlough scheme.

However, Ms. Evans continues:

What has happened is obligations as to health and safety in particular have been highlighted, and there has been nationwide experience of, and investment in, remote working in particular sectors.

It has also changed the nature of some obligations, for example, risk assessing for disabled workers, and maybe providing different auxiliary aids or reasonable adjustments at their new place of work – at home.

Many employers seem to be seriously considering long term changes in working practices to include a move to greater remote working, having reaped the rewards of the loyalty of staff who were made to feel safe and trusted to work hard remotely during this frightening world-event. HR advisors may be called upon to consider more flexible working requests, and maybe from more men.

Ms. Evans predicts that, due to the nature of the pandemic hitting some groups harder than others, there will be calls to change certain areas of employment law:

I think there will be calls for some changes in particular areas of employment law because of the areas of weakness of some protections – women, disabled and black workers have, despite anti-discrimination laws having been established for nearly half a century now, been disproportionately and adversely affected, in terms of likelihood of dismissal/ redundancies or being put on furlough.

That reflects on really entrenched practices in the world of work, from the type of work performed by, to the pay differentials based on protected characteristics and inequalities in progression and recruitment.   There is going to be a lot of focus on collective redundancies as well I think, when the furlough scheme ends – I doubt the legislation will change but some interpretations may.

Learning and Development

Andy Moss, Managing Director of the Corporate Learning Function at City & Guilds Group, analyses how the pandemic has affected learning and development in a remote environment:

As people and organisations have learnt to work from home over the past year, businesses have also had to rethink their approach to learning and development as they’ve turned to digital solutions.

And, in the same way that we expect many organisations to embrace the convenience and flexibility of remote working post-pandemic, we also expect digital learning to continue playing a key role when it comes to learning and development. After all, when done well, it can deliver outcomes that are as strong or even stronger than face-to-face approaches, allowing employees to access L&D opportunities in more flexible and engaging ways.

Mr. Moss further reflects on how learning and development will likely be tweaked moving forward to adapt to the digital age:

However, the reality is that most pre-existing learning and development materials, best practises and management styles have been designed face-to-face learning in mind, so organisations will need to adapt and reconfigure their approach to work effectively online. Important strides have already been made to adjust to an increasingly digital learning environment, and with the encouragement and resources, businesses and organisations will continue to do so.

Mental Health

According to recent research from MHFA England, since the pandemic hit, one in four (25 per cent) employees say they have had no wellbeing check-ins from their workplace at all. Furthermore, almost a third (29 per cent) of workers never discuss their mental health in line management meetings.

The data also suggests there is a mental health gap with over double the number of female employees (68 per cent) than male (31 per cent) saying their workplace confidence dipped due to the pandemic. In addition, almost two-thirds of women (64 per cent) reported feelings of loneliness and isolation than men (36 per cent).

On this study, MHFA England CEO Simon Blake stated:

COVID-19 has increased the need for employers to support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. As these statistics show, the pandemic has laid bare pre-existing inequalities – gender, race and economic – and in turn it has exacerbated them. This needs serious attention as we start to rebuild. 

Workplaces are key to creating a society where everyone’s mental health matters so some employers must play catch up. We urge more employers to bring together diversity and inclusion with mental health and wellbeing, to create workplaces that are fit for all.

In order to achieve this, Mr. Blake said:

Employers must build cultures where people have the trust, flexibility, safety and freedom to bring their whole selves to work so they can perform at the top of their game, without fear of judgement or penalty.  It is better for mental wellbeing and better for business.

Regular wellbeing check-ins with colleagues are a vital way to support people’s mental health during the pandemic and a good starting point. We’re urging all employers to adopt this simple practice today.