COVID-19, HR and the workplace: three lasting changes

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Making changes ‘sticky’ and sustainable in organisations can be notoriously challenging. After all, it is a long journey dependent on the right balance of leadership, economics, politics and individual attitudes.

However, as a sudden and relatively lasting transformative change requiring HR to face up to its crisis management credentials, the COVID-19 pandemic has provoked far-reaching debates about a ‘new normal’ for organisations and employees going forward.

Predicting the future is a risky business, but there are reasons to suggest that at least three changes currently experienced by HR, managers and employees are likely to be long lasting and persist beyond the immediate coronavirus crisis.

To embed them into organisations, HR will need to revisit traditional policies and workplace thinking, managing complex reactions to the changes and thinking about how to ensure stability in emerging expectations and routines.

First, there is a suggestion that COVID-19 will create lasting changes in attitudes to remote working, brought on by the lockdown and the extensive adoption of homeworking and video conferencing.

A recent poll of American workers has already revealed that only 41% of the workforce are happy to go back to the workplace after restrictions are relaxed, and 59% expect remote working to be a lasting part of their weekly schedule.

HR professionals now have to contemplate delivering most of their practices and policies entirely through a virtual medium – and making sure the benefits of these arrangements outweigh the costs.

While lower costs and greater flexibility are always appealing, HR needs to consider performance and wellbeing risks associated with isolation, the lack of face-to-face communication and slumps in demand.

Social distancing may be here to stay – but long, inefficient video meetings, intrusive surveillance practices and layoffs delivered by two-minute conference calls fall far short of best practice.

Second, a greater appreciation of certain sectors of the economy (such as healthcare workers and delivery drivers) is likely to be a relatively lasting change facing HR.

Business and HR leaders should expect greater government intervention and scrutiny when it comes to safeguarding human life, healing trauma, and providing vital contact-free services to those most in need.

Many workers may want to reconnect with meaning in their working lives by taking on ‘side gigs’ to their normal work coming out of the coronavirus downturn, directing effort and recognition to where it is deemed to matter most to society and the public good.

HR will need to embed essential skills and protections in its workforce planning, paying living wages, and providing vital training and equipment based on the far-reaching effects of the virus.

Executive pay cuts and donating money to hard-hit public/charity finances, as well as the rights of gig workers will remain defining issues of social responsibility for business and HR reputation.

Third and final, it seems likely that COVID-19 will provide an awareness-raising platform for climate change and green and sustainable business. A reinvigorated drive to reduce emissions through a change in office and travel arrangements realised by lockdown represents an influential prospect.

As daily life is reshaped globally to prevent the spread of the virus, lasting changes are brought about in employees who realise a meeting could be an email; a commute could be a more fruitful day at home; they can cope and even flourish on rationed resources and they have more time for nature and local and community initiatives.

The planet is actually healing in certain ways during lockdown, although businesses and HR needs to think about how to avoid harmful rebound effects later down the line.

This can be achieved by a renewed focus on reporting their business impacts in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals, and converting to ‘green HRM’ practices that hire, reward and develop employees for responsible consumption, recycling and reduced emissions.

Ultimately, there is always a risk that these positive changes revert, decay, or rebound in negative directions, and as such HR has a real role to play in engaging in the enormous momentum for lasting change that has already gathered in our economies.

Good crisis – and post-crisis – HR leadership will endeavour to provide hope, healing and learning to counteract despair, inequality and tragedy.

Thomas Calvard is senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Edinburgh Business School

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