The hidden impact of coronavirus HR needs to understand

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The HR profession has been under significant pressure to respond to COVID- 19 quickly in so many ways, from enabling remote working and introducing layoffs to developing safe return strategies.

While these have added significant value to organisations, they are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s needed. The hidden part has implications that will impact HR and organisational thinking much wider than many have considered.

COVID- 19 has not just been an organisational issue but also a personal issue for everyone, especially for those who have experienced trauma as a result.

How we live our lives has totally changed and many people have changed their perspectives about themselves, their lives, their health and their future. What’s the implication for HR? That the people who come back to work are not the same people who left.

In my military past, I saw the change in soldiers who experienced their first operations and have been involved with a charity helping injured ex-service deal with their experiences and gain civilian employment.

As a neuroscience-accredited coach, I’ve seen the impact of traumatic experiences on individuals' behaviour. COVID-19 may not have had such a life changing impact for many, yet it has caused a lower level response.

To respond to this in a way that’s good for the organisation, HR and the individual, HR must ensure that the organisation moves away from treating the individual as an employee to become one that considers the whole person.

It is only then that HR, line managers and senior leaders will be able to identify and respond to changes in people that have occurred over the past three months.

There has been much discussion on culture post COVID- 19 but to be able to get individuals, teams and the organisation back to a “working equilibrium” will require a more open and mutually supportive culture in many places.

HR needs to be on the lookout for leaders who try to go back to how things were and ignore what people have experienced. Yes, use what went before as a foundation, but it’s the acknowledgement of what people have experienced and how they may have changed which allows them to move forwards- ignoring it creates a time bomb.

This links into the crucial role that HR can play in helping set the tone for the future and also in enabling line managers and senior leaders to understand the changes that will have happened in their people, themselves, and how to move forward using those as a positive foundation for the future.

This crisis seems to have made people more reflective. This has been on a spectrum between NHS staff heroically putting themselves at risk to do their jobs to people sitting at home off work reflecting on their life and future.

Vastly different, but a common reflection on “what is really important to me in my life”. That reflection is hidden in the bottom of the iceberg and going to be one of the key drivers of behaviour over the next months and years.

Organisations, enabled by HR, are going to have to be receptive to this reprioritisation through better leadership from line managers and better understanding from senior leaders who interact with employees more.

Employees also need to be enabled to support each other through the next few months via a more open culture where stress and changes in what matters to people are discussed rather than ignored.

The coronavirus crisis has, in some ways, also been a catalyst for positive action and change. There is now a wider acceptance of remote working and better online team spirit, plus we have witnessed proactive support for the vulnerable in our communities and improved emergency planning.

Above all, there are many examples where the crisis has brought out the best in so many people to achieve things that they would never have even imagined possible three months ago.

The secret for HR is to recognise that the return to work is just the first step on a new journey and not the end of one. HR must help organisations enable people to come to terms with their new perspectives and embrace them to build a better organisation and a better world.

Chris Roebuck is honorary visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, City University of London.

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