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HR’s chance to be the champion of career agility

The global pandemic COVID-19 has thrown the world into turmoil and one major area that we are all facing is the effect upon our jobs and career.

We are all living to a new set of rules in both our social and our working lives. Whether you are on the front line, a key worker, working from home or one of the millions of people who have been laid off in some way, jobs and careers as we knew them have changed and our own attitudes towards work may well go through a metamorphosis.

When we are more knowledgeable about the new normality that we will be living, many employees may want to re-evaluate and recalibrate their lives and careers. HR is well placed now to be involved in this process - to work within their organisations to enable new approaches and processes, and to work with individuals to help them become more ‘career agile.’

Over the past year we have been researching and writing about career agility and strategies. By career agility we mean that individuals and organisations must be more rapid and flexible in the way they respond to change, and the evolving needs of the business and the individuals who work within it.

COVID-19 has actually meant that all organisations and businesses have had to adapt exceedingly fast. For instance: The NHS which has, with assistance from the UK government, completely changed what and how it delivers its service. A second example is where decisions that previously would have taken months to make are now made in record time- often days.

With so many people working from home, most of us have had to speedily develop virtual working capabilities and managers and team leaders have had to learn how to lead, motivate and communicate using technology and virtual techniques in new and often novel ways.

Moving ahead we feel this will have an effect upon how organisations organise their workforce and in particular how they develop career structures and support to match the needs of individuals.


As an HR practitioner you are ideally positioned to influence the future of your organisation’s working practices. Thinking about how during this crisis period your organisation coped with keeping everyone connected, how decisions are being made, workforce logistics and pastoral care.

For each of these five areas, here are some of the things you might like to take account of, especially in relation to creating a more agile career environment to ensure you become an employer of choice.

Connectivity – first and foremost we have all discovered how vital communication and connectivity is in responding quickly to change and how technology has aided the innovative and creative processes many organisations have used to stay in touch. Capitalising on what has been effective within your organisation to ensure these skills and capabilities are adopted and developed for the future.

Decision Making – one of the universal experiences we have all had during this period is the different approach to problem solving and decision making. Speed, collaboration and autonomy have all played their role. These are skills that must be encouraged in successful 21st century organisations.

Workforce Logistics – business travel has all but disappeared and the organisation of the workforce has had to be fleet of foot. Some people have been furloughed, some made redundant, some working on reduced contracts or salary while others, called “key workers”, are busier than ever. HR practitioners must review and analyse how this has worked in their organisation so that they can learn and adopt appropriate new practises to be more agile in future.

Pastoral Care – how your organisation and boss has related to employees during this time will have a long-lasting impact on any individual’s personal motivation, loyalty and employee engagement in general. Undoubtedly some managers, leaders and organisations will have been more successful at this than others. Learning from what worked and what was missing will have significant implications for how people deal with and feel about their future relationship with your organisation. Often known as the psychological contract.


We believe that one of the byproducts of this period of our lives will be how individuals relate to their working lives and in particular to their jobs and career. HR people are ideally placed to capitalise on providing support and processes for people to rethink and re-evaluate their career journey. Both sides want and need agility.

Our research has indicated that even before COVID-19, many people were beginning to question their career choices, progression and development with a view to adapting and flexing their way ahead. This crisis has potentially enabled people to have some time to think even more broadly and perhaps philosophically about the choices they have made so far and those options available to them in the future.

HR must respond to this challenge by improving their current practises in relation to three key areas illustrated in the model below by advising and assisting people to design the career/job future that works for them.

For instance:

Choices - offering more flexibility in work contracts – part-time working, job sharing, sabbaticals, compacted working week, home working (as a norm).

Progression – creating clearer work paths where practises like job shadowing, interim appointments and special project work are all accepted as regular practises to help people try new jobs and to upskill.

Development – offer individuals development opportunities such as career coaching, reverse coaching and mentoring, career development programmes and workshops. Some of these will encourage people to reflect, analyse and share experiences of different departments, professions and roles and others might focus on wellbeing and resilience. Of course counselling may also be necessary for some people especially those key workers who have been in the front line throughout.

The organisation that actively takes an interest in their workforce’s careers and encourages career agility are more likely to be employers of choice and regarded as a good place to work. In fact, in a survey conducted by HR Magazine in 2016, HR leaders identified a range of areas where practitioners could add most value.

The main areas identified related to talent attraction and retention, future skills for success, new ways of working and the creation of different career paths. Coming out of this crisis it will be more necessary than ever to capitalise on these areas.

It will be crucial for our economy and all businesses to ensure that their workforce is fully engaged and motivated in order to rebuild and regenerate. We believe that by having an HR team that is totally involved with both the organisational and the individual’s needs will go some way to paving the way for future growth and success.

Viki Holton, Fiona Elsa Dent and Patricia Hind are all researchers working in Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.e