The key lessons HR leaders should learn from COVID-19

Coronavirus has impacted and will continue to impact the workplace in many ways, from the office layout, having more remote workers and tech-savvy employees, to an increased awareness and openness around mental health illness.

Future workplaces are likely to see a rise in the number of remote workers. At CIPHR, all of our 160 employees are working from home and have adjusted to working remotely.

They have the office set up and technology needed to work efficiently from home, and we have the right communications and management processes in place to support our employees.

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Post-coronavirus, we can reasonably expect a greater proportion of employees to request flexible working or to work from home, at least part time, than before March 2020.

I’d expect more of those requests to be granted – or even encouraged – as employers and line managers will have gained confidence that workers’ performance and productivity will not be negatively affected if they work remotely and the arrangements have already been tried and tested (and hopefully improved along the way).

Arguably, with many organisations having worked so effectively on an entirely virtual basis, many employers may want to rethink the need for physical offices at all, or whether they can downscale the amount of office space they previously inhabited – the cost saving along will be a huge incentive.

There are likely to be long-lasting adjustments that will need to be made to those returning to the workplace initially in relation to continued social distancing and protective measures to keep people safe and healthy.

Therefore, continued higher proportions of remote working may continue while organisations take a phased approach to this to limit the number of people working within close proximity to each other, and to also alleviate concerns that individuals may have about the risks of returning to work.

We might also see more employees ask to switch to reduced hours or demand a better work life balance. One thing this crisis has reinforced for many people is the importance of family, friends, good health, and a slower pace of life, so it’s quite possible that a proportion of employees will want to switch their work-life balance in favour of life outside of work.

Organisations have become reliant on tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom to stay connected while working remotely. Almost overnight, employees (and managers) have had to become more comfortable communicating with others through video conferencing – a new skill for many.

The fast pace at which organisations and their people have adopted new technology during this time bodes well for the future – we can expect to see tech-savvy employees pushing for better use of technology at work, and organisations selecting and implementing appropriate technologies, including HR software, social and engagement platforms, and communication tools, more rapidly than they did before.


How has coronavirus impacted the HR sector?

Coronavirus has transformed workplaces as we know them, changing the way we work, communicate and learn. HR has been at the forefront of making this change happen and, I would venture, has never been more critical to organisations’ survival.

Every single business decision that is affecting it’s employees is being filtered through HR – whether that’s supporting the switch to remote working, ensuring the health and wellbeing of employees (both physical and mental), or making the difficult decision to furlough staff and navigating the legalities of this new process (and then ensuring that those furlough payments come through from HMRC).

For years, HR professionals have talked about how important employees’ health and wellbeing is. Now, finally, those voices are being heard and acted on; a large part of HR teams’ time is being spent on speaking with employees, finding out how they’re doing and what they need, and offering support – whether that’s from a health provider or employee assistance programme, or just providing them with someone to talk to.

HR teams are having to rethink their priorities, and juggle all those ‘nice to do’ projects with urgent demands for their time and support. This means that long-term projects might be being put on hold while difficult conversations are had with line managers and workers about putting people on furlough leave and other measures to protect the organisation long term.

Once the crisis abates, we can expect HR teams to face the challenge of picking up and restarting these ‘forgotten’ projects.

It’s important to mention that, while HR teams are being expected to support organisations with all the time-critical activities that are going on, they’re also having to adapt and change their own internal processes in a very unique situation – and potentially also on reduced resources within their own teams.

Recruitment and onboarding is a great example. Video and phone interviews are the new norm, and for those companies still hiring, onboarding and induction processes will have to be completely remote.

For new starters this means that they are being welcomed into a company without seeing their manager or colleagues face-to-face. It’s not ideal, but such scenarios are a great opportunity for HR professionals to showcase their flexibility, ingenuity and expertise.

This exceptional situation has essentially made the role of HR much more crucial and valuable to organisations. Without HR teams, it would be harder for organisations to deal with change, so the coronavirus has shown everyone how much value HR can add.


What key lessons should HR learn from this crisis?

The future of HR and the future of work requires more of a focus on employee wellbeing. The coronavirus outbreak has shown us the importance of checking in with employees and supporting them through hard times, so HR teams need to continue to invest more time and resources to improving health and wellbeing.

This crisis has also taught us to focus more on the skillset of employees (and potential hires). When hiring new starters in the future, HR should look for those who are able to adapt, change and learn on the job – it’s that flexibility which will be key to helping organisations survive any future crisis.

Finally, HR professionals should take confidence and courage from this experience that their expertise truly matters; that they are valued experts in their organisations, and should act accordingly.

HR practitioners have said they aren’t valued, respected or listened to in their organisations; after all the work they have done to help keep organisations moving forward during this uncertainty, there remain no questions about the critical importance of professional HR knowledge to organisations’ survival – let alone to their long-term success.

Claire Williams is director of people and services at CIPHR.