COVID-19: one year on from the UK’s first lockdown and what has HR learnt?

Today (23 March) marks a year since the UK went into its first national lockdown following the outbreak of coronavirus. HR has stepped up to the plate proving its adaptability - but what has the people profession learnt from the past 12 months?

Be adaptable and innovative

HR had no choice but to be highly adaptable during the pandemic. People teams had to react quickly to the shift to remote work and had to quickly put strategies in place to ensure remote working did not intensify work-related stress or burnout.

Jacques Samama, head of people at London Energy, told HR magazine people teams need to stay just as innovative moving forward.

“Perhaps not by having solutions that does not exist, but by testing ideas, getting feedback from relevant people and then learn the necessary lessons to improve.

“We have all learnt to work in new environment and the last 12 months has been an opportunity to test new things. It is important to keep up this aspect," he said.

Emma Isichei, chief marketing officer at HR and payroll company, MHR said that now businesses have had to pivot quickly HR has more agility.

She added: “Having adopted new strategies and models successfully, lots of companies proved themselves to be more agile and resilient than they expected.

“Now, as they prepare to pivot again and plan their return-to-work strategies, they likely do so with greater confidence.”


Focus on wellbeing

A third (33%) of UK workers have said that changes to their work routine, including working from home, have had a negative effect on their wellbeing during 2020.

Samama said that more than ever, HR must continue to lead the wellbeing agenda.

He said: “From giving support to employees with mental health issue to managing risks related to COVID-19, the HR function has in my view, the responsibility to shape the future of this activity."

After the pandemic he said employees will expect companies to go beyond the traditional offer on wellbeing.

He added: “The HR function has a responsibility to influence management to make things like that happen.

"So being resilient will be a key aspect of HR’s role whilst we navigate our way out of this third lockdown.”  

Siobhan Martin, global HR business partner at Aegon Asset Management, said HR has learnt first-hand how important human interaction is and that employees will need to interact with colleagues in person once the lockdown is lifted. 

Martin told HR magazine: "It’s important to acknowledge that we are social creatures and it is easy to forget the feelings of security and calmness that come from just being around other people.

"HR must build this into the new world of work after the pandemic." 


Create boundaries

At the beginning of the year research from office supplier Furniture at Work found 52% of UK employees said they were working more hours in a week while not in the office.

Furthermore, an Aviva report found more than half (52%) of UK employees said the boundaries between their work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred due to remote working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sarah Jackson, workplace consultant and visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management, said HR has learnt about the importance of boundaries over the past year and will need to instil it into the workforce.

She said: “For office workers, working from home has resulted in work overspill into the rest of their life.

“Some overspill has been the unavoidable collateral of home-schooling; but much has been presenteeism, self-driven by anxiety about job security or in response to manager demands.”

Work overspill, or being ‘always on’, undermines mental and physical wellbeing and can cause sleep problems, anxiety and stress, said Jackson.

“As we return to the office, the new hybrid working model most organisations anticipate will require managers to take seriously the challenges of workloads and being able to switch off.

“Ensuring staff have meaningful choice and control over when and where they work will then pay dividends in engagement, performance and wellbeing.”