Two years since coronavirus lockdown: what has HR learned?

Today (23 March) marks the second anniversary of the announcement by prime minister Boris Johnson that the UK was locking down due to coronavirus. After two years in crisis, what lessons can HR take with them into a life post-Covid?

Crisis management

One key lesson has been the importance of crisis management. Successive lockdowns – and repeated false ‘ends’ to the pandemic – have meant that HR has had to learn to be in a constant state of readiness. 

According to Liz Sebag-Montefiore, co-founder and director at HR consultancy 10Eighty, crisis planning has become central to HR’s everyday life.

She told HR magazine: “A good crisis management plan is important. 

“Managers under stress may make rushed or poor decisions, stressed employees may retreat into rigid rule-following or sit on their hands in fear of making things worse. 

“A plan helps everyone cope, by providing structure, consistency, clarity and reassurance; everyone knows where to turn for direction, guidance, support, information and leadership.”

Martyn Dicker, director of people at children’s charity Unicef, added that the speed of changes that HR has had to oversee in response to these crises have highlighted to HR just how important a flexible approach can be.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “The word pivot has come up so often – and it’s absolutely true. We had been doing things a certain way – and then just quickly turned them on their head.

“Organisations were thinking that they had to do onboarding, recruitment and interviews in person. So many of those things that we’ve done over the past two years, it’s absolutely fine to do remotely.”

More lessons on crisis management:

Keeping internal communications open in times of crisis

How to break the cycle of stress and conflict in times of crisis


Culture and trust

Dicker said the pandemic has also accelerated a series of fundamental changes in the world of business, including the provision of trust in employees. 

He said: “It’s an acceleration of focusing on performance, on outcomes, and being less concerned about presence or input.”

This is especially true, he added, of office-based work. 

“One of the lessons is that you don’t need to be coming into the office to get [the job] done. You don’t need to be seen by the right people, you don’t need to turn up at nine o’clock.”

Sebag-Montefiore added: “Many employees are reluctant to return to an office environment where their tasks are micromanaged by watching their every move. 

“Many have worked independently away from the office for months on end and have proven trustworthy, effective, and productive.”

By learning to promote trust within their businesses, she said, HR can foster a culture that values employees’ independence, accountability, autonomy, and creativity. 

“Employees want that trust, so be reasonable about continued flexible working arrangements and lay off the micromanagement and monitoring of employee activity.”

Culture and the importance of trust:

Why workplace trust creates a productive and engaged team

A new model for company culture fit

A trust expert's advice on building a resilient culture


While the pandemic saw HR move rapidly to protect peoples’ physical health, for many it also presented a steep learning curve in understanding how to safeguard their mental health.

Amanda Manser, director of operations at wellbeing and performance company GoodShape, told HR magazine: "The pandemic has brought the issue of employee wellbeing and health into sharp focus and with good reason.

"The impact of Covid on workforces was inevitable, but it was actually poor mental health that caused most lost working time last year – 17% of all staff absence across the UK – continuing a 40% rise since 2015."

Perry Timms, founder and chief energy officer at PTHR, told HR magazine that organisations have learned to adopt a more human approach to business.

He said: “Not perks, but moments that matter.”

Through more compassion, and shared understanding of the challenges of self-care, Timms said, we have seen more symbolic gestures from leadership than ever before.

He said: “Duty of care took on a new meaning [...] our hope is this continues into hybrid working patterns and approaches and a continued recognition that a wellbeing approach really does make a difference to people’s commitment and togetherness in uncertain, turbulent times.”

Manser added: "The pandemic should be a stark reminder that wellbeing is no longer a nice-to-have policy but a serious initiative for the corporate agenda.

"It is imperative employers remain committed to the wellbeing of their staff in the future."


How to create a wellbeing strategy that works for all

How wellbeing initiatives have boosted employee engagement post-pandemic

Watch on demand: How to cater to a greater diversity of needs with your wellbeing strategy



HR’s place in business

David Blackburn, chief people officer at the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS), told HR magazine that the pandemic not just provided HR a lesson – but has given the other business functions a valuable insight into the value of HR.

He said: “The pandemic shone a spotlight on the central importance of the role of the chief people officer and their teams in every organisation.”

The diversity and difficulty of the challenges HR has faced have been front and centre to business as a whole, he said. Remote working; supporting employees, at the front line or in their homes and maintaining connections and productivity in a totally new world of work.

He added: “We demonstrated that we’re not just people leaders, we’re business leaders, strategic advisers, and innovative thinkers.

“We didn’t just answer the questions, we delivered better solutions.

“This is a golden moment to hold onto that advantage and ensure that going forward HR proactively drives the business agenda, not just responds to it.”

HR steps up:

HR in the boardroom: four tips for maximising HR’s business impact

What do employees want organisational culture to look like in 2022?

COVID-19 can break the HR director’s glass ceiling