What should Human Resource Management Professionals focus on as we prepare for a return to work?

Article published in BusinessTime in Essex, on 1st June 2020

Dr Danielle A. Tucker

As the COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the world of work in recent months, HR professionals have been working tirelessly to implement new policies (e.g. Furlough, remote working), but as we begin the return to work there is a need for HR to turn its attention to the impact of COVID-19 on the future workplace. Based on my experience of working with organisations and educating HR professionals, here are my top three priorities for HR professionals to think about.

  1. Ensuring equality in the treatment of employees

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many inequalities and inconsistencies within society and the way we work. School closures have placed a heavier burden on parents, those with physical or mental health conditions may be struggling more with isolation. Every employee will have experienced challenges during the pandemic, but these will be different for each of them. Likewise, the coping strategies which employees have available to them will be varied. HR professionals are in a unique position of being able to see the scope and variation in these challenges, but it is crucially important that they avoid the urge to compare or make judgements about the impact severity of one person’s experiences over others. What may seem like a minor inconvenience to one employee could be a significant stress trigger for another. Each challenge needs to be viewed within the context of that employee’s whole life circumstances, which they may or may not openly disclose.

What does this mean for reward systems and performance management? Many organisations may have set monthly or annual performance targets for employees which may no longer be achievable. Where these targets are linked to reward or promotion, it is important to ensure that individuals or groups are not adversely disadvantaged. This may mean that a performance/reward system needs to be temporarily abandoned or altered in some way. It will be important to listen to employees and be responsive to reports of these systems placing undue stress on individuals. There are lots of limitations to performance related pay systems under normal circumstances, the pressures of the pandemic may have exaggerated these problems further.

2. Managing change

Over the last couple of months, workplaces have likely seen more changes in work practices in a concentrated period of time than ever before. For some workplaces this may have been the move to remote working, for others it could be pauses in production or loss of links with suppliers/customers. But also, potential new opportunities may have arisen. The pandemic may have acted as a catalyst for change, created a sense of urgency, enabled outdated processes to be replaced with little opportunity for resistance. But now, it is important to take some time to reflect on these changes and organisations will need to decide which changes should remain, and which were temporary. Moreover, change in one area of an organisation will often trigger a need for change in other areas – so now other parts of the system need to catch up.

Now is also a time to review and examine alignment between work practices and strategy. It may be that adjustments to organisational strategy will be needed as we emerge from these disruptive times, and these changes need to be reassessed in line with the HR practices which already existed, and those which have emerged or been adjusted during lockdown. Maybe there have been unexpected implications, perhaps your employees have surprised you with their innovativeness or adaptability, new ways of working have been adopted and efficiency savings have been realised. Making change happen in a crisis is one thing, making those changes stick will require HR to be responsive to changing organisational needs, bringing systems inline or creating new ones in a new reality.

3. Retaining talent by supporting employee well-being

As we begin to emerge from lockdown, attention will be paid to how organisations treat employees with physical safety and social distancing in the workplace being key priorities. In the longer term, however, employer concern for the well-being and mental health of employees will be a key scrutiny point for existing and potential employees. Organisations who have supported employees well will find it easier to retain existing talent and attract the best employees to work for them.

Looking to the longer term, the pandemic may have led to significant changes in people’s lives (for example, they may have lost a relative, they may have new caring responsibilities, or may be re-evaluating their work/life choices). Talented employees may be seeking something different or something more from their work and if employers wish to retain this talent then they need to be accommodating. Employers may need to be more open to flexible working requests, consider providing new learning and development opportunities, or restructuring roles, in order to retain valuable knowledge and skills within the organisation.

For HR professionals, the challenges of COVID-19 do not stop when employees return to work, the repercussions of the pandemic and the impact it has had on all our lives will be a focus for many months and years to come.

If you (or your employees) are looking to enhance your career prospects and to take on a role at the forefront of human resource management, you can find out more about our CIPD accredited MSc Human Resource Management. The programme is available full time or part time and is accredited by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

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