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A HR to-do list for this next stage of the pandemic

Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director - HRi

No job role has had it easy during the pandemic but working as an HR professional has undoubtedly been hard. From the changes in rules around having employees in the office, to sorting out healthcare benefits and sick leave, to assisting with flexible working procedures and furlough, and even having to handle mass redundancies, working in HR has been challenging to say the least.

With this in mind, here are the key things every HR people professional needs to know right now as we navigate through the pandemic. Here is our pandemic checklist:

Adapt and move quickly: HR and people professionals are having to adapt quickly and work with the limited guidelines that they are given. Not only is this going to result in more uncertainty all round, it’s also going to make the role of HR yet more stressful. HR will be looked to as an expert during this time and will need to keep on top of frequent changes to law whilst also providing extra reassurance to the business or client. This will, without a doubt, be very hard and resilience and clear thinking will be essential for HR to get through these tricky times.

Anticipate changes to law: Anticipating legal changes and pivoting quickly will be important. HR will need to do their own due diligence to ensure the information they are reviewing and responding to is correct and up to date. There is a great deal of misinterpretation out there right now and HR will need to ensure they are clear on current guidelines, whilst also being honest with the business or clients about the evolving guidelines and legislation. Businesses have the ability to negotiate contract changes, but this will be dependent on individual contracts as to whether changes can be imposed or need to be consulted on and HR can provide the relevant guidance on this.

Bring your people home: You may (if working for/ or representing a global firm) need to repatriate employees, either temporarily or permanently. Make sure you set expectations for communication and response times and define clear roles for who does what. Factor in quarantine periods and travel restrictions that may apply here.

Consider your policies: Insurance costs may go up and employers may look at PMI to support employees. Organisations need to fully understand and comply with the terms of their insurance to ensure a pay-out. This means doing adequate risk assessments and making sure all due diligence is complete.

Plan for absenteeism: Identify your key functions within the business and indeed your critical roles and skillsets. Review business continuity plans and consider carefully how these would be maintained if employees needed to be off due to coronavirus. Prioritise those roles who handle customer relationships where possible, and likewise those roles that are required to ensure the business can continue (such as IT to ensure remote working is possible). Build operational resilience by bolstering team members and skills in critical areas and, if you operate across the whole of the UK, perhaps consider distributing essential roles and functions geographically in case one region needs to suspend operations temporarily, or prioritising the IT set up and support for key roles in case of any lockdown and compulsory homeworking.

Strong leadership will be essential. To get through these challenging times strong leadership and a senior team who can encourage team working and keep morale high will be ever so important. Communication will be essential to this and, whilst this won’t necessarily be your exclusive role in HR, it will be important for you to regularly offer advice on how the firm can maintain employee engagement whilst working remotely. This should be a combination of leadership and organisational wide communication, functional or departmental communication, team meetings, to one to counsel and virtual Christmas parties. Consistency is key here and what leaders say should be reinforced at a department and team level, with the opportunity for upward feedback and communication being important. Remember those water cooler moments that used to make all the difference when it came to employee morale. What is replacing them?

Put plans in place now for when the Job Retention Scheme and Job Support Scheme ends: Many companies will need to consider what their options are after the furlough scheme comes to an end, especially if they cannot afford to bring everyone back. HR will need to present a range of options to the business and offer advice on those options. HR may need to reconsider the cost and value of certain company benefits and which of those benefits actually provide value at this time. They may also need to rethink reward schemes or other considerations (such as London weighting) in the short term. It may also be relevant to establish whether or not individuals can be asked to undertake different work or at different locations during this time.

Prioritise employee mental health: With increased uncertainty and employees worried about their own health and that of their families, anxiety and stress will be at an all-time high. Likewise working parents doing the juggle due to reduced hours, lack of afterschool clubs, and increased admin due to the pandemic will also be at risk of burnout and overwhelm. Recent research by Vita Minds revealed that parents are needing to spend the equivalent of more than two-working days extra a month on the school routine as a direct result of the pandemic and that half of parents have also admitted to feeling overwhelmed by this new demand of hours. Support your team through this by embracing flexibility where possible and ensuring employees are aware of all the options available to them such as an Employee Assistance Program and who their mental health champions are. It’s also important to recognise it’s not just working parents who are under pressure. Caring responsibilities for older relatives also adds an additional burden for many.

Update your policies: Consider updating your employee holiday policy to prevent staff going abroad and having to self-isolate if caught by quarantine rules. Updating your policies and adding one in for Covid-19, as well as being on top of legislation changes, will also be of particular importance if employees are unwell or indeed have to care for someone who is unwell. You may also have to make some tough decisions regarding pay when people are self-isolating if they are a contractor. Likewise, don’t assume that all staff will be clear on what their working hours are now that they are working remotely. Make sure it is clear to each and every team member what is expected of them, what hours they are expected to work and which policies impact them. Likewise ensure they have the voice and support  to negotiate what they need when it comes to working hours and flexibility.

Safety first: Review your procedures for those who are working in the office, shop floor etc to prevent the spread of the virus, e.g. increased cleaning, availability of hand sanitizers, plastic screens, one-way systems and so forth. Make sure all team members know about changes to procedures, your company handbook is updated and that everything is clearly marked. Make sure you and your team review your emergency procedures too, especially if there was an infection and the workplace needed to be closed on a temporary basis.It’s important to remember that there will be a variety of views amongst your employees, with some being more anxious about the current situation than others. Take an individual approach and ensure that any concerns an individual employee may have are acknowledged and responded to where appropriate.

Family leave: Many new parents are facing mounting debts, childcare issues and mental health problems due to coronavirus. More than 270,000 people have signed petitions for parental leave to be extended by three months. At the moment, women are able to take a year’s maternity leave and receive statutory pay for 39 weeks, while parents using shared leave are entitled to 50 weeks with 37 weeks’ pay between them. A petition calling for that leave to be extended has had about 35,000 signatures, while another petition calling for the same has been signed by more than 235,000 supporters. The government provided a written response saying it had no plans to extend the leave, but a subsequent Petitions Committee report recommended that it should be extended for all new parents affected by the pandemic.

Dealing with redundancies: Sadly, during this time, many in HR will have to deal with redundancies. It will be important to consider a number of processes during this time, from making sure the business plan is robust and that HR have had eyes on it before its signed off, to creating sensible timelines, ensuring all templates are in place and of course bringing in stakeholders at the right time and managing communications with them. Another good tip to remember for HR professionals during a redundancy is that whilst this is farewell, it is not always goodbye. HR may wish to create an alumni group for the organisation (even a simple Facebook group) to stay in touch with those that have left and who may be brand ambassadors, or indeed work for the firm again. Keeping contacts close will be very important as we all navigate these tough times.

And finally… look after you: Both inhouse HR and independent HR professionals will need a strong sense of resilience right now and over the coming months, not least because dealing with all the issues of other people will leave them with little support for themselves. As such, practicing self-care will be essential to ensure you take some time for yourself and keep a clear head.

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