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The decisive new role of HR during the pandemic

Ruth Cornish, Co-founder and Director - HRi

Nothing has exposed the importance of human resources and people (HR) professionals to the extent of which the Covid-19 pandemic has. In a 12-months like no other, HR practitioners have become a sought-after resource for panicked business leaders on the hunt for clarity and alignment. The profession has been given no choice, but to step up and lead the charge.

When the pandemic hit, the speed of change and uncertainty ahead called for the type of skill and application only HR professionals had to hand; steering businesses and leaders through crisis response and preparation, interpreting rapidly changing rules and legislation, dealing with the stress and pressure of entire workforces, and creating new and efficient ways of working.

HR has not just navigated businesses through to the calmer waters we can see ahead, but the industry has played a pivotal role in business transformation too. And this is a role that will continue far beyond the pandemic and one which will determine whether the organisation survives until its next crisis. Finally, HR has been able to justify its position at the leadership table, and in my opinion, it is here to stay. And certainly, as we move through this next lockdown I think this will be even more prevalent.

Making employee welfare compulsory.

The mental health and wellbeing of employees has always been of the upmost importance in the workplace. But these are extraordinary times and although we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, employers must remain conscious of the challenges that continued remote working puts on mental health. Mental health illness now accounts for 4 in 10 of all issued fit notes and millions of people are expected to need help far beyond this period.

Recognising the monumental challenges that stress and mental health problems present, organisations with HR support have been moving away from voluntary support mechanisms, like employee assistance programmes (EAP). Instead, they have focused on embedding employee welfare strategies into the core of business, in recognition of the rewards that can be reaped from truly prioritising and protecting the health of employees and, in turn, the business.

This key-change also brings a swing of focus for HR onto performance optimisation, staff development and non-financial rewards. The importance of employee engagement can’t be overstated.

It is also worth stating that mental health does not discriminate against seniority. Many CEOs have had to dig deep into their energy reserves as well to make some incredibly difficult decisions and diversify at pace. Increasingly, independent HR consultants are providing a safe ear for leaders who are themselves at risk of burnout and need reassurance and a supporting hand.

Ensuring the longevity of flexible working
The pandemic has been a collective force that has forced a reassessment of working practices. There is no doubt that the year gone by has expanded empathy for work-life and has renewed the opportunity to make flexible working more standard practice. What may have taken years to come to fruition is suddenly seen as normal, albeit a new version of normal. Most notably, perhaps, flexible practices are no longer classed as a benefit or an allowance, but as an essential part of working life.

Whilst this progress is positive, businesses must urgently recognise the almighty difference between working from home and working from home during a crisis. A pandemic brings extra baggage and an unrelenting weight on peoples’ everyday lives that would otherwise not exist. HR has been instrumental in catalysing and expanding new approaches to the support of work-life, particularly as businesses continue to realise that a flexible approach to working is business critical and will need to be embedded in the long-term.

Revitalising the basic skills of  HR
More than ever before, the skills of innovation and proactivity are vital in HR. When the crisis hit HR had to build their own solutions. There was no guide book, rather everyone had to think on their feet and quickly. For the industry, this meant holding up a mirror, looking inwards and questioning the rules and manual upon which it has been built.

The pandemic also forced the industry onto an apprenticeship of its own, learning a craft whilst doing the work. It made the practical and operational skills (often viewed to be at a junior level), more valuable than ever and hugely sought after by the business community. Suddenly, the most critical tasks involved employee safety and compliance, mapping socially distanced walking routes through offices, strategically placing hand sanitisation stations, stepping in as public health administrators and translators, and meeting the demands of remote working by becoming I.T. and privacy specialists. Things changed very quickly – and HR was at the forefront of leading that change.

Meeting the demand for HR practitioners
It has long been said that process kills productivity, and to an extent, this is true. Businesses who have long used processes that, on the surface, look like leadership, are likely to have struggled beyond the necessary with the need to adapt when coronavirus hit. This is largely because companies which have a strict set of systems and checklists tend to lack trust in people to make their own judgement calls.

The result is a workforce which is more passive and compliant in behaviour and therefore lacking the initiative needed to cope well with the uncertainty the pandemic has brought. Without a doubt, those businesses who were forced to face the crisis with these weak foundations have recognised not just the necessity of HR, but just how critical it is to the overall livelihood of employees and the health of the business. Independent HR companies have stepped in as the firefighters, using their skills to incorporate strategy and practical application to support these businesses through.

Never has the role of an HR professional been so well respected and, indeed, highly sought after. For all the tragedy the pandemic has brought (and indeed continues to bring), the HR industry has grasped the opportunity to prove its worth and claim its long-deserved place at the leadership table. When the dust settles and we start to move to a brighter future (hopefully post April) all effort must be made to ensure this critical voice in business continues to be heard.

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