Something fundamental has happened to HR over the past fourteen months.
Previously seen by many people as a largely administrative function, HR practitioners have stepped up to the challenge of helping businesses actively navigate their way through unprecedented global change.
In an article for The HR Director (HRD) magazine, company founder Ruth Cornish writes: “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.”
Such “skill and application” involved helping business leaders prepare their initial crisis response, before facilitating a speedy and seismic shift into remote work.
They then had to interpret rapid-fire legislation and ever-changing rules, whilst dealing with heightened levels of stress, and hectic, anxiety-inducing schedules that included caring for vulnerable family members, checking in on loved ones, and daily home-schooling, across an entire workforce.
Throughout all of this intense upheaval, HR leaders have also been a vital source of support for those at the top, or as Ruth Cornish describes it in her HRD article: “a safe ear for leaders who are themselves at risk of burnout and need reassurance and a supporting hand.”
Now that organisations are slowly welcoming their workforces back to the office, it is clear that the role of HR is only going to become more significant as time passes.
Not only will new policies need to be drawn up, but whole new ways of working may now have to be designed, introduced, and embedded, such as the well-documented transition to hybrid models that have been embraced by the likes of HSBC, PwC and Microsoft.
Sadly, redundancy programmes will have to be presided over for many organisations, as well as large-scale recruitment, and the re-designing of job roles to suit our global ‘new normal’.
Yet these examples only describe the beginning of the work HR now has to do, in order to help steer businesses towards a successful and sustainable future.
Here are two key areas in which HR can expect to take a leading role.
Increased focus on work/life balance
During the pandemic, boundaries between life and work blurred to become almost non-existent.
Organisations had to recognise and account for the increased pressures their employees were under as they toiled from home, from the loneliness brought on by enforced isolation, to the juggling of work responsibilities with round-the-clock childcare.
However, as this Personnel Today thought piece points out, focusing on employees’ lives outside of the traditional 9-5 led to a surprising revelation: “(The pandemic) forced (businesses) to play a deeper role in the personal lives of staff, and what has been surprising is how much of a positive impact they can have.”
To become true employers of choice, organisations must continue to recognise that employees lead individual lives outside of the office.
HR leaders’ natural people focus, combined with their expert knowledge of both legislation and internal culture, will be crucial to designing supportive policies and practical working practices that reflect this human fact.
Embedding a lasting sense of flexibility and trust
The pandemic has resulted in a severely disrupted workforce, and many organisations will have to work on re-establishing trust as their employees return to the office.
Crucial to this will be a flexible approach to work that emphasises quality over time spent in the office or online, and clear and inclusive communication, company wide.
As this wellbeing-focused article for Personnel Today describes: “HR must set the ground rules for how employees communicate with each-other and ensure business communications are consistent… we must be the trusted guardians of communications that are factual, relevant and on brand.”
Meanwhile, Google’s innovative strategy of banning meetings for an entire week helped demonstrate to staff that they were trusted to plan their own working schedules.
Whatever the future of work holds, having the right HR leadership in place will be crucial. The CIPD report, Embedding New Ways of Working, describes more about how to implement new policies and practices as we all navigate the post-pandemic workplace together.
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