Following the COVID-19 Pandemic: What is next for the HR Director?

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The role of the HR Director or Manager is always changing but you could easily argue that it’s change has never been faster accelerated than in the last ten months. But how is the role changing and is it set for its golden age at the business table. Business Leader investigates.

With millions forced to work from home, while others have had to adapt to a more blended way of working, the HR Director’s (HRDs) role has risen to the forefront of running a company.

The business world is a far reach from where it was a year ago. Even with the ongoing struggles with Brexit, Trump’s America and international relations strained across the globe – their collective impact is dwarfed by that of the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic. All industries and ways of life have been turned upside down, and as a result, businesses have been playing catch up in response to the crisis.

As a result, the importance of human resources and employees wellbeing has been brought to the fore.

Ranjit Dhindsa, Head of Employment at European law firm Fieldfisher, comments: “COVID-19 has thrusted the HR team, and therefore HRDs into the centre of critical business continuity planning.

“They’ve had to deal with managing employees that have gone off sick or are worried for themselves and their families who might be vulnerable. Also, they’ve had to be quick to come up with solutions on how manage career development and training remotely, particularly for junior employees. It’s been business as usual plus the extra workload from the pandemic. When lockdown finally came, they had to support the business in the rollout to remote working, checking in on employees, ensuring that productivity and morale is up.

“Following this, the UK government announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, a monumental piece of employment and tax law legislation which no one had heard of or had time to prepare for. Within this, there was immense pressure to put employees onto furlough, even though there was little detailed guidance on the scheme, so HRDs had to help other business leaders manage who and when to put on furlough and put in measures to manage this process.

“Then came the HMRC crackdown on use of the scheme, so HRD were challenged with working with finance teams and people managers to ensure the accuracy of their furlough records.

“Also, navigating redundancy processes at a time when employment tribunals are at an all-time high has led to increase pressure for HRDs to ensure they’re protecting the business and adhering to employment law.”

It is clear that the role has significantly increased in its importance in the day-to-day running of a business.

Ross Seychell, Chief People Officer at Personio, agrees: “Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and all the challenges, changes and disruption that it has entailed, HR directors have been an important guiding force, helping companies to adjust to this new reality.

“Indeed, during this rocky period, HR has proven itself to be a company’s backbone; on top of their regular responsibilities, HRDs have found themselves supporting businesses on multiple fronts – whether establishing remote working policies, ensuring everyone has the tech they need to successfully work from home, keeping employees engaged, or advising on furlough, redundancies and resourcing needs.

“As a result, in what is essentially a ‘trickle up’ effect for the function, HRDs have now become much more visible to the C-suite – with 71% of HR managers saying the HR function has become more closely involved at board and senior team level during the outbreak. And it’s about time this happened.

“Among many leadership teams, there is now greater recognition of the importance of building, managing and supporting a great team, and it’s hoped that this will help to build political capital for HR – and help HRDs create the case for more budget investment in the future.”

RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BUSINESS LEADER

It is clear that the role of the HR lead within a business has never been more business-critical – and as a result, its necessity has driven a renewed interest in the wellbeing of employees from business owners.

The acceleration of the new-normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased importance in the eyes of business leaders.

Nick Burns, CEO Gallagher Benefit Services UK, said: “HRDs are generally the closest link with employees and key stakeholders. As such, they need to take on board employee feedback, shape their people strategy to reflect organisational and workforce priorities, and have a clear mandate from the board to take action. This includes having access to budget and an appetite to invest, particularly given the current challenges, in terms of discretionary spend.

“Investment aimed at improving the people agenda should be seen as critical spend, to help businesses to adjust, survive and focus on future growth as we continue to transition into a new commercial environment.

“The global pandemic and local lockdown restrictions has brought executive and functional leadership teams closer together. From a HRD and CEO relationship perspective, autonomy comes through trust. All executive leadership teams are under significant pressure to make critical decisions with increased ambiguity, with the expectation they have all the answers. Decisions by committee is no longer an option in most situations. The pandemic response is a moving target and CEO’s should be passing responsibility down, not only to HR, but to the leadership team collectively to enable nimble, informed and increasingly intuitive decision making.”

ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

The pandemic has elevated the importance of the HR function within businesses across all sectors. But, what the crisis has also done is accelerate the adoption and creation of new, innovative technologies.

But, are HRDs prepared? And do businesses need to adopt new tools to help them survive the months ahead?

Ross Seychell, Chief People Officer at Personio, said: “Technology has huge potential to improve the productivity of the HR function. For many HRDs and their teams, paperwork and admin take up valuable time that could instead be redirected to delivering their HR strategy. And, right now, with HR teams more stretched than ever, time for strategic thinking is more critical than ever before.

“From productivity and absences, to employee satisfaction and leaver data, HR technologies can also provide HRDs with critical data insights about their people, which they can use to support their strategies, and become a more powerful ally to businesses.

“Worryingly, however, HR is still chronically under informed and under equipped. Our research found that 48% of HRDs do not have all the HR tools and systems in place to be as effective as possible, whilst 71% struggle to access data or analytics in the business.

“Amid so much change and upheaval, and with businesses having to make tough and complex decisions now and over the next 12 months, good data and analytics will be crucial to underpin successful HR strategies and to give HRDs the time and ability to focus on their business’s greatest asset – their people.”

However, just rushing out to introduce new technologies can be harmful – and just adds another level of complexity to a role that is already stretched for time and resources.

Kate Cooper, Head of Research, Policy and Standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management, said: “Technology can certainly help; it’s the great connector. However, if your technology’s not working, it adds an additional layer of dysconnectivity in a disconnected workplace – an additional level of frustration, when the only channel you have to talk to people, to collaborate, to connect, is being patchy at best or not working at all.

“Reliable, fit for purpose technology is a business imperative, as is the understanding that people have got to learn how to use that technology. Again, another role for HR, businesses need to ensure that appropriate, timely development is there – sending a clear message that, yes, people are working differently and they need to learn how to do that – along with a recognition of the experience curve as a result. Not only is there is a requirement to invest in training and development, but also the need to be patient until everybody gets to the right level of capability.”

INCREASED IMPORTANCE

No matter the industry or size of a business, the role of HRD has never been more crucial to the future of a company. Also, as the new-normal becomes more clearly defined, HR will see new roles within the team become a necessity for future business functions.

David Banaghan, Co-founder of Occupop, concludes: “HR directors need to adapt and broaden their skillset to manage the new normal and how businesses will operate going forward, but that also calls for a requirement to hire or retrain HR team members with the skillsets and abilities to be able to meet this new world of work. In fact, a recent study by Harvard Business Review found that there are over 20 new HR jobs of the future, including Human Bias Officers, Diversity Officer, Chatbot Facilitator and Head of Well-Being.

“HRDs need to work with the business leaders firstly to identify what a company needs now to function at its best under disrupted circumstances, assigning job roles within the HR team to overcome any challenges. HRDs then need to identify what a company will need to operate in the short, medium and long-term in regard to skills gaps and employee issues such as inclusion, well-being and engagement.

“With a people-first approach, HR can now be seen as the face of the future of the company in a more empathic way. Through the adoption of technology and practices that help employees feel appreciated and help them achieve their goals, HR can successfully navigate any company through the pandemic storm and beyond.”

Interview with an expert

Mark Walton, CEO of Sensee, spoke to Business Leader on the future importance of the HR Director and how the pandemic has impacted on the role.

How has COVID-19 changed the role of the HR Director?

In recent years, many HR teams have struggled to balance their role in upholding the culture and values of their organisations with their budgetary  responsibilities and, in particular, looking after their board  and shareholder interests.  I believe that will change as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 expedited the usage of flexible and home working which is playing  a key role in the evolution of the HR Director role.  Having seen the benefits that working from home  can offer (especially reduced travel costs, less time wasted travelling to work and a better work/life balance) more employees are now demanding the flexibility to work in a manner more suited to their lifestyle and family obligations, but without financially impacting their organisations. This is creating a huge shift for HR Directors who operate in a new environment where a workforce is largely apart yet  expecting the same duty of care from human resources.

The HR role will be more important than ever in driving through this change.  It’s the time for HR teams to be brave in challenging conventional thinking and to play their part in creating new systems, and setting new professional standards for the post-pandemic world of work.”

How have people in the role had to change to cope with the changes caused by the virus?

“It is now the responsibility of HR teams to work with others to ensure that the voice of the employee is listened to with regards to homeworking needs and the personal circumstances that can affect this.  HR should ensure suitable employment contracts are in place to support homeworkers.  Home-working is not a one-size-fits-all approach, it is important to understand the profile of those that are better suited to homeworking, and those better suited to working in the office.  And to ensure that effective support is in place to manage homeworkers, not just from a motivational and performance perspective but also a health and well-being perspective.”

Can technology help?

“Technology is supporting  HR teams across a wide set of functionality as meetings, social gatherings, and company events have gone virtual. There are a multitude of productivity and team monitoring tools available so that workers can easily share work and collaborate efficiently. Moving HR and culture online is a bigger challenge that will likely take longer to evolve with creative solutions from teams and managers alike.”

How can a HR Director help a business through the struggles a company is facing?

“The HR Director can often act as the ‘voice’ of the company, with the new circumstances of a remote team this is even more essential. We recommend that HR teams maintain contact through technology and maintain regular contact with staff, on the telephone or on video conference calls. It is an adjustment but this personal contact is essential to reassuring staff and maintaining team dynamics.”

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