At the end of last year, when things were ‘normal’ and we were allowed out of the house to do frivolous things like record podcasts, I was a guest on Mo’s podcast discussing the people profession and its future.
No prizes for guessing what I didn’t predict: this.
The coronavirus has turned our world upside down and the impact on the people profession has been particularly pronounced given the changes, almost overnight, to the way we work. As someone who works closely with HR leaders, and as an interested observer of the world of work, I’ve been speaking regularly with CPOs about how they are handling this crisis and their views on how it could change their organisations and the broader business landscape.
These are some of my initial observations on how Covid-19 will change the people profession and how we work…
Before 16 March, many people professionals were slogging away trying to convince managers and business leaders of the value of flexible working. Then Boris Johnson ordered everyone who could work from home to do so, and the digital and remote working transformation plans of thousands of organisations were put on steroids. Suddenly teams who were never able to work from home before, such as contact centre staff, were equipped to do so. Managers who were sceptical about productivity when working from home will hopefully have been proved wrong over this period (unless they want their own productivity questioned of course). The challenge now is how to capture the learning rather than mindlessly returning to the old ways of working.
Many of the government’s interventions to help organisations during lockdown have ended up in HR’s in-tray. The job retention scheme (furloughing) is about keeping people in jobs and preventing knee-jerk redundancies. Remote working requires considered people management, supported by HR, and essential workers need to be well looked after during these high-pressure times. Any phased return to workplaces will need to focus both on occupational health and safety and also the psychological impact of – for many of us – venturing more than 1km from our front door. HR is very much at the sharp end of all of this.
The longer-term mental health impact of this period should not be underestimated. The mental health charity SANE told Sky News that lockdown is storing up “an epidemic of mental illness”. HR directors I have spoken to from frontline sectors like health and social care are worried that staff may develop PTSD. More of the workforce will be grieving at any one time than perhaps ever before in recent memory. And as HR professionals struggle to support others, they risk their own mental health. At the CIPD we are doing our best to support the profession through content, community and lobbying on their behalf, as we know this is the toughest time in many people’s working lives.
Before the pandemic hit, many organisations were talking a good game about being purpose-led. It’s easy enough to see who is walking the talk: topping up pay to sick or furloughed staff (where they can), cutting executive pay, treating people with dignity and respect even when delivering tough messages. How organisations behave during Covid-19 will have an enduring impact on reputation and culture. As one HRD put it: “We don’t want to put our culture at risk by doing things badly.”
The HR profession has the opportunity to come out of this period stronger, more credible and more central to the business than ever before. To quote a headline in The Economist: 'The coronavirus crisis thrusts corporate HR chiefs into the spotlight’. One HRD I spoke with referred to this period as potentially “game changing” for the profession. It’s up to us to seize the opportunity by stepping into that spotlight and doing the best we can for people and organisations.
Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD and a business journalist. We really appreciate her taking the time to share her prediction on the future.
You can listen back to her initial predictions on her podcast episode.
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