Crisis then calm: How coronavirus is affecting the job of HR

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Few would argue that HR teams have not been busy since the coronavirus took hold some weeks ago, but how has this affected how they manage their teams and allocate resource? Jo Faragher examines the outbreak’s impact on the role of HR.

At the start of 2020, the HR to-do list was pretty packed already: getting their heads around the new points-based immigration system, preparing for changes to IR35 and sorting out figures for the latest round of gender pay gap reporting – all on top of existing commitments.

But from early March onwards, even before the Prime Minister urged everyone to work from home and stricter lockdown measures were enforced, queries began to flood in about how their organisations would deal with the threat of the coronavirus.

Over the days that followed, those questions gradually got greater in number and more difficult to answer – from what will happen to my season ticket to will I even have a job when lockdown is finished?

‘Business as unusual’

As we now enter the fifth week of lockdown, however, an XpertHR survey of HR professionals has found that they are now moving beyond dealing with the immediate crisis stage of the pandemic to slightly less business-critical issues, such as queries about taking holiday while on furlough.

As government support packages such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme have gone live, this has enabled many employers to consider less drastic action and focus on strategies to preserve jobs and support those who are still working – even if remotely.

The proportion of HR professionals saying they were spending all of their time focusing on pandemic-related issues decreased four weeks in to 32.2%, compared to 42.8% two weeks into the crisis. XpertHR content director Mark Crail calls this “business as unusual”.

He says: “We are now moving on from an initial phase of crisis management, where everyone was pretty much making it up as they went along, to a more ordered and considered set of longer-term arrangements.”

One respondent to the survey described HR’s workload as “extremely challenging”, and many reported that the pressure on them, coupled with long hours, was taking its toll on their mental health.

Finding balance

Dawn Moore, group people director at J Murphy & Sons, a construction company, says the challenge has been to “strike a balance between reacting quickly to a situation changing often by the hour or day, to making sure we’re keeping an eye on the future”.

The company employs more than 4,000 people, with varying circumstances and work patterns, and across different territories (such as Ireland and Canada) where the government restrictions are not the same as the UK.

“The volume of email traffic has greatly increased, I’m spending a lot of time on a screen attending Microsoft Teams meetings and the like – you already work long days but end up working longer,” she adds. She has been working with HR business partners to ensure employee wellbeing is a high priority, offering services such as health screening, counselling and a financial wellbeing programme.

“The furlough process has put everybody in a holding pattern” – Simon Hunt, Oakleaf Partnership

Anna Clapton, HR lead at background screening company Verifile, already outsources HR administration so there has been a continuation of service from that point of view, but her workload has still been significant in terms of responding to changing government guidelines.

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“Outsourcing means we can flex resources up and down as demand comes in,” she says. “A lot of our work centrally has been around the way we communicate. We’ve also brought back in some casual workers to carry out background screening, referencing and interviewing. We’re looking at things on a week-by-week basis.”

Changing the way we work

Even in businesses where remote or distributed working is already well established, the day-to-day work for HR has had to pivot significantly.

Caroline Arora, people director at freelance community Hoxby, says her team are working in much the same way in terms of environment as they have always been 100% remote, but the way they work has adapted. “We’ve had to flex so people can work around home-schooling or work in the evenings. We’re more respectful of their workstyles and continue to be fluid,” she explains.

Within the freelance community itself, many of the workers on Hoxby’s books have got more capacity, which means this can be offered to clients who are looking for extra support. At the same time, the team has been offering plenty of support in the form of virtual wellbeing activities such as yoga, separate Slack channels to discuss parenting challenges and webinars on remote working, also available to all on www.remoteworkmates.com.

One aspect of HR that – for many organisations – has come to an abrupt standstill, is recruitment. Discussing the labour market on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, James Reed, chairman of Reed.co.uk, said that new jobs on the site in the third week of April were down 68% compared to the same week in 2019.

And despite the increased workload for HR departments, very few are recruiting for external support, and are only continuing the hiring process for roles they consider to be truly business critical.

Uncertain future

“The furlough process has put everybody in a holding pattern,” says Simon Hunt, chief operating officer at Oakleaf Partnership, an HR recruiter. “Until they know what the future holds, organisations aren’t doing anything.

“In an ‘ordinary’ recession you’d be hiring people who were experienced in change management, organisational development, or employee relations people who could help businesses to manage redundancies or manage consultation periods.”

With no firm indication as to when or how the business world will emerge from lockdown, no-one knows when or whether these roles will be needed.

Henry Lee, who specialises in HR recruitment for the financial services industry at Morgan McKinley, saw around 80% of roles either cancelled or put on hold as soon as the government announced restrictions in mid-March.

“To go through the entire interview process via video is hard. People want to get a feel for the business and often you can only do that in an office.” – Henry Lee, Morgan McKinley

“The roles that are live are in compensation and benefits – so they’re wanting to ensure the business can remain profitable, an HR business partner for a tech start-up where they urgently need policies and procedures in place, and an HR systems integration specialist for a company that had merged with another business – something that can’t be put on hold,” he explains.

Even where organisations are progressing with new HR roles, there are issues around start dates and probation periods.

“I’m encouraging businesses that are hiring to offer break clauses in contracts to acknowledge the fact someone is taking a risk now if they move,” adds Lee. “So rather than a traditional probation period of three months or longer, is there room to let them leave earlier to find themselves a new role?”

And while video conferencing has been embraced with open arms in most aspects of remote working, conducting a final-stage interview with a senior-level HR executive over Zoom is not the same as a face-to-face meeting. “To go through the entire interview process via video is hard. People want to get a feel for the business and often you can only do that in an office.”

Next phase

When restrictions do ease and organisations begin hiring again, it’s likely we may see an increase in employee relations and organisational development roles, argues Lee Krawczyk-Brown, founder of HR recruiter Henlee Resourcing.

“I think there will be greater uptake of interim roles, especially in redundancy and restructure – this is what we saw in the last recession. It depends what the easing of lockdown looks like and when it is,” he says.

“There are a lot of queries about where we go from here.” – Helen Straw, Personnel Partnership

HR consultant Helen Straw of the Personnel Partnership is beginning to see a shift in the support she offers for clients. “I thought things would settle down this week but I’m still working on lots of furlough agreements or working with them on how they bring people back from that period away,” she says. “There are a lot of queries about where we go from here – so for example if work ramps up again how do they maintain social distancing and bring people back gradually.”

One of the challenges is that there could be a second peak, or a period when restrictions are re-introduced, says Sarah Barwell, director of recruitment company The Three Partnership. “I think there will be demand for people who can work quickly, who can demonstrate they’ve been able to make good commercial decisions during this time – for example making the right decisions quickly about lay-offs or furlough.”

A key priority for HR will be to skill up virtual leaders in dealing with different workstyles, says Arora at Hoxby. “Some people will like this style of working and will want to change the shape of how they work. But that means that virtual leader capability needs to deliver support to those people, offering the right tools and support.”

Verifile’s HR team has been looking at building more cross-functional skills as well as developing an accredited ‘Champions Academy’ programme for internal and external applicants – “to help people become more agile and flexible as we come out of this”, according to Anna Clapton.

Taking this longer-term view is absolutely crucial, says Dawn Moore at J Murphy & Sons. “We’re asking people to accept some temporary changes but we can’t get bogged down in the short term; we have to look forward to developing people, how we reward them, how we support them. We have to have one eye on the fact we’ll come out of this, even if everything feels reactive at the minute.”

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