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The role of HR in the post-COVID workplace


As we look towards the future, the role of the HR professional has never been more important. From our recent HR Leaders’ session that we organised in partnership with PwC, the key themes identified include:

  • Developing stability and building long term resilience
  • Utilising strategic insight for workforce planning
  • Making the best use of technology to create sustainable and productive ways of working
  • Developing successful leadership for the virtual world

These strategies are explored in further detail by developing these themes since the seminar.

Developing stability and building long term resilience

Cezanne HR outline 6 steps for HR professionals to follow to help their businesses return to a new normal.

  • Anticipate change: HR teams need to have a clear understanding of where the business is heading. They need to stay close to the decision makers to ensure the timing and emphasis of HR initiatives are consistent with the recovery strategy’s impact upon the workforce.  Being familiar with your strategy and how this aligns with the organisation’s vision and values, will help you plan for any necessary shifts in the way your HR team operates.

  • Make values and purpose the bedrock of your business: organisations who had to furlough employees, or quickly transition to a home-working workforce, will face challenges to retain their company culture and keep staff engaged. HR need to consider if HR processes are aligned with the way the business wants people to work on a day-to-day basis. They also need to ask, are people engaged with the overall purpose of the business, and are they clear about how they fit into the bigger picture? Having a clear and strong company culture helps staff to bond as a team.

  • Align HR and business strategies: HR has a strategic opportunity to support business growth and stability. Where HR has a place in the Boardroom, this is easier to achieve. If HR professionals are not represented enough in strategic conversations and actions, they need to influence their way into the conversations and demonstrate their value in contributing to creating a settled and effective workforce.

  • Simplify processes: as businesses adjusted to a COVID-19 world, they inevitably needed to rethink their previous approaches and adapt their people processes, such as, onboarding people remotely or managing remote teams.

  • Strike the balance between preservation and evolution: it’s important not to be too sentimental about what has always been, and to let go of processes or aspects of the business’s culture that no longer supports its vision or priorities. Organisations and their staff have discovered the benefits of increased home working, through better employee engagement, productivity and work-life balance as they continue operations offsite. Additionally, formal team meetings or email chains are being placed by Zoom and phone calls.

  • Lay the foundations for the future: many people are still expressing concerns and anxiety about an uncertain future (risk of a second wave, financial instability, unstable job market, etc.). So, as an HR team you may find it difficult to see beyond the immediate operational issues. Tackling short term problems is nothing new to HR professional. But to address the need to minimise the post-COVID recovery time, Don’t get caught up in the current moment at the expense of opportunities to support long-term goals.

Utilising strategic insight for workforce planning

Strategic workforce planning is critical for filling the skill gaps of today and tomorrow, but Gartner considers that many HR leaders lack capabilities to tackle this key activity. Their inability to plan strategically may leave them unable to close existing and future skill gaps. To succeed, you’ll need to gather the right information to inform workforce planning and build your workforce planning capabilities.

1. Get business input on evolving needs

A process is only as good as its inputs, and it’s even more important when business and operating models are constantly changing to be current on what’s needed to drive the organisation’s ambitions. To do this:

  • Develop productive partnerships with business leaders and educate yourself about the future of the business.
  • Integrate workforce planning into business planning so it isn’t a stand-alone process and can’t be easily dismissed by business leaders.
  • Give business leaders something to react to — try starting the conversation with a plan instead of a question.

2. Gather external labour market intelligence

Organisations don’t operate in a vacuum, so they shouldn’t assess the talent situation in a vacuum either. Consider:

  • How key roles are evolving in the industry
  • How talent is flowing in and out of key competitors
  • How specific trends are affected by location
  • How available diverse talent is in the labour market

Without this information, you’re unlikely to identify — or may misidentify — talent risks, so you can’t pre-empt and plan for them. Perspective from beyond the organisation can also help you to gain credibility with business leaders. We know this is one reason why so many HR leaders meet with our consultants at Nigel Wright Recruitment. They know we hold insights from across geographies and sectors that we are always pleased to share because we are one business community and are all in this together.

3. Build HR’s ability to use and interpret talent data

Leveraging data isn’t only important for identifying talent; it can help determine the best strategy to close talent gaps. Data can drive your decision to build, buy, retain, outsource, automate or look for contractors, depending on the type of talent gap you face, the business environment and your overall talent strategy.

Making best use of technology to create sustainable and productive ways of working

In an environment of restricted spending on costly IT projects, The HR and Employee Engagement Community suggests that the simplest technology can help create sustainable productivity improvements. Smartphones and other mobile devices have created some distracting habits, especially at work. At the same time, these tools have so much potential – alongside other technologies – to dramatically improve our productivity that it would be a mistake to eliminate or ignore them. They can easily help increase your output and efficiency.

  • Make sure you are leveraging the right tools in the first place: not every new piece of productivity tech is going to fit perfectly in your existing workflow or business culture. You have to be sure that you’re choosing the right tools for the job. This may involve ignoring new productivity tech for slightly more established technology that “just works.”

  • Automate and systemise everything you can: The more you can automate and systemise your daily workflow or your business processes, the more your productivity is going to increase. Analysing wastage in terms of time, materials, resources, etc. can identify areas where machines can help improve those processes. Faster and more consistent automation can be more productive than having people handle these kinds of tasks individually.
  • Schedule everything: If you are serious about improving your productivity you should adopt scheduling and the power of your calendar. Calendar applications interface with most every kind of application you can imagine and are instantly accessible on every device. Help people to run their day according to their schedule – doing your level best to account for every minute of work time possible – and you’ll find your productivity increases.
  • Utilise time tracking tools: improvements come from tasks that are constantly measured and tracked. It is easy to either overestimate or underestimate the amount of time workers have available and the amount of productive time people are putting in on a regular basis. By tracking your time (utilising any of the straightforward time tracking tools available) enables workers to be able to better analyse how they spend their time already. They will be able to see where they are spending the most time as well as where their most productive time needs to be.

Developing successful leadership for the virtual world

Innovation enthusiast and Head of Innovation at Uniper, Renate Krammer, made some insightful points in her blog addressing Leadership 4.0. Renate poses that virtual leadership usually requires to work with geographically dispersed teams and to provide impressive results across regional and cultural boundaries. She refers to the 3C's of successful (virtual) leadership:

  • Cohesion and trust building

Cohesion is the glue that bonds team members and builds commitment. Whereas trust is the foundation for any successful collaboration – circumstances virtual teams lack in the beginning. Trust grows out of mutual work experiences and personal interaction, where individuals learn to feel comfortable and open in sharing their individual insights and concerns. Where ideas and assumptions can be challenged without fear or risk of repercussion and where diversity of opinions is valued over commonality or compliance. Leverage this trust by ensuring that the team has a clear vision and clear goals that everyone understands. In addition, promote the competence of your team members and publicise individual roles and responsibilities.

 Furthermore, teams are more cohesive and effective with shared leadership. To achieve this, devise strategies for virtual team members to monitor, evaluate and regulate their own performance by giving them the access to team metrics and information. To increase the self-organisation of your team they may elect temporary moderators or coordinators based on the current prevailing operational focus.

  • Communication

Teams with a high level of trust engage in continuous and frequent communications. Good communication among coworkers drives effective knowledge sharing, decision making, coordination, and, ultimately, performance results. Communication is not simply the flow of data but a complicated process of interpretation that involves verbal, vocal and visual information. Since face-to-face meetings appear to be the exception rather than rule selecting the appropriate medium based on the purpose is important. So stay in touch with your team members at least once every day (or every other day), even if it’s not absolutely essential – it is better to over-communicate at least at the beginning.

  • Cultural sensitivity

It’s crucial that you are aware of the cultural differences in your team and share cultural customs within the team. Consider their different dimensions like communication, decision making, confrontation and so on. To minimize the negative effects of cultural differences virtual teams should agree on team customs and ground rules for the way in which they interact eg. explicit descriptions of how decisions will be made or how to address and resolute conflicts. Make the norms explicit.

Six key messages for leaders

1. Act now. This isn’t about some ‘far future’ of work – change is already happening and accelerating.

2. No regrets and bets. The future isn’t a fixed destination. Plan for a dynamic rather than a static future. You’ll need to recognise multiple and evolving scenarios. Make ‘no regrets’ moves that work with most scenarios – but you’ll need to make some ‘bets’ too.

3. Make a bigger leap. Don’t be constrained by your starting point. You might need a more radical change than just a small step away from where you are today.

4. Own the automation debate. Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will affect every level of the business and its people. It’s too important an issue to leave to IT (or HR) alone. A depth of understanding and keen insight into the changing technology landscape is a must.

5. People not jobs. Organisations can’t protect jobs which are made redundant by technology – but they do have a responsibility to their people. Protect people not jobs. Nurture agility, adaptability and re-skilling.

6. Build a clear narrative. A third of workers are anxious about the future and their job due to automation – an anxiety that kills confidence and the willingness to innovate. How your employees feel affects the business today – so start a mature conversation about the future.

The role of the HR professional is absolutely critical and will lead organisations out of lockdown and beyond.   

The HR recruitment market is responding to business demand and continues to do well under the current circumstances. Our job flow is approaching pre-lock down levels and many of the businesses we are speaking to are feeling optimistic about the future.  We have noticed the following key trends in recent months:

  • An increase in the requirement of interim HR resource, in particular experienced HR generalist candidates with strong change management experience.
  • Demand particularly high across manufacturing, social housing, tech and public sector. 
  • Shift in focus towards wellbeing as well as equality, diversity & inclusion initiatives.
  • Increased candidate confidence and desire for career development.

Due to the low number of redundancies within the HR market there are very few immediately available HR professionals in the market for interim roles.

The message from us is that there’s been more recruitment market activity happening throughout this period than you may have anticipated. We predict that trend will continue as businesses face a changed landscape and need to ensure they have the correct skills mix to successfully navigate their way forward.

Please get in contact with our HR Managing Consultant, Sue O’Donovan, if you would like a confidential career discussion at any point.

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