The Coronavirus outbreak has proved to be an historic moment in time across the world. For businesses, it has created serious challenges to livelihoods, without discrimination. As leaders begin to pick up the pieces, organisations are being tasked to also look ahead at what a ‘new normal’ may be. What does that entail? And how can modern-day HR departments use this as a lesson to help their teams work better, smarter and harder?

By Pete Byrne, CEO and founder of ESPHR

There has been no question that COVID-19 has enforced an immediate review into the structure and existing operating models of organisations – and exactly how their HR functions must now run. Gone are the days where the traditional business of face-to-face meetings and working from a physical space were considered 'the norm'.

As the world strives to recover, the vast destruction has highlighted adaptable businesses and those which are struggling. For many companies, and their HR departments, such a challenge to think swiftly – and reduce internal and external impact – may have seemed a far easier prospect, but it still required a strategic, forward-thinking approach.

Engineering a mass move – to enable teams to work from home effectively – may have also been a simpler prospect for enterprises with a strategically robust Employee Relations (ER) focus. Having the ability to empower company culture, deliver employee ‘buy in’ and boast a nimble, agile and flexible team has proven to be pivotal in crisis. In addition, organisations with a well-established remote and flexible working model – alongside AI and automated capabilities at its heart – have enabled employees to maintain a high level of productivity.

As a result, such businesses that have swiftly adapted should be in a strong position to shape the future of their firms, and pivot their proposition, to continue to meet the ever-evolving needs of both customers and employees. Knowing what pitfalls to look out for when operating remotely – from a lack of robust IT infrastructure and equipment to motivating an isolated workforce – can help businesses to stay ahead of their competition. On the flip side, the ‘new norm’ has brought to light struggling organisations lacking in agile foundations that have resulted in an HR nightmare.

For several leaders, the global crisis has presented a vast array of ER challenges – many of which will continue to task even the most forward-thinking firms. It has been about more than simply ensuring the right technology is in place and a happy workforce remains in operation. ER at the core of a business can help it to truly tackle turbulent times and come out the other side.

How modern-day leaders have had to battle the ‘new norm’

The conundrums HR directors have – and continue to face – all require a strategic ER focus. From making sure employees are comfortable, connected and safe to requiring ongoing training of automated systems, online tools and resources. Managers have had to become digital leaders overnight and ensure that their remote communications are regular and relevant. Additionally, workflows have had to be considered carefully, and capacity analysed effectively.

Key ER decisions around furlough, redundancies and social distancing to name a few, have all led to interesting, longer-term challenges for the HR team. And throughout, customer expectations have evolved, so aligning organisational culture and values to meet these demands have been of paramount importance.

Then there comes the challenge of the continued health and well-being of staff – something so critical that should never be overlooked. Following such unprecedented times, this has challenged many leaders to transform the ways in which they roll-out a ‘best practice’ approaches remotely.

Whether that has been via more formal procedures – such as Employee Benefit Programmes and the more active promotion of existing Employee Assistance Programme services – or something more ‘informal’ such as online social events, one-to-one discussions and video conferences. Such processes remain critical for HR leaders to get absolutely right.

Lessons to be learnt in a crisis

Following the catalyst of change brought on by COVID-19, the challenge now is how to adapt strategic thinking and maintain a thriving workforce – with ER at its core. Questions will be asked within the boardroom about the firm’s current HR functions, how employees are being upskilled and what they are doing to attract top talent. For progression to be made – and forward-thinking practices to be rolled-out effectively in future – HR must continue to play a vital role throughout.

What such adversity has presented is that more agile, resilient and flexible workers – who have the technology to deliver exceptional customer service experience despite a radically diversified environment – are now operating better, smarter and harder. And, with such a strong strategic focus on ER, those organisations should be nimble when they need to adapt to continued change in future.

Many months from now, HR directors and their organisations should take the opportunity to reflect on key lessons, learn from mistakes and truly understand the value of a motivated team – complete with advanced technology – in the face of a global crisis. How they react to such business transformation will shape their own organisation’s future, impact recruitment strategy and highlight how adaptable and resilient their workforces truly are.

We were delighted to be featured in this month’s theHRDIRECTOR publication and we hope you enjoy our article by our founder Peter Byrne. You can subscribe to theHRDIRECTOR and save £50 by using the promotional code CONTRIBUTOR. Digital subscriptions are also available.


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Author: Peter Byrne

Founder, ESP Group

Pete set up ESP Group in March 2003, after running an HR resource management business for three years. 

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