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Responding to the ‘new normal’: HR lessons from COVID-19

Rebekah Valero-Lee Professional Services

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As more industries begin to reopen after several months of lockdown, and teams make their way back to the workplace from furlough, HR departments are busier than ever. Whether they’re getting to grips with new guidance, implementing learnings from the last three months or handling queries from worried team members, there has never been more pressure on this vital workplace function to deliver.

Two of our HR recruitment leads, Louise Ellis, HR business manager, and Craig Saxby, recruitment manager for our HR division, recently caught up about the considerations of HR teams across the UK as the economy begins to recover, looking at the steps they can take to ensure people are put first. Here’s what they had to say:

 

What are the most popular questions and challenges your clients are getting in touch with you about at the moment?

Louise: “Our conversations with the HR community are around staff returning to work, and the changes that need to be implemented in workplaces as businesses begin to ramp up their operations back to full, or ‘new normal’ capacity.

“There’s the health and safety angle to consider. So, wherever possible, companies need to ensure they have social distancing measures in place, are providing sufficient PPE and are facilitating alternative shift patterns to manage headcount, especially in small spaces. If they think it’s necessary, they should also introduce COVID-19 testing.

“Many are worried about the ongoing – and quite natural – rise in absences due to self-isolating, and of course, this might increase further again if test and trace becomes mainstream. During lockdown, for essential and key businesses, there was a real challenge around sourcing temporary resource to meet demand, quickly enough to prevent them from losing money. Many businesses simply haven’t planned for the impact of a pandemic and they’ve had very kneejerk reactions, which really does cause more damage than good.”

 

Have you got any recommendations for businesses in that position?

Craig: “Higher than usual absence levels put extra demand on those who are still in work so for industries that are in demand – manufacturing, eCommerce, food & drink – and which require sufficient manpower; we’ve been supplying short-notice labour and contractors. They’re not phased that they don’t know the business; they trust that we would only place them in a safe role, and it means our clients can continue to operate.

“There was an initial resistance from traditional operational teams to change and adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, so HR has been a key driver in delivering a new norm. People don’t realise the role HR plays in ensuring sales and revenue targets can be met – it requires the right collection of skills. HR teams are going to have more of a front row seat in a business’ wider performance after the pandemic.”

 

What are the long-term effects that you see becoming commonplace?

Louise: “HR teams have never had to engage with their businesses in this way – it’s entirely new territory and almost overnight they have had to flip traditional operations on their head to ensure their teams are safe from an invisible threat.

“Flexible working, while beneficial for many, puts an increased pressure on HR teams to manage productivity and performance. It’s been a juggling act in keeping the CEO, Board and senior management teams happy as well as simultaneously managing the wants and needs of those on the ground. To strike a better balance, many are re-examining their employee benefit schemes.

“Traditional benefits such as increased annual leave and sick leave are being swapped for more health and wellbeing initiatives – we’ve even seen some businesses offering support with will writing! HR teams know now that their workforces want more than financial perks. For example, we recently placed a Benefits Manager to completely overhaul a large civil engineering group’s reward and benefits programme with a view of driving retention post COVID.

“The new working environment must have programmes in place to support a healthy, happy and productive workforce and that means looking at things like mental health and stress management. A lot of businesses though are worried about how much this will cost them.”

 

Do you think businesses will have to make different sacrifices to cover these additional investments into benefits?

Craig: “When it comes to the wellbeing of your teams, no price is too high. We know of one business that is looking to reduce its headcount by 15 per cent but has committed to using the savings to improve the benefits package for staff who keep their jobs. They know it’s important because they can’t afford a 15 per cent drop in efficiency and productivity, so they must focus on what the team wants and needs long term.”

 

What do you think are the other external factors businesses need to consider in terms of staffing levels?

Louise: “A major challenge is that businesses want to unfurlough their team members, but parents are struggling to find childcare while schools remain closed – it’s a major headache and until schools return to full capacity, many businesses simply won’t see a return to pre-COVID levels.

“The thing is, home working is now the new normal for many. A head of HR recently told me that by increasing flexibility on working hours to cater for a work/life balance during lockdown, they have seen outputs and productivity of those working from home massively increase. Where working from home was once viewed with suspicion, it’s now becoming a formal change and it’ll definitely shape working practices going forward.

Craig: “I think that’s because businesses know they need to pull out all the stops to retain particular skillsets – those that are crucial to them. I think we are heading into a long period of consultation - HR teams need to use this time to speak with their workforce, understand their personal and family pressures and accommodate them – within reason – on an individual basis. I am recommending they use data capture to identify patterns, and forward plan as much as possible based on the trends which emerge. Above all else, HR teams need to be on the front foot and armed with as much information as possible.”

 

To find out more or to discuss your HR recruitment needs, contact Craig on craig.saxby@morson.com or Louise on louise.ellis@morson.com.