How has coronavirus changed the role of HR?

Allison Crabtree explores the ways the pandemic has affected people professionals’ responsibilities and priorities

It has been more than six months since the start of the pandemic, and almost every HR professional I speak to feels challenged as never before. As an employment lawyer I’m usually a step removed but, with clients across London and the South East, I see the unprecedented demands and expectations placed on HR functions at organisations big and small.

Now more than ever, senior leadership expects HR to give instant cut-and-dried answers. But the truth is that it is simply not possible. The challenges are too novel, the rules change too fast, and the stakes are too high to just whip out a handbook or intranet resource. There is hardly a team, let alone a person, who can have ready-made solutions to all the possibilities on hand.

That said, there will always be times when the knowledge to give a quick and firm practical answer is vital. This is particularly so on issues like the safe return of staff to the workplace. Luckily, the sector-specific guidance on this published by the government is rather broad, which makes following it more manageable. HR professionals will need to track which rules and guidance apply to their company and stay alert to changes. 

Covid-19 has been a divider sending fortunes and strategies in wildly different directions and thus offering HR departments different challenges. While some organisations are looking to return staff to the workplace en-masse, others are making significant redundancies and grappling with collective consultation for the first time.

Large companies are more likely to consider dramatic new solutions such as employee Covid testing and remote monitoring. They also have greater expectations placed on them around, for example, data protection and financial services regulation. Smaller organisations are more likely to face immediate resource challenges, scale up or (more often in this climate) scale down, and bear the brunt of difficult conversations with those to whom they feel a personal connection.

Many of the challenges now facing HR functions are not new to the profession. However, they are concerns that previously may not have needed frequent attention. For many office-based companies, for example, risk assessment was somewhat ‘set it and forget it’ unless their employee had particular needs. Now it can be a high-stakes balancing act of many small judgement calls.

Covid has also fast-tracked emerging issues that many organisations, especially SMEs, were just beginning to address. These include remote and flexible working, employee monitoring, mental health in the workplace and diversity. For example, many organisations have been looking to their HR teams to advise on racial equality and diversity at work. It has become a more immediate concern following this year’s Black Lives Matter movement and clear evidence that the risks of Covid are greater for those in BAME communities.

The old problems haven’t gone away either. I am seeing about the same volume of bullying, misconduct and discrimination claims as I was in late 2019. If anything, those and many other concerns have got worse under the current climate of worry and pressure. Processes for addressing grievances, disciplinaries etc also need to be adapted for remote working and social distancing.

Organisations of any size can get the most from their HR teams when that team is empowered to look ahead, communicate and join the dots, rather than being reactive. Where HR feels able to set or shape their role and agenda, I believe they are best placed to spot issues and find solutions, working outwards from a deep understanding of their organisation’s unique priorities, risk tolerance, strengths and weaknesses. Keeping an organisation on the right side of this difficult moment is about knowing how to find the best answers.

Allison Crabtree is a solicitor in the employment law department at Thomas Mansfield