Lockdown has shown some people processes can be abandoned – but not all

Several standard HR activities haven’t been missed by the business during Covid-19, says Graham Salisbury, but others should be maintained to avoid issues long term

I’m sure the current interruption to normality brought about by lockdown has prompted most of us to consider how relevant, critical or even necessary some of our HR processes and activities are.

Sadly, I did observe early on during the lockdown a Tweet stating: “What better way to use this time than by making sure your employee handbook is up to date.” If a refreshed employee handbook is the sum total of almost six months of isolation and introspection, I suspect we’ve failed to grasp the opportunity to reflect on the positive contribution we can make as HR professionals to our organisations.

During a recent podcast, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, raised four lockdown-related questions: what are those activities that we did during this time but we don’t need to do when some form of normality returns? What are those activities that we introduced and need to maintain? What are those activities that we stopped and don’t need to do in the future? And what are those activities that we need to start up again, but in a cleverer way?

It’s an important point that there are some standard HR processes that we have been unable to undertake over the last few months that – surprise, surprise – the business has not ground to a halt without.

This led me to consider an experience from my childhood in the 1960s. As a nine-year-old with vague aspirations of becoming a scientist, I sat in the kitchen and carefully followed the instructions of my beloved Phillips Electronic Engineer set to build a small transistor radio. Wires were cut, transistors selected, resistors installed and batteries connected. Click the power switch, turn the volume control, adjust the tuning dial and, hey presto, it works.

Keen to move on to more challenging electronics projects, I started to dismantle the radio, expecting that the removal of this resistor or that capacitor would immediately cause it to cease operating. But to my surprise and amusement, it actually carried on functioning for a while with certain components missing.

There’s an interesting parallel here with our current situation: what are those HR activities that we regard as absolutely critical to business success but which, if removed, don’t make the slightest difference? Or – more importantly – don’t appear to make the slightest difference in the immediate future?

Going back to my amateur radio set, although the removal of some parts may have made no immediate difference, would there have come a time when other components failed and the radio ceased to operate entirely? To what extent are the components, or our HR processes, isolated and standalone items? And how much are they part of an integrated network, where each item or process supports others in the system?

Performance management (especially in the form of the annual appraisal) often attracts attention as the HR process businesses can easily live without. Microsoft, IBM, Deloitte, Accenture and PwC are frequently cited as organisations that have discarded the traditional appraisal process, or at least replaced it with more frequent check-ins between manager and subordinate. Many organisations will have dispensed with the annual performance review during lockdown and appear not to have ground to a halt. It’s therefore tempting to think that if we have managed without performance reviews during the pandemic, we can live without them permanently. 

A word of caution, however: before we take a scalpel to those HR processes that have been paused during the current unique situation, wouldn’t it be wise to consider the longer-term and wider implications of discarding them permanently? Taking such processes out of the system might not cause our ‘HR radio’ to fail in the immediate future, but may in the longer term lead to a short circuit and critically impact business performance. And we certainly don’t want HR radio to cease broadcasting, do we?

Graham Salisbury is former director of people and OD at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and lecturer at Nottingham Trent University