Majority of HR avoids furlough as people profession ‘busier than ever’

Fewer than two-fifths of HR teams have seen their headcount drop, with experts saying the pandemic is an opportunity for the function to demonstrate its value

The majority of HR departments have not had to furlough people in their own teams, a survey has found, as experts say coronavirus has made the people profession busier than ever.

A poll conducted by People Management of its readers found 63 per cent of respondents had seen no change to the current headcount of their HR teams, while an additional 2 per cent reported they were actually planning to grow their HR function.

This is despite the vast majority of respondents taking the decision to furlough staff elsewhere in the business.

Katie Jacobs, senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, said coronavirus had made many HR directors and their teams “busier than ever”, largely because many of the issues the outbreak has created – such as the furlough scheme itself – are to do with people.

“They’re working incredibly long hours really, really intensely,” Jacobs said of the people profession, adding that one HR director had told her it had felt like they had done “a year’s worth of work in a few weeks”.

But, Jacobs said, this wasn’t the case in all sectors – particularly those that had been hardest hit by the social distancing measures and were forced to close their businesses.

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“If you are in the hospitality industry and your job is doing training and HR management within a certain hotel, but the hotel’s not open, you’ve got a lot less work to do,” Jacobs said, noting that many of these businesses were likely running a skeleton HR team.

Nearly two-fifths of the survey respondents said there had been furloughs in their HR teams. Eleven per cent of respondents said they had furloughed up to a quarter of their HR teams; 15 per cent said they had furloughed between one and three-quarters of their HR teams; and 11 per cent of respondents said more than three-quarters of their HR team had been furloughed.

Of the respondents who had furloughed workers, the majority (51 per cent) said temporary layoffs had been made in recruitment. This was followed by 48 per cent who had furloughed administrative HR roles (other than payroll), 43 per cent who had furloughed L&D staff, and 37 per cent who had furloughed HR generalist roles such as HR managers.

However, for all organisations, Jacobs said this was an important time for HR to be showing its value and organisational worth. Not just because the workload was so high, but also because of the opportunity it created for HR to push for employers to act ethically and do the right thing around furloughing workers, remote working and supporting mental health.

“[It’s about] making sure the organisation is acting with integrity and treating people with respect, even when it’s making really tough decisions,” Jacobs said.

The reader poll, which surveyed 387 people, found 89 per cent of respondents were furloughing staff throughout their organisation.

A third of respondents (33 per cent) had furloughed up to a quarter of their staff, while a similar number (34 per cent) had furloughed between one and three quarter of their workforce. More than one in five (22 per cent) had furloughed more than three-quarters of their workforce.

Across the board, by far the most common reason for furloughing staff was the reduced amount of work – caused by decreased demand or an inability to attend a place of work – which was cited by 81 per cent of respondents.

More than a third (34 per cent) said they had furloughed individuals who were identified as vulnerable and high risk, while a similar proportion (29 per cent) said they had furloughed people unable to work because of childcare responsibilities.

Just 18 per cent said they had furloughed evenly across the business to cut costs.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (86 per cent) also said they would like to see the furlough scheme be made more flexible, allowing employees to reduce hours worked while on furlough rather than being forced to stop work completely – a change the CIPD has previously called for.