CIPD: HR support for employee mental health and building company culture may be hampered by hybrid working

Experts stress the ‘pivotal’ role the people profession has in ‘bridging the gap’ between managers and their teams and ensuring organisations are future fit

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CIPD research published today (26 October) reveals that hybrid working may be making it more difficult for HR teams to support wellbeing and build organisational culture and values.

The latest findings from the CIPD’s People Profession 2023: International survey report, which surveyed 1,456 people professionals across the globe, found that 41 per cent said that supporting employees’ mental health and wellbeing has become more difficult because of hybrid working, while 40 per cent felt hybrid working makes building organisational culture and values more challenging.

It also revealed that technology, including generative AI, is having a significant impact on how the people function operates. Over half of UK people professionals (55 per cent) surveyed believe that advancing technology is transforming the way HR teams operate and deliver in their role. In addition, 42 per cent believe their role is changing significantly due to technology. 

The CIPD stressed that the report provides evidence of the “pivotal role” of HR – and a chance to build on it.

Chief executive Peter Cheese said: “There is no doubt that the strategic importance of people teams is growing and practitioners must ensure they are developing the capabilities and skills needed to be future-fit.

“Being a resilient business partner with a solid understanding of your business is critical to add real value, enabling change and good work, while also increasing the visibility of the people function.”

Liz Beck, CEO and executive coach, said HR professionals are undoubtedly central to organisational success, but in her experience, “they are often describing significant resourcing challenges, both in their teams and more broadly across their organisations, while adapting policies, systems, processes and cultural approaches to integrate (not accommodate) digital developments”.

“The opportunity for HR is huge, but so is the challenge,” she told People Management. “As a profession, we must be more commercially competent than ever before, and we also need to harness strong relationships at the leadership table(s) in order to influence thinking and mobilise a collective energy. If we don’t, each of the challenges above will be tackled as individual silo initiatives without connection, or cut through.”

The CIPD report highlights four key takeaways for HR professionals:

1. Prioritise your own learning and development to stay ahead of the curve

According to the report: “The world of work is evolving at a rapid pace and the impact of technology and digital transformation on organisations, people teams and people professionals themselves will require practitioners to commit to continuous learning to build their skills and capabilities effectively.”

But it adds: “Efforts to upskill vary considerably across the sample and we can’t afford for skills growth to stall.”

2. Understanding the impact of hybrid working is critical for people management

“Our data suggests that the impact of hybrid working is complex, particularly for organisations which operate across regions. Given that the demand for hybrid working is likely to remain higher than pre-pandemic levels, it’s important that we take stock, understand the potential risks by collecting data and consulting with employees, and adapt strategies and practice accordingly to minimise business and people risks.”

3. Be more evidence-based in decision-making

The report says: “While many practitioners use professional experience to help inform decision-making, they shouldn’t rely on this alone. Professionals need to hone their critical thinking skills and be more confident when appraising research and data to drive their evidence-based decision-making forward.”

4. Play a pivotal role in driving environmental sustainability strategies

“With inter-governmental efforts to reach net zero targets being a defining trend over the next decade, there is an opportunity for practitioners to lead this people-focused agenda, by upskilling, educating and encouraging sustainable behaviours within the workplace.”

Supporting wellbeing in a hybrid world

HR experts admit that remote and hybrid working can make mental health and wellbeing support more of a “challenge” for people professionals.

According to Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR Ltd, this is “partly because we often rely on the sensory experience of actually seeing people to assess their wellbeing”.

“Remote and hybrid working deprives us of that sensory data, but there is plenty of data available,” he added.

“Data about employee wellbeing is hidden in digital body language signals as well as in productivity data and on communications platforms. The challenge is knowing what to look for, where to find it and, crucially, what to do with it.”

Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, said: “Supporting employee mental health and wellbeing in a hybrid setting can be more difficult due to the more transactional nature of remote meetings.

“In virtual environments, interactions tend to revolve around task-based conversations, leaving less room for the impromptu "relational" conversations that naturally occur in the office, while making a coffee or chatting to someone in the lift.”

She said HR has a “crucial role in addressing these challenges by providing specialised training for line managers”.

“This training should emphasise not only the technical aspects of managing hybrid teams but also the importance of maintaining and even enhancing the human element in remote work,” she added.

“Encouraging managers to proactively engage in relational conversations, check-ins and actively listening to their team members can bridge the gap between the digital and physical workplace.”

Building organisational culture and values

Cookson said hybrid working can – “if left to chance” – prompt a “deterioration of organisational culture whilst paradoxically strengthening team culture”.

“Hybrid teams need to be supported in developing ways of working and behaving, but then it involves knitting these into a coherent organisational culture and taking conscious, deliberate steps to further develop it,” he stressed.

Cookson also warned: “Often hybrid working isn’t the issue – it is the culture itself that is the issue. Hybrid working is the lens through which we view the culture and we may not like what we see.

“The challenge is knowing what steps to take to ensure organisational culture doesn’t deteriorate, while still promoting the coherence of hybrid teams.”

Bullivant advised HR professionals to “continuously review and adapt hybrid working policies and organisational culture to create an environment where employee mental health and wellbeing remain a top priority, regardless of the working arrangement”.

Good news

While the report shows some areas for development for the profession, it also shows that wellbeing within the profession is more positive than in previous years.

Almost one third (32 per cent) of people professionals say their job has a positive (or very positive) impact on their mental health (31 per cent in 2022), while a fifth (20 per cent) say that their job has had a positive (or very positive) impact on their physical health, compared to 16 per cent in 2022.  

Cheese said: “This year's report shows that people professionals are learning, innovating and adapting quicker than ever and understand the benefits and risks for both employees and organisations alike when driving changes forward.

“The strategic importance of people teams and the central role they play is being increasingly recognised.”