Long reads

Has coronavirus brought a new normal?

23 Apr 2020 By Katie Jacobs

The outbreak has forced us to radically rethink how we approach home working, ethical business and ‘low status’ roles – but will this all stick?

Remember when the biggest thing HR had to worry about was IR35? Or helping businesses deal with the impact of Brexit? What a difference a few weeks make. 

Since mid-March, the way most of us live and work has changed beyond all recognition. At the time of writing, 93,873 people in the UK have been diagnosed with coronavirus, and 12,107 have died. Large swathes of the UK workforce are working from home. An army of key workers is keeping us safe, fed and watered. The word ‘furlough’ has become part of every HR professional’s daily vocabulary. 

Through this pandemic, business behaviour has been scrutinised. Some organisations have come out well; supermarket Morrisons has hired 3,500 new staff to cope with demand, partnered with charities Marie Curie and Clic Sargent to help elderly and vulnerable customers, and donated £10m worth of supplies to food banks, for example. FMCG giant Unilever has contributed £89m to fight coronavirus globally, as well as adapting its manufacturing lines to produce sanitiser and pledging to pay the SMEs in its supply chain early. Pub chain Fuller’s has given tenants a rent holiday...

Others have been less exemplary. Britannia Hotels came under fire for sacking staff and leaving them homeless after closing a property in Scotland. JD Wetherspoon initially refused to pay staff and suppliers. Frasers Group owner Mike Ashley fought to keep Sports Direct stores open despite the government ordering all non-essential retailers to close. 

In an attempt to save jobs and mitigate knee-jerk layoffs, on 20 March the UK government unveiled an unprecedented programme of support. The job retention scheme encourages firms to put staff on temporary ‘furlough’ leave rather than make them redundant. According to the latest survey by the CIPD and People Management, more than half (52 per cent) of HR professionals expect to furlough employees via the scheme.

Yet despite government support, there can be no doubt redundancies will happen and businesses will close. The survey found a quarter of respondents expected to cut jobs permanently, with one in 10 expecting to lose between 11 and 49 per cent of the workforce. Economists predict unemployment will spike. Writing in the Guardian, economics professors David Blanchflower and David Bell estimated that unemployment would rise by around five million by the end of May, taking the unemployment rate from 3.9 per cent to 21 per cent.

Sectors such as hospitality will of course be hit particularly hard. Esther O’Halloran, chair of HR in Hospitality, says the combination of coronavirus and Brexit has been “a perfect storm” for the sector. “Some big names will go,” she predicts. “The high street will look very different when we come out of this.” 

As is abundantly clear from this issue’s news pages, HR teams are at the sharp end. And there are many inspirational examples of people professionals going above and beyond to quickly respond to all those challenges thrown their way in the immediate term. But what of the longer-term impact of Covid-19? It’s unclear how long our ‘new normal’ will last, or what society will look like on the other side. But one thing is certain: the way we work, and how we feel about and interact with organisations, will be radically changed. Perhaps forever. 

“This situation is leading us to question the fairness of work and break old paradigms. What do businesses see themselves as accountable for? We have needed to change many aspects of how we live, work and treat each other,” says CIPD CEO Peter Cheese. And the pandemic is forcing us to do that much sooner and faster than ever expected. 

In fact, Covid-19 is driving us into the future of work at pace, believes Insead professor Gianpiero Petriglieri. “We have been sitting around talking about the future of work for the past 10 years,” he says. “We had two assumptions: that it would arrive progressively and would be driven by AI. But it turns out it wasn’t the robots but the virus that accelerated things.”

He adds that we should think about the current situation as “a giant dress rehearsal” for the much larger issue of changing how we work and sustain our economies in the face of climate change and ageing populations.

Smarter working

First, a much-needed positive: there’s no doubt mandatory working from home has accelerated digital transformation. Several of the HR directors People Management spoke to for this piece said projects to enable remote working that were set to take several years have been completed in weeks, if not days. But will the change stick? “This crisis is the stimulus that forces us to think differently and could be a real shift,” says Cheese. “It will force us to work in more agile ways, and that has got to be a good thing.”

What we must remember, however, is this is not ‘normal’ home working. Treating it as such could backfire in the longer term and have ramifications for wellbeing. “This isn’t ‘working from home’; this is working from home with everyone else also working from home in the middle of a pandemic,” points out psychologist Richard MacKinnon. “Often when we work from home we treat it as a sprint. This is going to last months so we can’t take that approach. We need to think about how we can do it sustainably and allow people to realise they can’t replicate their job in its entirety from their living room.” 

This forced mass home working experiment could go one of two ways, says Sarah Jackson, flexible working campaigner and former CEO of Working Families. “For businesses that are culturally open to it, there will be no going back,” she says. “But there are flaws in that theory if we don’t think about the emotional and social side of work. This will be painful for many people and the risk is home working gets wrapped up in a memory of misery and isolation. It’s been imposed without proper planning. There will be managers who think it was a disaster. Mandating remote working means you won’t get the gains that come from giving people autonomy and control.”

So people professionals must focus on helping managers get used to leading teams remotely – including focusing on outcomes, encouraging virtual socialising and ensuring individuals don’t burn out from trying to be as productive as normal. And leaders need to be cognisant of the fact home isn’t always a comfortable place to be. Lisa Robbins, EMEA HR director at Starbucks, has been reminding her leadership team that “they don’t represent the majority of our partners”, given many younger colleagues are living in shared rental accommodation. 

For Andrea Winfield, UK HR director at Microsoft, this time represents “a loosening of our environment and an acceptance we are all unique and flawed with it”, linking this to the wider inclusion agenda. “Home working is never going to be the same again,” she predicts. “We have to be more tolerant of noises and interruptions. We have to embrace people in their rawest state and have no judgement.” 

However, while we might come out of this more able to work from home, it doesn’t necessarily follow that people will want to do so. In fact, says Danny Mortimer, CEO of NHS Employers, our current situation could prove the enduring appeal of the office. “Don’t underestimate the importance of human contact,” he says. “Technology can’t replace the social contact work gives us.” So it’s highly possible the death of the office has been greatly exaggerated, with many people emerging from this period desperate to get back to a shared workplace. 

What is more likely to change is the way people choose to work. For many parents, school closures mean working nine to five is pretty much impossible currently. “It’s not fixed hours any more. We need to be super flexible, stretch work out and look at things like working weekends,” says Kerry Smith, director of people and OD at the British Heart Foundation. 

“People will get into a new rhythm, which could play out nicely into greater levels of smarter working. You will have people who get used to it and rather like it. Coming back, we will have to give people the opportunity to say: ‘I actually prefer working weekends or doing afternoons and evenings rather than mornings.’” That would, she adds, drive down costs through reducing office space requirements, and open up access to a wider talent pool as people become less constrained by location. 

As we become more comfortable using technology to conduct meetings, business travel could reduce as well. Excessive international flights are already at odds with many companies’ sustainability agendas, says David Collings, professor of HRM at DCU Business School: “The events of the past few weeks have forced everyone to think about travel differently. Is this the burning platform for changing attitudes to international business travel?” 

It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider how different things would have been had this crisis hit even 10 years ago, before widespread access to tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Technology enables us to connect with colleagues all over the world while confined to our homes. But we need to be careful, warns Petriglieri. “This situation presents a need to renegotiate our relationship with technology and with each other through technology, and to consider how we integrate technology more mindfully into our lives,” he says.

“Just because we are using technology doesn’t mean we use each other as tools. Organisations are not machines – they are communities. I worry that as we are forced to bring our work online we might get a 2D version of humanity. We need to think not just about what we want to do with each other, but how we want to be with each other. It’s not about the grandness of our vision or the efficiency of our work, it’s the quality of our relationships. We have to talk about the human part of work more forcefully.”

Good work

This crisis has thrown into sharp relief the difference between work that can be done from the relative comfort of one’s home and that which can’t – as well as the gulf between secure and insecure employment (as much as any employment can be considered ‘secure’ during an economic crisis). Cheese believes it will “force us to confront inconvenient truths about the insecurity of work”. 

Many gig workers cannot afford to self-isolate, effectively being forced to choose between health and (relative) wealth. Government support for the self-employed was slower coming than support for employees, and the package announced risks some falling through the cracks given the self-employed will not be able to access financial support until June. But even many of those in ‘conventional’ employment lack a financial safety net: recent research by the RSA found 59 per cent of workers would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £500.

Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA, is hopeful Covid-19 will add impetus to the concept of ‘good work’ – the focus of his 2017 Taylor review of modern working practices. “The crisis has led us to recognise the importance of jobs that might previously have been seen as low status as well as low paid: social carers, supermarket workers, delivery drivers...” he says. “These jobs have proved enormously significant to maintaining our day-to-day lives.”

Taylor would like the government’s forthcoming employment bill “to be bold” in areas such as employment status and enhancing protections for casual workers. He also wants self employment to be taxed at the same rate as PAYE, with the additional revenue used to provide the self-employed with sickness insurance and incentives to train or save for retirement. 

The pandemic could even lend weight to ideas previously perceived as radical, such as the introduction of a universal basic income. “Security – and dignity – would be significantly enhanced if every citizen had the means to basic subsistence as a right,” says Taylor. 

So if we’re seeing increased recognition of the importance of low-status jobs, could we also see a shift in the make-up of workforces previously reliant on EU migrants? Fresh produce supplier G’s had been expecting 3,000 people from the EU to work harvest season. When People Management spoke to group HR director Beverly Dixon, the plan was to charter a plane to fly in a group of experienced EU workers, in collaboration with other producers. 

But many more people are required to work the harvest period, with the industry needing 70,000 overall. This is a gap sector bosses and HR leaders hope is now more likely to be plugged by homegrown workers. “We are kicking off a UK recruitment drive that could work out well in the long term if the whole country gets behind us to feed the nation,” Dixon says. 

Attracting a completely new workforce will have an impact on how food manufacturers manage people. “We will need to invest more in communications, management and training,” she says. “We will be better for it. This is giving HR an opportunity to think outside the box and help our management teams think differently.”

And produce sector HR teams aren’t the only ones being forced by the crisis to get creative. At Microsoft, Winfield says her team is reinventing each stage of the employee lifecycle so it can be done virtually. “Every single thing where we relied on an in-person connection has been reimagined,” she explains. “It’s accelerated digital transformation. There’s a lot we were doing in person that I don’t think we will ever do in person again as it’s so much more efficient. People talk about the value of face to face, but I feel more connected to my team now than I do normally [given the regularity of check-ins].” 

In the NHS, bringing recently retired staff back has meant speeding up the recruitment process to make things as straightforward as possible, says Mortimer. “It has accelerated conversations we’ve been having for some time about streamlining our processes and making it easier for people to move between different parts of the NHS,” he says. “However, there are some requirements about compliance that one might relax in this situation but couldn’t normally.”

Nonetheless, some of the changes – rolled out off the back of organisations having no choice but to prioritise what really matters in times of crisis – could stick. “It makes you focus on what is critical to your business,” says Neil Morrison, CHRO of water company Severn Trent. “That will be an interesting debate for HR. If you’ve managed without something for a while, do you really need it?” We could, then, see some ‘symbolic’ HR and business processes fall by the wayside, never to return.

But one thing that won’t vanish is the importance of organisations really valuing their people, and treating them accordingly. As HR teams begin dealing more regularly with previously occasional events such as death in service, there’s an urgent need for work to become more human, not less. How we act in these times could strengthen the psychological contract – or sever it. 

“I hope [post crisis] we look after people more,” says Morrison. “That will be the difference between successful organisations and not. Organisations that have cared for their people through this will see rewards in terms of loyalty and motivation. Those who haven’t will suffer.” Winfield believes ‘how did you treat employees during Covid-19?’ will become the new interview question of choice for talent employers are hoping to attract.

Many businesses were talking a good game about the importance of being purpose led before this crisis. Now it will be easy to see who walks the talk. Which companies are continuing to pay staff (where they can)? Which CEOs are taking pay cuts, or even forgoing their salaries for a time? “If people are losing their jobs and watching people at the top sailing merrily on, that’s a recipe for social unrest,” warns Cheese.

While it might not always seem like it right now, the current situation could well be the making of the people profession. “People will be seeing the value of the profession,” Cheese says. “Longer term there is opportunity. With organisations genuinely thinking about duty of care, HR is at the heart of the business.”

Morrison adds: “If you are an HR professional and you don’t step up to the plate in these circumstances, you need to consider whether you are in the right job. This is the moment to show your organisational worth in terms of moral guidance, direction and leadership.”

No one can predict what the next few weeks will bring for our workforces and organisations. But what the people profession can control is its response. So let’s not let a good crisis go to waste. Rather, let’s use it to create the future of work we want to see.   

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