Long reads

How the pandemic has boosted HR's credentials – and how the profession can capitalise

14 Oct 2021 By Jo Faragher

HR has emerged with renewed credibility from the pandemic – which is why the profession was named overall winner at this year’s CIPD People Management Awards. But the question is, where does it go from here?

As a company that helps other organisations with their business continuity plans, International SOS was ahead of the curve when the pandemic began to bite in March 2020. It had an assistance centre set up to support clients with health and security issues in such crises, and was well drilled in crisis management. “There was pressure on us to handle this well in the eyes of our clients, at the same time as there was increased demand on our services,” remembers Peter Jenkins, general manager for Northern Europe. “We’d run crisis scenarios before, even pandemic planning, where we took half the team out of the centre and sent half home. But technical challenges and issues with client security meant this wasn’t viable.”

One of the first actions Jenkins took was to place Ben Dale, the region’s HR director, in charge of the business continuity team. They made the difficult decision to send everyone but the assistance centre staff to work from home in late February, meaning core operations could continue securely. “I asked HR to lead on this because this was very much a people issue. We could have had our medical advisors, a myriad of people in charge, but with something as emotional and individually threatening as a pandemic, our number one priority was to look after our people in the most appropriate way,” he adds. “HR was the appropriate place to sit this, with strong counsel.” Throughout the months that followed, Dale’s team adapted policies, communicated with teams working on site and at home, and began preparing for an eventual return to the office. Jenkins has seen HR in a different light. “They are far more visible and present to me. Maybe two years ago they were a great support on policy and employee issues, more of a tactical advisor,” he says. “But now Ben and his team have a much stronger input.” 

Stories showing the value of HR abound since March 2020, when a function that some perceived as the payroll gatekeeper or policy manager was thrust into the limelight almost overnight. An editorial in The Economist at the time declared that “never before have more firms needed a hard-headed HR boss”. The weeks that followed saw HR professionals move entire workforces to home offices in a matter of days, get to grips with an ever-changing furlough system and make sure that employees who needed to work on the front line were physically and mentally safe. Speaking at the annual conference for the Public Services People Managers’ Association (PPMA) in September, Coventry City Council’s chief executive Martin Reeves reflected that “there was no rulebook” for HR teams: “These were unique circumstances; we relied on the guile and brilliance of our people managers to see us through. It was acute and chronic at the same time, dealing with the here and now but with one eye on the medium- to long-term impact of what was happening.”

The profession itself feels it has had a reputation boost. A survey by software company Sage found that almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of leaders felt the value of their role increased, while 54 per cent of employees said they had a better understanding of HR’s role and value to the organisation. Among CEOs, 59 per cent said they understood the value of HR better than before the pandemic. But this challenging period is not over yet, and the next few months could prove decisive as to whether HR can cement those gains. Jessica Fuhl, author of Sage’s research, argues that there is still work to do. “HR was front and centre… employees and the C-suite recognised that – and valued it,” she says. “However, that was during the ‘firefighting’ phase. To maintain its newly valuable position in the eyes of the C-suite, people leaders must use this groundswell of influence and support to build on this and move forward to the strategic horizon scanning phase.” The coming months will offer multiple opportunities to do so, adds Fuhl, whether that’s in embracing automation to free up time and resources, how HR puts wellbeing at the heart of employee experience, progress on diversity and inclusion and making the most of workforce data. 

“You could argue that the early days of the crisis were easier to manage because there were fewer options on the table,” says David Collings, professor of human resources management at Dublin City University. “With the return to the office, we’re starting from a new baseline. HR has to manage expectations about what the return to work means, what the purpose of the workplace is and what is better done in the office than remotely. The future is much more complex than the past.” In the early months of the pandemic, Collings’s team collaborated with the University of South Carolina to track 50 chief human resources officers and their responses to the Covid crisis. They were asked a series of questions on their priorities, their learnings and their interaction with their executive teams. “What became clear in many ways was – just like the financial crisis brought chief financial officers to the fore, and Y2K was all about CIOs – this was a people crisis,” he adds. “Decisions were often being made without data or experience early on in the pandemic, and values tended to inform the executive leadership team in their decision making. CHROs were helping CEOs think through what the organisation’s values meant in terms of key decisions.” This was a shift compared with how that relationship might have played out before, says Collings. “In the past, HR might have been reluctant to go to leadership and say ‘we don’t have all the answers’ or ‘we need to revise a decision’. But during the pandemic we’ve seen a willingness and humility from leaders to listen – when they’re forced to make difficult decisions, that’s when you really see what an organisation stands for.” 

Paul Boustead, director of people and organisational effectiveness at Lancaster University, felt this keenly. “What I’ve observed over the past year is an exponential shift from using the terminology of ‘HR’ to ‘people’, ‘organisational effectiveness’ and ‘culture’,” he explains. “I have more strategic conversations with my executive team than ever. This was happening before, but has been accelerated by the pandemic.” Like many HR professionals, Boustead faced an onslaught of policies that needed to be revised and questions that required answers. “Universities are communities, so it wasn’t just about employees’ mental health but also keeping students and visitors safe. HR had to play a role in that community and could not think in a siloed way.” An unexpected positive was an improvement in negotiations with the three trade unions on site: Unite, UCU and Unison. “They were conflicted in many ways because they had their safety hats on as we were thinking about returning to campus, but could also see the benefits of delivering learning face to face,” he says. “But because we could meet virtually, rather than trying to get everyone in a room, those negotiations happened quickly and we were able to move forward.” Boustead has also seen HR’s standing elevated outside of his own campus, where his team has been invited to discussions with the Home Office on how academic visas might work and approached to inform guidance from the Department for Education. “Years ago, they would have gone straight to the vice-chancellor,” he adds.

At animation studio Jellyfish Pictures, the past 18 months have shown the sheer breadth of the HR director role. So much so that Sarah Tanner was promoted from her HRD role to operations director, having supported the company to not only relocate a workforce where 40 per cent of employees come from Europe, but also hire around 250 new people over the course of nine months. “We very quickly had to react and make sure people weren’t panicking,” she says. “We employ a lot of Italians and couldn’t continue if people weren’t feeling safe, so we had to think about how we adapted, changed working hours and got people home.” 

The company began moving employees to remote working, supporting many to return to their home country, three or four weeks before official lockdown was announced in England to make sure the studio technology would work remotely. Tanner was heavily involved in communications, wellbeing and logistics, as well as ensuring managers were checking in with employees and responding to questions on government guidance. Both her old and new roles have a seat on the board, she adds. “I’ve always wanted to know how the whole company works, what the implications of certain actions are – the move into the operations role is a reflection of what my job is, it’s much bigger than ‘just HR’. That said, it’s a reflection of what the people function can do – you can’t have one without the other, there’s too much of a hard stop.” 

Of course, the dramatic shift to working from home or protecting employees on the front line was not only driven by HR. The very nature of the pandemic required a team effort, and HR was often at the forefront of that cross-functional collaboration. “The two main functions driving things for me were my chief people officer and my CIO. The two of them made all of this happen,” says John Petter, CEO of payroll software company Zellis. The technology team ensured everyone was connected to company systems, while HR drove communications with colleagues, such as weekly all-hands calls and inviting employees to share any concerns about juggling home schooling or feeling burnt out from time on Zoom. But one of CPO Caroline Drake’s most pressing jobs during the crisis has been to support Petter in his own decisions. He adds: “She has an important role in coaching me, and she gives me totally honest advice, even if it’s not always what I want to hear. When we were communicating with colleagues, her coaching was key to ensuring what we were saying would resonate with people.” This role will only grow in stature in the future, Petter believes. “So many companies have seen the importance of having a strategic plan for their people through this. This is unlikely to be the last pandemic in my lifetime, so we’re thinking about what our learnings are from this and developing a strategic plan around developing our hybrid workforce, how work is globalised and such – and the HR function is inevitably at the centre of those debates.” 

But how can HR harness this boost in its reputation? While restrictions may have been lifted and employees are tentatively returning to offices, the road ahead is likely to be bumpy. Skills shortages in sectors such as logistics and hospitality have the potential to derail workforce planning strategies, nobody truly knows how hybrid working is going to pan out and some labour analysts predict a “great resignation” as some workers face a revelation that they’d rather work elsewhere. Furthermore, a winter illness peak could resurface many of the tricky issues companies faced at the start of the pandemic. “The past 18 months put the profession in the spotlight and onto the front line, and people have begun to understand more about how difficult the role can be,” says David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD. “We’ve seen organisations try different things, learn at pace, and recognise that change is possible. The profession has been at the forefront of organisations finding ways to flourish. But now we need to understand the enormity of what’s been delivered, and keep those cross-functional relationships we created open and those conversations alive.” Over the coming months and years, the people profession has an opportunity to continue to showcase both its technical expertise and its ability to help organisations change to meet the challenges they face, he adds. “We’ve built up a lot of credit in the bank, and we need to be careful how we spend it.” 

Angela O’Connor, founder of consultancy the HR Lounge, advises caution in the short term at least. “There’s real pressure on HR to make these big decisions on working patterns and such and we can’t make these immediately. It’s time for HR leaders to hold their nerve and push back, which takes real courage,” she says. Many teams will be under pressure to develop firm policies on hybrid working when a more bespoke, employee-led approach is likely to work better, she adds. “HR departments that are used to running things as a ‘one size fits all’ operation will find this hard. They won’t be set up to do this and their culture may not be supportive. In many ways, this period is harder than the start, and this is when we’ll see real leadership from the HR profession.”

Collings also predicts that the coming months will see HR inject balance into a complicated debate and become advocates for the workforce. He explains: “HR can give voice to employees’ concerns, addressing the risks if we see cohorts of people at the top of the organisation coming into the office at the disadvantage of those who are mainly at home, for example.”

Another area where HR can make a difference in the longer term is in addressing inequalities. The pandemic shone a light on inequalities at work: women were more likely to shoulder the burden of childcare or be in low-paid, part-time work, while a parliamentary committee last month slammed the Department for Work and Pensions for not fully considering the impact of its pandemic policies on people from ethnic minorities. Gary Rees, head of organisation studies and human resource management at Portsmouth Business School, believes this has made employers and employees alike reassess what is important. “We don’t talk about wellbeing as something tangential now, for example. Line managers are talking more to staff and seeing that how we work and our health are all connected,” he says. “But people have long memories and you need to treat them fairly. Employees will have seen how companies operate in the worst of times as a reflection of what they’re really like. Those with strong employer branding, retention and engagement will ride the storm well.” 

Rees believes the pandemic has made employees see their managers in a new light, and one of HR’s roles going forward will be helping them to survive the challenges of new ways of working. “HR’s involvement at grassroots level was completely overturned [during Covid],” he adds. “Tremors that were beginning to emerge before the crisis – the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, the idea that people can follow multiple careers in a lifetime – these have all been brought forward. HR needs to ensure line managers understand that we need to fit the job to the person and not vice versa. More money will only be a sticking plaster because employees will need a good psychological contract or to perceive that they’re treated well,” Rees says. This will extend to the role of businesses in society more broadly, he adds, as workforces make ever greater demands on their employers to stand by their environmental, social and governance promises. 

Sabby Gill, who joined assessment company Thomas International six months into the pandemic as its new CEO, argues that HR will bridge the gap between the ‘normal’ we knew before and how we emerge. “When I joined the company, my HR director was the first person I called in the morning and the last one at night,” he says. “We’re putting people through something they’ve never experienced, and what we can’t do is expect everything to be back to normal.” Gill will continue to rely on his HR team, not just in setting new ground rules and policies, but in ensuring employees’ mental welfare and understanding that everyone’s personal situation is different. “Every decision I make as a CEO has to take into account we’re a people business and we need to harness the lessons we’ve learnt,” he adds. “But as leaders we’ve also got to allow HR to take that credit – we need to give credit where it’s due.”


“In HR you have to put your ego aside”

Marine Fournier, head of HR at Powell Software, joined the company days before the pandemic began, in February 2020. She was already tasked with splitting out the HR function after a funding round when the world was suddenly thrust into lockdown. 

“At the time we were around 45 people and now we have more than 90,” she says. “Our first message going into this was one of care, and as a digital company we had an advantage from a practical perspective. But the timings of lockdown announcements varied in different countries so in some ways we were operating blind.” 

A new intranet helped HR to communicate as the early days turned into weeks of working from home. When the second wave happened, the foundations were in place. 

“This time we’d had the chance to prepare,” she adds. “We’d learned to communicate differently, we’d done a lot of education around synchronous versus asynchronous working. The culture was no longer about going to work, but about delivering work.” 

Fournier and her team have since consulted with employees on future working patterns and contracts. HR has garnered recognition from other functions more than before, she believes. “On the business side, the mission is simple – you hit your targets. In HR, you have to put your ego aside for the success of the business or you won’t survive.” 

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