Five ways HR can help firms survive the economic turmoil ahead

16 Jul 2020 By David Liddle

To maintain a sense of togetherness, people teams must pay attention to psychological safety, values and managing conflict, says David Liddle

The NHS and key workers have been on the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic. But it is HR, managers and unions that will be on the frontline in organisations during the emerging economic crisis.

If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that, when treated well and fairly, employees can be loyal, supportive and trusted to get on with their jobs. Maintaining this ‘we’re all in it together’ momentum will be central to the post-pandemic recovery – but if employers are to achieve this, they need to move away from the rigid and risk-averse HR processes of the past, towards people-centred practices that build trust and engagement. If organisations are to emerge in good shape from the economic turmoil ahead, they need to make sure they are equipped with their own type of PPE – namely, a focus on people, performance and engagement.

The challenge for HR will be keeping this front and centre in the organisation at a time when the profession is already over stretched, the challenges are great and the focus for many will be business survival.

There are five key areas where attention must be paid:

Psychological safety

At a time when many employees will be returning to the workplace feeling stressed and anxious, HR needs to ensure managers and leaders are equipped with the key skills they need to create psychological safety and to nip issues in the bud before they escalate. We’re talking about emotional intelligence, positive psychological, nudge theory, active listening, principled negotiation and non-violent communication.  These are not nice to have ‘soft skills’, but vital competences that those leading others need if they are to set clear goals, create and manage boundaries, and deal effectively with the inevitable concerns and conflict that will arise thanks to people’s widely differing experiences of the pandemic.

A values-driven approach

HR needs to ensure organisational values are the golden thread running throughout the business and underpinning people plans. The key is to develop behavioural frameworks that align with these core values. These frameworks should make it crystal clear what type of behaviour they expect (or don’t expect) from their managers and employees. It is no good saying, for example, that the organisation prizes employee wellbeing highly, if managers immediately strip out the flexible approaches that have characterised our working lives during the pandemic, or fail to show compassion and understanding towards the many people who will be returning to work anxious and uncertain with their mental health in a fragile state. By aligning values with behaviours, HR puts itself at the forefront of the development of a fair, just and high-performing culture

Managing conflict

Unresolved conflict is already a problem in the workplace. CIPD research suggests fewer than half of those reporting conflict felt it had been largely or fully resolved. The potential for conflict in the ‘new normal’ is vast. Underlying stress and trauma will lead to irrational responses to situations and a rapid escalation of disagreements into full-blown disputes. Team spirit and communication may have broken down during furlough and, as people return, perceptions of unfairness may emerge. 

HR has a tendency to default to formal processes to resolve these conflicts. But these traditional disciplinary, grievance and bullying and harassment policies are a blunt instrument. They undermine trust, infantilise the workforce, sow the seeds of division, impede creativity and hurt people. As we move beyond the coronavirus crisis, HR needs to shift to informal, collaborative approaches that have open dialogue and early resolution at their heart, and allow people to deal with conflict constructively and compassionately. More and more organisations that I am working with are developing and integrating ‘resolution frameworks’ to replace their traditional discipline and grievance procedures. These provide a roadmap to help managers and employees identify and secure the most appropriate outcome in each case.   

Mentoring, coaching and mediation

Managers often lack the confidence, competence and courage when it comes to good-quality dialogue with their teams and fast and effective resolution of problems and concerns. HR has an important role to play in bridging that gap, by acting as coach and peacemaker – helping managers develop core interpersonal skills, demonstrating the effectiveness of interventions such as mediation and facilitated conversations, and setting managers up so that they know how to deal effectively with performance issues, build productive and supportive teams and manage their people with empathy and compassion. 

Alignment to the CIPD Profession Map

The new CIPD Profession Map provides a guiding light to help HR move away from an over-reliance on rules and procedures towards more genuinely collaborative and people-focused processes. It identifies the core behaviours practitioners will need to be an effective people professional at a volatile, unpredictable time, when there are many shades of grey. Situational decision-making, valuing people, professional courage and influence and ethical practice are all skills that will help HR ensure they are treating people with fairness and consistency, and supporting business recovery at this challenging time.

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group

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Salary scale £63,751 to £73,664 pa

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