In this first in a series of thought pieces exploring what the pandemic has taught us about responsible business, Katie Jacobs outlines the implications and opportunities for the people profession.   

If 2020 was the year that the people profession stepped up to the plate, dealing with the immediate impacts of the pandemic, then 2021 is the year it needs to cement its place at the top of the organisation.   

While many HR leaders have long been present on executive committees and that mythical ‘seat at the top table’ has been won, there is no doubt, as we wrote in our 2020 report, Responsible business through crisis‘that the pandemic has parachuted leaders in the [HR] function right to the head of the table’. Every non-HR business leader we spoke to as part of the research reflected that the function had added immeasurable value and increased its credibility during the pandemic. As one CEO put it: ‘Throughout this crisis, HR has been completely front and centre. Cometh the hour, cometh the HR team.’  

Maintaining the momentum for change 

The challenge now will be maintaining that position. It will be keeping the people issues that rose to the top of the agenda at the peak of the pandemic front and centre, while taking the tough decisions that need to be made for many organisations to survive, let alone thrive, during the rebuild and recovery phase. The responsible business movement has been gaining momentum, with a growing recognition that a shift in business practices is needed to ensure work is a force for good. The HR role in that is self-evident. 

The pandemic has impacted so profoundly on how we live but just as profoundly on how we work. Green shoots are now beginning to appear: the success of the vaccine rollout, signs of a job market pick up (according to the CIPD’s latest Labour Market Outlook, employers are reporting their strongest hiring intentions since the pandemic began) and the announcement of the Government’s cautious four-step roadmap to unlock the economy and society.  

This opening up means the people profession must urgently address the question of what changes in working practices forced by the pandemic should stick, what should be forgotten and what problems we still need to crack. It’s a unique and a once in a generation opportunity for us as a profession to take the lead in designing a new world of work. 

Putting people issues at the heart 

People issues have become business issues. Many of the HR leaders we have spoken to, during the research and beyond, reflected that items that might once have been relegated to an afterthought or a ‘tick-box’ on an agenda, such as employee wellbeing and engagement, are now addressed seriously in board meetings. As well as the much-discussed hybrid working (see the CIPD report on Planning for hybrid working), key issues emerged as high priority: health and safety; physical and mental health; and ensuring fairness in reward and recognition, particularly balancing out risks and reward between frontline workers and those who worked from home or were furloughed during the peak of the crisis.  

How shifts in working practices will impact culture is a key concern, and how to respond to societal issues such as Black Lives Matter and the need to restore opportunities and progression for the younger generation. Before COVID hit, there was an increasing appetite from boards to discuss people and culture issues, driven in part by changes to the UK Corporate Governance Code that require PLCs to report on their cultures and how they are capturing and engaging with employee voice. But as with so much else (digital transformation, for example), the pandemic has hit the fast forward button. HR leaders need to hold onto this as the threat of COVID-19 recedes.

Don’t be content with ‘normal’ 

We have now been in forms of lockdown for more than a year, so it is little wonder there is a desire among many to ‘get back to normal’. But getting ‘back to normal’ must not involve an immediate snap back to outdated working practices. As we uncovered in our report, the people profession has some uncharted waters to navigate and some areas have only become murkier. 

Take increasing concerns that we have simply ‘lifted and shifted’ traditional ways of working into an unprecedented context. Enforced home working is not the same as flexible working and the people profession needs to think carefully about the purpose of various work environments, management behaviour and capability, and the nature of asynchronous work and communications.  

Most organisations are planning a ‘hybrid’ approach of home and office working once they are able, but this brings myriad challenges the people profession must be alert to. How do we run inclusive meetings when half the people are in the office and half are at home? How do we ensure people aren’t given opportunities and viewed as more committed simply for showing up at a workplace? How do we build and maintain culture in a hybrid world avoiding, to quote one CPO, ‘cultural drift’, whereby organisational culture becomes weaker and less cohesive due to lack of in-person connection.

Value, fairness, wellbeing 

Then there’s the fact that, as we called out in the report, ‘we are not all in this together’, with essential workers, many of them lower paid, taking on the burden of risk while knowledge workers stay safe at home (some more comfortably than others). The profession needs to consider profound questions over the ‘value’ of certain roles, and how these roles are rewarded and recognised. Fairness will be in the spotlight – a complex topic that the profession cannot and should not shy away from.  

The perception of fairness will also impact on the psychological reconnection of a workforce that may be feeling increasingly fractured, isolated and adrift. The spectrum of COVID experiences within any workforce will be wide: those who have been on furlough for almost a year, parents at the end of their tether with home schooling, those living alone or shielding, those grieving the loss of loved ones, and those who may have caught COVID themselves in the line of duty, to name but a few. Compassionate management and leadership will be critical – and the people profession must lead by example.  

Unsurprisingly, living in the age of COVID continues to have a major impact on our mental wellbeing and resilience. Anecdotal conversations with HR leaders earlier this year found that this third lockdown has perhaps been the most challenging from a wellbeing perspective, given the toxic combination of short days, bad weather, grim headlines, school closures and low supplies of adrenaline and optimism. Concerningly, CIPD data from September 2020 found 32% of employees said their managers still hadn’t checked in about their health and wellbeing since the start of the pandemic.  

We must also consider the wellbeing impact on our leadership teams and the people profession itself. We carried out fieldwork for the report in summer 2020, and every leader we spoke to told us how deeply exhausted they were. This is unlikely to have improved much since. We cannot expect leaders to be making big decisions about the future of their organisations and their people if they are burned out. Leaders, including HR leaders, have to role model that it is acceptable to slow down, to not be constantly available, to create boundaries. 

The people profession has an opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger and to build a fairer and more human-centric working world, with responsible business and people practices at its heart – but we also need to be alert to the risks of going the other way. Organisations and individuals have been looking to HR throughout this crisis. Let’s not waste this chance but step up and face into it.   

Responsible business is a key theme for the CIPD, on which we continue our research and developing insights with and for senior leaders. Our 2021 report, Responsible business through crisis: Senior leaders on building new cultures of trust highlights how the pandemic has accelerated leaders' approaches to responsible business. If you would like to be part of our ongoing research in this area, get in touch with Stephen Pobjoy

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