People & Leadership

How chief HR officers can support employees in uncertain times

We cover insights and ideas for chief HR officers to use when helping employees deal with the uncertain after-effects of the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to impact the role of chief HR officers (CHROs) in radical ways.

But they have learned many crucial lessons about how to support employees through challenging times and new work patterns.

In this episode of Agility Unleashed, the podcast series from Sage that helps Britain’s businesses pick their way out of the pandemic, a group of business leaders from a variety of industries share their thoughts and insights on how HR professionals can apply those lessons as uncertainty continues, and build a future fit workforce.

Here’s what we cover:

How the pandemic changed HR

Solving ongoing challenges

Supporting employee welfare

Tackling the skills gap

Digitalising the HR department

The role of cloud-based software

CHROs face a wave of changing responsibilities as the aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic continue to reverberate.

HR professionals must help bring staff on the job retention (furlough) scheme back to work – many after a long time away. Some employees will continue to work for from home, while others will start new hybrid working arrangements, or come back to the workplace on a full-time basis but in different circumstances.

CHROs will also have to help many employees adapt to new skills and working practices as business models continue to change, post-pandemic.

Many staff will need help as they feel anxious and unsure about how these new conditions will affect them and what the future holds.

Karen Morris-Lanz, HR director of digital and systems transformation at University of Warwick, says: “Coronavirus has changed life for everybody, but we haven’t realised how much yet.

“HR professionals experienced 10 years of normal change in 12 months – for example, people having to adapt to virtual working, and changing their skills for different business models.

“That has created skills gaps and thrown us all into a much faster journey towards technology than we could have imagined.

“The challenges are: will there be some backlash against that? How do we engage with people in a virtual world? How long will this go on for?”

David Kelly, EMEA general manager at workforce management solution, Deputy, says CHROs will need to continue improving agility and leadership skills to meet these challenges.

“HR will need to take lots of deep breaths because the effects will last longer than you think,” he says.

“One positive outcome was that their leadership characteristics have come to the fore. Empathy from leaders was critical in helping staff get through lockdowns.

“You will need to keep providing clear communication, understand the difficulties your staff face, and make sure your organisation is flexible enough to deal with them.”

Some changes have been for the better, for example, accelerated digitalisation projects.

But some changes have created worrying trends for workers’ mental health.

Karen says: “HR has become very aware of people’s well-being. For example, some staff are now saying, ‘I’ve been on furlough for 12 months. What happens to me?’

“We must think about how debilitating it must be to not work for a year, and what we do with those people now.

“The biggest challenge is making sure people are engaged and not lonely – and finding the right balance and space for them to come together. We’ve learned people do like being with other people much more than we thought.

“Another focus is outcomes. It doesn’t matter when or where you work; it’s about what you produce.

“HR therefore need to specify roles more clearly to understand what we expect from them, so we can judge the outcome, not when or where they do the work.

“We’ve had people working with children at their desks, and they’re managing.

“But they can only do that because we gave them the flexibility. It is right to give them that flexibility and we can’t take it back now.

“Technology will also give us the information we need to manage people’s welfare and develop the right environment to help them thrive through this next phase.”

A large skills gap has opened because companies have had such a short time to train people into new capabilities. Many are taking the opportunity to learn new skills while they can.

But organisations are still having to widen their search dramatically.

“At Warwick, we want to attract the best brains in the world,” Karen says. “We need lots of infrastructure to do this via remote working.

“That gave us a global view more quickly than we would have expected. We are up against every other company in the world. So we need a diverse attraction point, and have to understand what is culturally acceptable.

“But trust is harder to build online than it is face-to-face. So we have to be careful not to react too quickly and go down the wrong route [by relying on technology too much].”

HR software helps by logging and locating skills in your company.

David says: “Agile businesses have their skills well-indexed already. But many don’t know what they have, where, and think about people in terms of headcount only.”

Mark Robinson, co-founder and CEO of professional services software provider Kimble, says: “The challenge for our customers has been to locate the skills they have, in their main country and globally, and find out if they can use them elsewhere.

“Coronavirus has made them realise how much information they have that will help move people around, even in other countries, and use the skills they have.

“Often people jump straight to technology as the solution and don’t think enough first about the processes and collaborations they need to solve these challenges first.

“As people have moved to more remote working, we’ve seen more companies attempting to understand the problem first, then what processes, roles and collaborations you need to solve it. Then you get the technology to support that. It needs to be that way round.”

CHROs still need to work hard to attract the right talent.

Mark says: “If you have to attract top talent, don’t go to the lowest common denominator, go to the highest.

“UK organisations will increasingly offer better benefits compared to other countries to attract talent.”

HR leaders also need to consider more support for different modes of employment, such as outsourced, contingent or gig workers. This will help the structure of your workforce withstand similar onslaughts in future.

Deputy recently surveyed 1,400 shift workers, 89% of whom said career development was important to them.

“Historically, shift workers have been forgotten when it comes to communication, development and engagement,” says David. “We need to make sure those people can see that they can improve their skills and have a career.”

The more you can communicate that they can choose what development they want, where and when, the better.

Karen says one positive from the pandemic was that it gave companies a burning platform to accelerate change, including in HR digitalisation.

“When I started at Warwick in February this year, I moved straight into digitalising the whole HR department in two weeks,” she says. “People felt it was impossible to do that quickly, but we did it.”

David says: “Many medium and long-term HR technology projects became critical and accelerated to a short period.

“For example, HR was already figuring out how to personalise the employee experience digitally.

“But coronavirus accelerated it.

“There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Solutions must be relevant to each role, business and industry. Some roles will be appropriate for remote working and others need people to come together and innovate.”

As the pandemic recedes, many CHROs have also needed to start recruiting rapidly.

Technology helps, for example, in terms of digitalised search, selection and onboarding. It can also support collaboration with remote workforces by enriching the virtual experience and making it easier to use.

David says: “HR has also been accelerating social media applications in the workforce, like those people use outside work, to collaborate with workers.

“There will also be much innovation like this in onboarding, training and development. HR tech then brings everything together through the same interface and user experience.”

Karen says HR software can also help by making HR services more instant and on-demand, for example, providing bite-sized advice online when people need it.

Some larger companies have done great work in that area, for example, using artificial intelligence chatbots. These innovations will free HR professionals’ time for higher value activities.

We don’t know what economic headwinds we will face in the coming months. We do know the challenges created by the pandemic will reach far into the future.

But forward-thinking CHROs have already started preparing for the changes ahead by building agility into their practices and workforces.

Cloud-based HR software will be critical in helping CHROs understand where their skills are and how they can best deploy them around the organisation, and around the globe.

It can also help find and hire talent, onboard new recruits quickly and efficiently, support well-being programmes, plan succession, and streamline other HR tasks such as payroll integration.

This streamlining and automation frees you to concentrate on making your company the workplace of choice for both existing and potential employees, making it fit to thrive in the post-pandemic world.

Agility Unleashed podcast

Check out more episodes from Agility Unleashed, a series of podcasts aimed at the C-suite that help Britain’s businesses pick their way out of the pandemic.

Find out more