By Emma Seymour

I wanted to write a reflection piece about the transformation of work during the pandemic and a number of issues sprung to mind.

Should we as HR professionals worry about employers checking their teams are working productively? Should we be concerned about the privacy violations in allegedly accessing webcams to ensure our teams are logged on and working from home?

Should we be concerned that challenges around poor customer service or general service delivery are now blamed on COVID-19?

The answer to all the above is, of course, yes! But I believe this trend started with the use of time and attendance systems and the evolution of the centralized HR function that has now morphed into a work-home place conflict between the use of systems and the business need to ask more of employees who are wrung out, anxious and viewed as an output device with little consideration of their own personal circumstances. Presentism is dead and buried and never has it been more relevant to question those employees that come in when they are unwell so they can be ‘seen’.

What the pandemic has highlighted more than ever is the fact that when HR is considered a computerized process we lose the human touch. We become ambivalent to the ability to view each employee as a person with individual needs and requirements. The rise of data analytics, whilst worthy and necessary, creates a perspective of seeing employees as numbers and, whilst people management is sometimes considered a science, it is in its essence a humanity and must fight to remain so.

The rising mental health concerns across the globe has demonstrated more than ever that to remain connected teams must feel trust, engagement and connectivity with their managers and with their organizations. According to the Mental Health Organization in the UK, mental health and behavioural problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and drug use) are reported to be the primary drivers of disability worldwide, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds.

This is where we as HR professionals must step in to carry out essential repairs before the organizational engine overheats. A tsunami-in-waiting of mental health issues and the loss of organizational trust may be the biggest crises on the horizon.

However; HR professionals feel the same and they frequently lack the very support that they offer to others. Many within my network have managed mass redundancies, pay cuts, relocations, health support, and guidance to their own families at home and overseas. With the pressures of the global economic squeeze, friends have lost their own income and have been effectively abandoned when they ask for assistance for job referrals, coaching, and mentoring. Some have stopped challenging people’s decisions that have been carried out because so many other drastic eliminations of trust have already happened and questionable actions attributed – according to global conscience to – to COVID-19.

Boards of Directors and senior executives/managers have an inherent responsibility to proactively demonstrate their leadership qualities in these difficult times. HR’s part is to make sure senior executives have the skill set to act. Business partnering is absolutely key to understanding and working with the Chief Executives, presenting proposals, and making decisions at the Board level. Never has the need for HR to have a place at that table been more relevant.

Not since the Industrial Revolution has there been such a focus on the changing nature of work and I ask the following of my HR colleagues:

  1. Don’t endorse questionable People’s decisions to save pennies. The reputation of organizations will prevail when this period has washed out. Those that stood up and supported their employees will shine. Those that took this as an opportunity to act dissipatedly will be remembered and organizations that don’t have their employee’s best interests at heart will not be considered an employer of choice when it comes to repairing the damage wrought by the corporate sabotage in play. Karma always comes back around.
  2. Take the time to understand and explain the rationale behind decisions affecting your employees – the ‘because of COVID 19’ response is already wearing thin. Your children need explanations to understand why the world is changing and your employees deserve the same level of personalized feedback.
  3. Don’t rush to digitalize your systems – in my entire career I have never seen the alleged savings of centralizing come to fruition and we lose so much when the ‘computer says no’. We also lose the flexibility to respond quickly and innovatively.
  4. Trust your Managers and your employees. Ensure you have a robust system of people development, learning and feedback. I have witnessed the frustration with the completion of timesheets documenting every hour of work and this does not engender commitment, engagement or the extra mile that we need right now. Employees are not asked in the office to justify their hourly activities – why insist they do this when they are working from home? This creates further anxiety and questions the trust the organization has in the employee.
  5. Think outside the box. Don’t rush into enforcing policies and procedures that are not suited to the new work environment. We become so task-focused that we need to plan for the future and ensure that our people agenda is a solution based on 2021 and beyond not just next month’s P&L.

And finally, many of us entered the industry of HR to help people. To understand their behaviours and motivations and to make a difference to the organisations we work for.

Now is that time.

Yes, we are all anxious; yes, we are reeling from the challenges we encounter on a daily basis but no one ever said the world of HR is easy. It’s one of the toughest and sometimes unrewarding functions to work in. But now is the time to shift the workplace in to the future and restore confidence, trust, innovation and flexibility. It’s the time to help others and keep everyone close so take a step back, take a deep breath and ask what you’ve done recently to help others and what you can do from now onwards to shape the future of work.

Stay Safe,

Emma Seymour