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The pandemic pivot: 5 ways coronavirus shifted HR priorities

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2020 was a year unlike any other. Businesses large and small experienced serious disruption – both good and bad. Many were hit hard by COVID-19, experiencing significant revenue and profit loss and widespread redundancies, furloughs and pay cuts. Others saw business boom, particularly in the ecommerce and technology space. 

Regardless of what end of the spectrum your business falls, one thing is clear: HR is not an optional extra – it’s a necessity. The pandemic forced many companies to realise that human resources is at the core of any well-functioning operation, especially during periods of rapid change. 

As many of us look forward to the year ahead, for those working in human resources it’s important to take stock of the impact coronavirus has had on the profession. There have been many developments  – some subtle, others significant – which will shape decisions on both how HR is delivered and the  role it will play in the wider business in the year ahead, if not forever. 

Here are five ways coronavirus has shifted HR priorities – and how to embrace these for the benefit of your team and your company in 2021. 

1. Learning and development must go on – but in new shapes and forms. 

Businesses could, maybe, be forgiven for letting a global pandemic distract them from learning and development. Research from McKinsey suggests 1:1 learning programs dropped by 50 per cent in North America in March-June last year, and almost 100 per cent in parts of Asia and Europe as social distancing restrictions took force.

But when recruitment budgets are fixed or slashed altogether, and the needs of the business continue to grow and evolve, upskilling your workforce has never been more critical. If no one new is coming in to soak up the new roles and responsibilities that the pandemic has created, the team you have in place needs to be empowered and equipped to deliver. 

Fortunately, the world of education has already made strong inroads in the digital and learning space. Quality training is available virtually, albeit with limitations in certain areas. But for practical or objective qualifications, the online arena rivals the face-to-face classroom in terms of output. Learning management systems are also proving a valuable way for employers to track whether their learning and development (L&D) objectives are being actioned in a remote environment where training may be less visible. 

As restrictions ease up to allow colleagues to regroup (albeit in socially distant workplaces), organisations should get creative with how they can adapt learning programs to harness internal  insight and expertise. For example, if there’s a training program that many people in the business have completed previously, bring in former students to run the session for the 2021 intake.  

2. There are new health and wellbeing challenges. 

Organisations that prioritise employee health and wellbeing are more likely to have a productive and engaged workforce – nothing new there. But we live in a new world order filled with stress, anxiety or discomfort.  

For example, there is uncertainty about the availability and timing of the global rollout of an effective vaccine. Remote working seems to be working for many, but it is also blurring work/life balance.  What’s more, for those employed in particularly vulnerable industries, such as hospitality and tourism, job insecurity is here to stay for the foreseeable future. 

Everyone has been impacted differently by COVID-19 but speaking on the whole, fatigue and stress are widespread and with this, reduced employee wellbeing and engagement. 

Chief Human Resource Officers are the eyes, ears and conscience of the business. Even if the worst is behind us, it’s a tough road ahead.

Actions HR leaders should take now, if they haven’t already, to help staff health and wellbeing include: 

● Creating a safe and comfortable working environment – Does their software work efficiently  from home? Is their home working space set up correctly? If the office is open, is it equipped  o minimise the risk of infection (e.g. personal protective equipment, sanitation)?  

● Training your leaders on how to manage their teams remotely – this is a new territory for many, and while the outputs may be similar, it’s a completely different way of working. Support those already in place to work to the best of their ability by empowering them with the  skills and insight they need for their new role. 

● Reimagining wellbeing policies and working practices to reflect the new workplace set up. 

● Creating a culture where short, regular breaks are acceptable and encouraged, moving away  from the traditional 9-5 environment. 

3. You can cast a wider net when recruiting. 

Remote working is here to stay, in some shape or form, for many employers. This means physical location is becoming less relevant when it comes to job opportunities. Specifying the location for work in job ads may become a thing of the past.  

This opens employers up to a whole new world of prospective employees. The frustrations of a sustained skills shortage or not being able to improve cultural diversity can be overcome by opening  up to the world at large.  

This isn’t to say the opportunities are limitless or without challenges. In Australia, for example, time zones will prove challenging in trying to source talent from the US or Europe. Or if you come across a fantastic job opportunity in China, but don’t speak Mandarin, it won’t work out. But a HR department  that can reach talent overseas and bring them into a business that is genuinely equipped for remote working can consider the world its oyster. Innovation, agility and collaboration are the new demands, for employers and employees alike.

4. CHROs help weather the unknown storm. 

When the times are good, CHROs can often go unrecognised. But in a time of crisis, if the ship is running off course, they’re the first ones leaders turn to. It has been said that the role of the CHRO  during the pandemic is akin to that of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) during the Global Financial Crisis – the decisions they take or influence can make or break the whole business. 

The scale and shock of coronavirus has demonstrated that contingency planning is critical. While responding to COVID-19, CHROs also need to start planning and preparing for the next disruption. It  might not be on the scale of a global pandemic, but preparing for the unexpected is where CHROs prove their value.  

This can be at a macro-level, such as planning for the outcome of growing political tension and social unrest on the global stage, which could have multifaceted consequences on businesses across the APAC region. Equally, it could be far more micro, such as reviewing competitors in the space and whether your work proposition is tempting enough to retain your top talent.  

Organisations need to have the foresight to predict what the fallout may look like and plan for minimal disruption. CHROs can emerge in 2021 as trusted advisors as businesses restructure to face their  new reality and plan for shifts in the landscape.  

5. It’s never been more important to keep in touch. 

Steady communication from leadership is paramount in keeping teams engaged and motivated. In a time of uncertainty and disruption, knowing what’s going on in the business and an accessible and  present leadership brings comfort.  

The content and frequency of these messages will ebb and flow as situations unfold. What needs to remain consistent is the sincerity in the delivery, and transparency. Communications to the team shouldn’t be treated as a tick box exercise. Empathy is everything, and a narrative that encompasses connection, care and consideration is vital to maintaining a connection between the business and employees.  

Creating a culture of checking in, not checking up, on remote employees is a winning strategy. 

Communication is undoubtedly harder remotely, but there are tactics to consider to keep in touch with your teams: 

● Company-wide newsletters and notices: These can have the dual role of disseminating key updates and information, but also acknowledging achievements. Even amongst the gloom  and doom, it always remains important to cherish wins and celebrate success. 

● Send employees surveys for feedback: Communication goes both ways. Give your teams the opportunity to feedback on what their struggles or concerns are, so you can take action to remedy them. 

● Invest in technology that makes communication easier: Consider how the pandemic would have played out ten years ago versus today. The likes of real-time chat applications and project management software have transformed the workplace, and for the better. 

In 2021, we will find many of the fundamentals of HR remain in place – but the delivery or focus has shifted.  

Learning and development is still imperative, but the way in which training takes place is new. Looking after the health and wellbeing of teams is still a top priority – if anything, even more so during this  difficult and transitory time. Recruitment is still the name of the game – but there’s a potentially whole new workforce open to you. HR has always been a part of the top tier inner circle – now is the time to  cement its role as one of the important cogs in the business machine. And finally, not leaving anyone  in the dark by having a transparent and consistent communications model.


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Peter Hadley
Peter Hadley is President, Asia Pacific of ADP, a leading workforce management solution provider for businesses in 140 countries.