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Zero to hero: How HR is helping businesses fight back amidst the pandemic

The pandemic has put HR teams under immense strain, says Sally Sourbron, VP HR EMEA at ServiceNow

A year on, many employees have probably grown used to working from home, and all the quirks it brings.

Many employees have grown used to working from home, and all the quirks it brings.


This often-underestimated business function has risen to the challenge, helping businesses of all shapes and sizes get to grips with the personal and professional impacts of working through a pandemic.

To find out more about how the pandemic has changed how businesses view HR – and what the future of work has in store – we spoke to Sally Sourbron, VP HR EMEA at ServiceNow.

Please can you start by explaining how the pandemic changed perceptions of HR?

Well, if you think about what HR really is, it’s a crucial tie between a company and its employees.

The shift to remote working practically overnight saw many business leaders immediately leaning on HR teams to provide the right experiences to motivate workers, maintain productivity, and keep businesses going.

HR teams, on the whole, responded very well to the challenge – and that success has casted new light on HR. It’s now proven itself not to be a cost centre, as in the past, but the essential business function it is, driving demonstrable ROI, and offering employees the best possible work experience.

That last point is interesting, because many think of HR as serving businesses, rather than employees. Why do you think that employee experience is so important right now?

You need only look around you to see we live in an age of experience. Whatever it is you’re doing – looking for a job, buying a car, switching energy provider – it’s the experience that you remember.

The same goes for employers. Ultimately, if you can’t create a work environment that is good enough to keep your employees, they’re going to go somewhere else.

For us as HR leaders, that means we need to think about the functions we carry out on a daily basis, and make sure all our processes, policies, systems, initiatives, and whatever else are conceived and delivered in a way that truly maximises employee experience.

Can you give an example?

Well, one example I’ve worked on is how we at ServiceNow reworked our onboarding processes just before the pandemic hit.

If you think about the usual onboarding process, it’s forms, forms, forms. Not only is that repetitive, it’s a very stressful way to start a new job. Employees just want to get to the job they’ve been hired to do!

We changed things up so that employees now use one single online portal, delivered via mobile, to get all the necessary forms sorted, choose the tech they want, do the training they need to do, get all their logins sorted, and so on. And they do it all before the first day, so, as I said before, they can start the job they’re hired to do from day one.

It’s good for them – but it’s also good for HR teams too. It gives us a lot of time and energy back that we can then invest elsewhere.

I imagine a lot of that time and energy has gone towards dealing with the stresses and strains of the status quo. Wellbeing is obviously a massive concern right now, given the ongoing pandemic. In your view, how can businesses address the issue of wellbeing in a remote-first world?

My first thought is that many employees are struggling to create a proper work-life balance at the moment. After all, your kitchen table is now also your desk, your boardroom, your coffee break space ... 

HR can’t necessarily step in and build everyone the perfect home office. But we can step in and work with employees and their managers to balance their expectations with the right support.

Do you have a sense of what that balance looks like?

Think of it as a social contract of sorts. Managers need to clearly set out what they need employees to do, how they should do it, and the outcomes they need to achieve. At the same time, they should provide employees with the space, tools, and support they need to properly accomplish those tasks to their best ability.

That balance will differ between employees – after all, we all need different support, work in different ways, and have different boundaries.

Boundaries are particularly important in a world of remote work. If we can’t physically separate ourselves from our workplace, we need to find other ways to get that separation – whether it’s muting instant messenger services at certain points in the day, email notifications on your personal mobile, or something else – and communicate it clearly with our colleagues.

Absolutely. Looking forward, as we move towards a – hopefully – more normal future, what advice do you have for companies and their HR teams?

A year on, many employees have probably grown used to working from home, and all the quirks it brings. We have to remember, however, that working from home now and working from home post-pandemic, in a world full of the distractions of normal life, is a completely different thing.

When we start to get back to normal, we’ll have to look at new ways of retaining the positives of remote working and managing challenges that arise. It’ll be a process of weeding out bad habits and encouraging good ones, and HR teams will play a key role in leading regular in-depth, rational assessments into our ways of working and ensuring they’re sustainable for the future.

Technology will play a big role here. It’ll give us access to the data and the analytics required to really delve into business operations, work out what’s driving productivity, and allow us to make better decisions, faster. That, in turn, will allow us to move forwards in a way that helps our businesses, and our employees, thrive.

Thanks so much, Sally.

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