HR departments rise to challenge of Covid-19 reality

Understanding people and work is secret to safe corporate passage through crisis

HR departments have shouldered much of the burden of the coronavirus workload – from taking care of employee health and wellbeing to solving problems associated with the transition to working from home.

HR departments have shouldered much of the burden of the coronavirus workload – from taking care of employee health and wellbeing to solving problems associated with the transition to working from home.

 

In the corporate pecking order, HR has often played second fiddle to the more commercially driven aspects of corporate operations. But while savvy chief executives have long recognised HR’s strategic importance to their business, Covid-19 has highlighted it and the skills of astute HR managers are proving crucial to successfully managing a crisis that is first and foremost about people.

To some extent, HR was waiting in the wings. The tight labour market had already seen its stock rise because of the role HR professionals play in helping their organisation to develop and retain talent.

As the 2020 Salary & Employment Insights report from Lincoln Recruitment puts it: “A good HR function can help to maintain a happy, healthy, and most importantly, stable workforce.” And with coronavirus putting businesses under unprecedented pressure, keeping things calm and steady has never been more important.

HR departments have shouldered much of the burden of the coronavirus workload as they have been involved on multiple levels – from taking care of employee health and wellbeing to solving problems associated with the transition to working from home, to downsizing and return-to-work planning. In addition, HR departments that are still hiring staff have had to move their recruitment and onboarding online virtually overnight. At the extreme end of this phenomenon is Amazon, which remotely inducted 1,700 new recruits on a single day in mid-March.

Jack Byron is a HR specialist and also country director for the French-owned industrial services company Elis, which employs 700 people in Ireland. Elis provides services to frontline facilities such as hospitals (bed linen and workwear) so the company has remained open throughout the crisis.

Retaining goodwill

“We haven’t closed even for a single day,” Byron says. “Initially it was manic and I was spending 12 hours a day on the phone as we addressed all the issues that arose. We had to make very difficult decisions, such as laying off the sales team and putting people on short time. But it’s a balancing act because you don’t want to cut too deep and damage the fabric of the business or lose goodwill.

“At the beginning, you could sense panic in people so we reacted very quickly by installing Perspex screening and setting down guidelines for hygiene and social distancing that were rigidly implemented. Once people could see we were putting their welfare first, they felt confident about coming to work and attendance has been phenomenal, with only a handful of confirmed cases within our workforce.”

In the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, tough decisions have had to be made around large-scale job losses. But others have laid a challenge at the door of their HR departments to come up with a new shape for their organisations that could see people redeployed, reskilled or offered more flexible hours rather than being laid off.

While the coronavirus crisis began as a supply chain problem as China went into lockdown, it quickly became about people as the pandemic spread.
While the coronavirus crisis began as a supply chain problem as China went into lockdown, it quickly became about people as the pandemic spread.

Last month, when Airbnb announced a massive shake-up of its operations with the loss of 25 per cent of its workforce (about 1,900 people), its chief executive Brian Chesky told staff that the focus was on keeping people whose skills were considered critical to the future of the company but that they could well find themselves put into new roles.

David Collings, professor of human resource management at DCU Business School, points out that while the coronavirus crisis began as a supply chain problem as China went into lockdown, it quickly became about people as the pandemic spread.

Organisational values

“Almost every decision being made right now has a people element at its core and the pandemic is the opportunity for organisations to ‘live’ their values,” he says. “In the past, chief executives have often preferred to avoid ‘people problems’. In this crisis, they have had to confront them and are becoming more appreciative of the value HR adds as a result,” he says.

“What is becoming clear now is that handling the impact of the pandemic will continue to occupy large amounts of HR people’s time in the medium term, but the intense crisis management of the early days has passed and it’s now a balancing act between the immediate and longer-term needs of a business.

“Companies that have invested in ongoing learning and development for employees tend to be better equipped in general to a handle a crisis and organisations that can avoid redundancies also tend do better in the longer term. In many ways this pandemic has accelerated issues around the future of work requiring significant upskilling and reskilling to keep people employed,” Collings says.

Jack Byron estimates business will be down by about 10 per cent this year. However, he believes it could have been a lot worse if the company’s reactions had been slower.

“You do what you have to do around restructuring for now, but you still have to keep an eye on the future so we went ahead with an investment in a depot in Roscommon,” he says.

“We felt showing appreciation was really important so we gave gift vouchers to employees and when the word came to work from home, we told people to take any equipment they needed to make that easier. Our head of tech was also on the ball as she had placed an order for laptops before the real buying panic set in.”

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