• Andy Cairns

HR needs to act. And quickly.

Inspired by David Pacifico's article on whether HR can be considered key workers during the current Coronavirus pandemic, my brain has been on overdrive considering the role of HR during an unprecedented crisis like the one we're all currently living through, and, more importantly, the actions that need to be immediately considered for HR to retain (and reinforce) its seat at the decision-making table.

Are current Workplace Policies fit for purpose?

It's all too easy to assume that:

a) Current policies are as fit for purpose today as they were before the virus changed the world or

b) Common sense will dictate that any policies that hinder performance or compliance are temporarily ignored

After all, for many employees, managers and leaders all that has changed is their working location, right?

Actually, no. The mass and rapid introduction of mandatory remote working (for example) leaves many standard policies lacking in detail, unfair or irrelevant when measured against the way our workforce is now being forced to operate. Let's take a look at a few examples:

  • With the closing of schools and nurseries, many of our colleagues are facing the challenge of looking after their kids at home. In many cases, current policies on timekeeping and working hours should be amended to include enough flexibility that parents and carers are not overwhelmed by this additional burden, while ensuring that people are available when needed.

  • For organisations that currently employ some remote workers, does the compensation policy differentiate between remote and office-based? If so, now that everyone is remote, will compensation be changed for either group?

  • While a smart dress code may be appropriate for all employees working in The City, is it still relevant for video calls? Probably not, but at what point does a relaxed dress code become too relaxed? Are there different rules for client calls versus internal meetings? Similarly with workspaces. Do your colleagues really need to be subjected to that photo of you in your Speedos at the beach on the wall behind you? How do we draw a line between what is considered the employee's home and what is considered an extension of the workplace?

  • Usage of flexible vacation days needs a lot more thought. Are colleagues with time off scheduled during quarantine expected to still take them when they can't go anywhere? Will existing rules against rolling days over into the following year still apply when no-one can take a vacation?

Of course, these are just 4 simple examples. It is tempting to immediately mentally solve these issues and move on. However, without codifying specific changes into formal policy documentation (and communicating those changes well), the best case scenario is that some colleagues will act inappropriately in certain situations or delay actions and decisions due to lack of guidance. However, it's also feasible that some bad actors may deliberately use outdated policy for personal gain at the expense of their employer. Similarly, employees may be at risk of disciplinary action from bad managers for making common sense decisions contrary to existing policy.

Can your workforce access your HR Services? While the current focus at this early stage of crisis management is, very rightly, on getting the workforce to a state of productivity in an unfamiliar setting, a degree of business-as-usual is either just around the corner or, for many, has already arrived. The workforce will always require access to HR Services and expertise.

Luckily (or by design), previous HR Transformation and technology implementation programmes will have ensured that self-service applications and processes are already in place. Workforce administration activities such as changing personal information, bank details and PTO requests are commonly executed by employees or managers directly into the HR platform.

However, these self-service transactions account for a small percentage of the services available to employees. Again, let's have a look at some examples:

  • An employee did not get paid the correct amount. Previously, the employee would have phoned the central HR/Payroll phone number where her request would have been triaged and transferred to the correct practitioner. However, the telephony platform is only accessible to agents within the office. With all of HR/Payroll working remotely, there is no-one to answer the phone.

  • A manager needs assistance with an underperforming team member. Since this is a sensitive issue, the manager would have previously walked over to the HR team and asked for some informal advice. However, since everyone is working remotely, the manager does not know who to contact directly and doesn't want to send an email as this would lend formality to the issue.

  • A hiring manager wants to make a non-standard offer to a candidate he knows is also being pursued by a competitor. He needs to act quickly. He emails the global recruitment mailbox to ensure that someone sees the request, even if the assigned recruiter is not available. However, due to the current workload, the recruitment team can't keep up with the incoming requests and find it difficult to prioritise emails without having to read each one individually.

It is vital in the age of remote working that the channels by which employees and managers access HR Services are made location agnostic and allow for quick and accurate prioritisation and routing of requests.

Cloud-based case management systems (and associated processes) have historically remained well within the domain of the IT department. However, in recent years, most IT Service Management Platforms, such as BMC Remedy, ServiceNow and Zendesk, have invested heavily in HR-specific functionality to allow HR Services to be delivered more efficiently.

Does the size and shape of your organisation structure enable the way you need to work?

The recent news cycle has been saturated with stories of workforce reduction. The significant economic impact of COVID-19 has forced employers to scale back on a massive scale, with many organisations facing extinction if they don't immediately reduce cost in the form of headcount.

However, the size and shape of an organisation is driven by more than cost. People are needed to perform the activities that enable companies to produce the goods or deliver the services that make the company viable at all.

As with HR policies and services, the type of work being done and the capabilities (and numbers) of people who do that work must be modified to meet the changing landscape we see today.

More examples? Sure, why not:

  • A high street retailer with shops in all major towns and cities is structured around a large, customer-facing salesforce. With government-mandated closures, focus shifts very quickly to the online store. This requires a rapid change in organisational design; the technology division must be expanded to cope with the increased pressure on eCommerce platforms and direct to consumer logistics must be quickly scaled up to ensure orders are processed to meet demand, while redundancy agreements and retraining initiatives are introduced for existing customer-facing employees.

  • A global financial services company has call centres in strategic locations around the world. Teams are co-located according to the services they support and managers can oversee up to 20 agents. When the call centre is forced into remote working and the managers can no longer interact directly with the agents, the ratio of agents to managers must be reduced to 4:1. This requires hiring and/or training supplementary managers in order to implement a flatter organisational design. In addition, since the teams are no longer co-located, the support of services can be further refined to encompass all available resources.

By taking immediate action, HR can be a valuable partner in securing the future success and sustainability of the business. HR leaders are uniquely positioned to provide deep organisational design expertise, taking into account business requirements, organisational culture and legislative challenges.

The action To stay ahead of the curve and ensure that the workforce continues to perform to the best of their collective abilities, with structure, consistency and fairness, a full review of all HR Operations against the current crisis is absolutely key. It is not the time for reactive HR. Many businesses are sustaining irreparable damage and every day we are hearing more evidence that immediate action is needed.

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