If there is one lesson we’ve all learned from COVID-19, it’s that the success of a business depends on its people. As the virus spread, the physical and mental health of staff became a top priority.
Compassion and empathy found their way into boardroom meetings to a degree not seen before as safety measures, remote working policies, and connectivity concerns all became top agenda items.
The last two years have been a paradigm shift for HR leaders, many of whom now find themselves swimming in unchartered waters, drafting policies for which there is no playbook.
As companies exit survival mode, HR will undoubtedly continue to play a critical role in refocusing efforts on engagement and productivity in the new normal.
All conversations are moving in the same direction: how to retain, engage and inspire staff in these uncertain times so companies can maximize their human capital, not only survive but to pivot and thrive. Yet knowing where to start is a real challenge.
From our experience over the last two years, we’ve identified eight ways HR teams can take the best learnings forward to keep positive change in the workforce for years to come.
1. Get clear on existing skills to determine recruitment strategy
Undoubtedly, for many, the last two years have been focused on surviving in a changing and uncertain world. How can you now think about the year ahead? From my experience, it starts by creating a clear picture of the skills and potential you already have across the workforce.
From rising stars to established knowledge experts, understanding where strengths and gaps lie as a business will enable HR leads to shift their thinking to the capabilities needed to maintain and gain a competitive advantage in the coming year.
2. Make flexibility strategic
Companies that offer terms and conditions matching candidate expectations will have a distinct hiring advantage over those that do not. The biggest change in this regard over the last two years is a desire for flexible working as the standard, not the exception.
HR leads shouldn’t see this as something they are forced to accommodate though – it can be a real strategic business benefit and one that makes the world a better place to live and work in.
Offering flexible working, and even making some roles completely virtual, enables HR leads to widen the net nationally and globally when looking for talent. Further, building flexibility into business operations can lead to increased productivity across the board.
The ability to choose when and where one works can help enhance creativity and problem solving on tricky projects, which is clearly beneficial to the business in the long run.
3. Build an inclusive, welcoming and friendly culture
This isn’t just the personable thing to do. It’s the right thing to do for people and organizations. Yet statistics from the charity Relate, show 42% of employees do not have a friend at work. McKinsey research reports a sense of inclusion and belonging is critical to work satisfaction.
With these figures in mind, HR needs to determine whether the right policies, resources, and cultural awareness exist for people to thrive and the business case for diversity and inclusion has never been stronger. Wellbeing within the context of a caring culture is now essential to attracting and retaining talent. In many cases, it can be the difference between employees joining and staying with you.
A recent report found that if relationships with people in the office feel shallow, an employee’s sense of isolation may increase. The INSEAD report concludes that as corporate work has gone international, teams have been expected to grow, be nimbler, and be more cost-effective.
People join for shorter stints, depending on what skills are needed for a specific project, then move on elsewhere. Or they job share with others across time zones. All this is good for an organization’s flexibility and efficiency, but not so good for people who might struggle to name each member of the group and feel interchangeable.
This issue isn’t new – but it’s been amplified by the pandemic and the shift to hybrid and work anywhere working. HR leads need to create core teams with a common mission that lasts for years, not weeks.
Further, they must ensure team leaders understand workplace loneliness can be structural, not personal and establish practices to ensure everyone feels connected.
4. Embrace workplace reinvention
No one thought two years ago the hybrid workforce model would become permanent. Yet it’s hard to envisage a return to the office, despite some organizations laying on incentives and pressures.
There is a real risk that if management push for a return too hard it could backfire, with talented staff jumping ship to join companies with more flexible working conditions.
HR leaders must encourage conversations, in the boardroom and among staff, that explore how best to work and protect wellbeing, reflecting on the most effective approach for individuals’ jobs and teams.
Crucially, this must be done with an open mind that embraces the chance to reinvent the workplace post-pandemic for the good of all.
Technology is evolving to augment staffs’ productivity, focusing less on the jobs employees perform and more on the capabilities people and technology can offer. HR leaders must look for ways to reinforce an organization’s values and purpose, such as building virtual communities to formalize hybrid models of working.
This must also include ensuring the journey and progression of new talent through the business is afforded equal consideration to those who have been with the business for a longer time.
5. Improve the review process
Improving the review process is not only an important people move, but also a sound strategic one. A strategy focused on delivering assessments at regular intervals will help identify the rising stars in a business and uncover hidden talent.
Armed with this insight, HR leads can work closely with senior leadership and line managers to ensure these colleagues are given the right support so they, and so the business, can flourish.
Regular assessments also give organizations a great opportunity to get valuable feedback which can be used to make incremental improvements over the course of the year. However, they can be very administration heavy and often lack clear and specific criteria.
Specialist performance software streamlines this, helping staff and management collaborate smoothly, which plays a big role in boosting morale and improving productivity and retention.
However, not all assessment platforms are equal so do your research. The ‘forced distribution’ or ‘stack ranking’ model, abandoned by Microsoft, the UK civil service, and soon KPMG too, has received reams of bad press for creating a toxic culture and stifling innovation.
An assessment platform that focuses on recognizing what each employee has done well, plus a few key things that they could improve, and one that encourages self-reflection and feedback from others will achieve a far better outcome.
6. Give sincere thanks and praise
Many people worked long, hard days during the lockdowns, often in incredibly challenging circumstances. While a monetary gesture of gratitude – pay rise or bonus – might not always be possible, saying thank you and giving praise in meaningful ways such as a celebratory event or a sincere handwritten note will go a long way.
Praise won’t solve all your staff engagement issues, but genuine gestures will be remembered and contribute towards creating a productive and collaborative working environment.
7. Combat workplace stress
COVID-19 has brought a lot of unwelcome uncertainty. People have been placed on and off furlough, in many cases returning to a different type of company, updated job description, or even the looming threat of redundancy. Employees should be front and center of every organization’s plans.
Not only because it is the right thing to do for society, but also because it’s key to attracting talent, and ultimately maintaining a competitive advantage over rivals. HR leaders need to listen to staff expectations for better healthcare and general support, to avoid burnout which is costly for employees’ mental health as well as an economic burden for organizations.
Unlike Bumble, most companies can’t afford to give all staff a paid week off to fight stress but making staff wellbeing a top priority is an excellent first step. This can be done by encouraging authentic dialogue around feelings of anxiety and instigating virtual mindful and yoga meetups.
For working parents, a weekly call to share practical ideas on how to manage working patterns could also help alleviate stress as can weekly drop-in wellbeing self-help groups.
8. Encourage healthy tech habits
Countless studies tell us humans need downtime, not only to recharge and unwind but also to stay alert and motivated. Pre-iPhone, the influx of out-of-hours work emails didn’t exist as mobiles weren’t smart enough to show them. Since then, however, the lines between the professional and personal have blurred.
Becoming stricter around time would address this crossover and could be as simple as introducing a hard stop at 5.30 or 6 pm. If challenged by demanding colleagues, a firm and respectful email from senior managers letting them know their teams will not work outside of core business hours, unless for a business-critical purpose, in order to protect employee wellbeing is essential.
Positive mandates like this ensure the workforce stays fresh and on fire.
Just like CFOs who navigated the choppy waters of the financial crisis in 2008, companies are turning towards HR to keep things in full stride. It’s clear a return to pre-pandemic working patterns is increasingly unlikely. We also know there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
So now, more than ever, HR leaders need to be equipped with the tools and organizational latitude to ensure a functioning business and supported workforce – in the context of a more unpredictable ‘normal.’