HRD priorities during Covid-19: Part two

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog on HR director priorities during the coronavirus pandemic, based on my conversations with CHROs one-on-one and in small groups. Things are moving so fast currently that two weeks could as well be two months. When, as one CPO put it, “you are doing one year’s worth of work in a few weeks”, it makes sense to update more regularly.

The priorities I wrote about two weeks ago haven’t gone anywhere, but the content of the conversations I’m having is shifting somewhat. These are some of the things that have climbed up the agenda in the last couple of weeks.

Return to work plans

While we don’t have certainty on when UK lockdown will end, a phased return to the workplace looks likely. HRDs are grappling with the complexity of getting even a small proportion (a quarter or a third) of colleagues back to the office. The practicalities of observing social distancing can seem overwhelming. There’s so much to consider, from lifts to canteens and breakout spaces. And even if employers do a great job making workplaces as safe, spread out and hygienic as possible, they can’t control the journey into work. Many people will feel too anxious to travel on public transport, and who can blame them?

The psychological impact of bringing people back, whether from furlough or from working at home, also needs to be considered. They won’t be returning to the workplace as it was before. Expectations will need to be managed. The CIPD has covered much of this in our new return to the workplace guide and we will be adding more information and updating regularly as this is a constantly moving picture.

Mental health impact becomes clearer

While many organisations have been stepping up to provide people with mental health support, HRDs are concerned about the long-term impact of this period. They worry, with good reason, that key workers in health and social care could suffer PTSD. The mental health charity SANE told Sky News that lockdown is storing up “an epidemic of mental illness”. More of the workforce will be dealing with bereavement at any one time than ever before. And HR teams themselves risk burning out, trying to support colleagues and their organisations but neglecting themselves. To help with this last point, the CIPD has launched new well-being resources for members, including a free 24/7/365 helpline staffed by qualified therapists.

Spinning plates

Trying to take a long-term perspective while dealing with daily challenges like keeping on top of changes to furlough remains a big issue for HR leaders. As a recent article in the Economist reflects, while the 2008 financial crisis had organisations leaning on CFOs, this pandemic has thrust CHROs into the spotlight. “The duties of chief people officers look critical right now…Their in-trays are bulging,” says the piece. 

One CPO recently said that trying to juggle business as usual (whatever usual looks like during a pandemic) with planning for return to the workplace and thinking about the long-term impact on the organisational model was like “trying to change the wheels on a moving Ferrari”. Scenario planning is harder than ever when even the near future feels impossible to predict. HRDs are thinking about ‘right sizing’ their organisations and changing strategies and operating models while having very little idea what tomorrow could bring. 

Capturing the positives

Never let a good crisis go to waste. The Covid-19 situation is forcing us all to work in radically different ways, many of them for the better. In our calls, many HRDs have been reflecting on how they can capture some of the positives to have come out of this challenging period. That could be holding onto more flexible working styles (as one CHRO put it “I won’t be a slave to the office anymore”) or the increased humanity and empathy that many have seen among colleagues and managers. The fragility of our health is at the centre of this crisis; it has reminded us that we are all simply human. Mass home working alongside school closures has forced leaders to put ‘corporate professionalism’ to one side. We have had to accept people as they are, with their personal lives melding into their work ones – kids, pets, housemates, dirty laundry and all. It would be a shame to lose the humanity that this has injected into our ways of working, however that humanity was forced to arrive.

In a future blog, I plan to explore what these positives are in more detail and offer some thoughts on how to hold onto them.

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, looking after the HR leader community. She can be contacted on

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