Three tips for the months ahead #HRtogether

Kelly Angus is Executive Director of HR/OD and Deputy Chief Executive at Northumberland County Council, England

Supporting the COVID-19 emergency response has been my sole focus for some eight to ten weeks now, and how life has changed for HR/OD. I have been working in Local Government since November 2015 and my role has changed during this time from Director to Executive Director and Deputy CEO since January 2018. My portfolio now isn’t just HR/OD (including all of the wider portfolio of L&D, Staff Engagement, E&D etc); I also now manage Communications, Legal, Democratic Services, Elections, Policy, Customer Services, Culture, Arts, Leisure, Heritage and Tourism including Registrars, Coroners & Archives. I am also the Deputy Chief Executive for the County Council in a county where the M25 can fit inside of the boundary of it. We are similar in size to Luxembourg and our demographic is a mix of urban and rural. We also have England's most northern town (Berwick).

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted our organisation. We are a Category 1 responder under Civil Contingencies Act (2004) and have a number of statutory responsibilities to support the most vulnerable in our communities. As an organisation, working differently has challenged how we manage our people, we have had to scale up our IT connectivity at pace and our ability to achieve agile working is now at levels we thought would take years.

We were insightful as an HR/OD team early on and produced guidance for managers prior to lockdown, we knew this virus wasn’t going away and the wellbeing of our employees was at the forefront of this. The press from Europe was concerning and we needed to ensure we were clear at the outset as to how we were going to consistently manage the implications of the pandemic. We fortunately had some time out as a team already planned and instead of doing our usual review of our strategy and achievements, we spent the time focusing on ensuring that we had clear guidance for managers and staff but we also checked in with each other to see how we were doing as a team, addressing any concerns and providing reassurance where necessary.

There have been many challenges for the team, most importantly communication both within and beyond the team. Maintaining pace and expectations of how we functioned as a HR/OD team was also a challenge early on. Doing things differently has tested our ability to adapt and understand the needs of those staff who have had to be reassured that they are valued, recognised and needed throughout the pandemic is something that we have needed to manage.

The opportunities continue but immediately the focus on wellbeing and basic hand hygiene has been something we have been working on for some time, reinforcing these key core messages has been positive.

Engaging with our staff across virtual forums, platforms as well as face to face has been a key development opportunity in terms of taking our staff engagement approaches to a different level.

In the depths of the pandemic, we have taken the opportunity to do some talent spotting too, some people have risen to the fore and shown themselves to have great leadership skills and capability that we would not have seen within a traditional workplace setting, this is hugely positive and gives rise for us to question our traditional talent management approaches.

I am hugely proud of the compassionate and inclusive practice that I have seen from the HR/OD team. The pace and scale that the team immediately managed to work in an agile way and without a central base has changed the way that we will work in the future without a doubt. We have been trying to focus on agile models of working for four years and in the midst of lockdown, we managed it immediately. The enthusiasm and engagement of the team when some of them are shielding and clinically vulnerable but they still want to make, and are making, a very valued contribution to our COVID-19 emergency response is amazing.

During the pandemic, my key learning is that HR/OD practitioners are adaptable, can do and really do seek positivity in any crisis. The team have reinvigorated my leadership and positivity at times when I have been challenged with a wide range of responsibilities to deal with. I have truly valued their support.

If I would do anything differently it would be to take more time to champion and thank the team to reassure them that they are doing a great job. Without real prompting, you can forget as a leader to ensure that your team know this is the case. I have missed social media and my networks, linking with others has had to become secondary during the pandemic therefore going forward, I am determined to spend more time on this.

My three tips for the months ahead are that: 

  1. Any HR/OD strategy post COVID-19 will need to look vastly different and we need to work on that now but take the best from what we have gained and not lose sight of the excellent HR/OD work that has been achieved so far.
  2. Continuing to focus on the mental health impact and recovery approach is essential if we are going to have a fit for purpose workforce for the future.
  3. Virtual practices need to be embraced (e.g. recruitment, onboarding, agile working) as can many other things that I would have previously not accepted as being at a high enough standard – even HRD’s sometimes don’t like change. 

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