A group of people around a paper plan for the people function

All eyes are on the people function: what legacy will Covid leave?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

‘All eyes are on the people function.’ Over the last 18 weeks, I have heard this little phrase hundreds of times. Regardless of what you might think of how the government has handled the Covid-19 situation, hardly any business in this country has been unaffected by its decisions, or the impact on their employees. Arguably, the People function has never been under such scrutiny, and over the last four months I have been privileged to share a virtual glass of wine with some brilliant leaders in both HR and Finance, hearing the stories of their organisations’ experiences with Covid-19.

We mustn’t forget the people that have been lost: devastating losses of employees, leaders, family members and friends that have torn through homes and workplaces. However, as lockdown eases, it feels like time to share some of the lessons that I have heard shared.

It’s also impossible to ignore the dramatic shift in ways of working: companies have simply had to shift to remote working for vast swathes of the working population, in roles for whom home working would never have previously been considered. This has been repaid in many organisations with significant – and sustained – increases in performance, as well as dramatic drops in absence levels.

We will all sit somewhere on the spectrum between wishing we could work from home all the time to preferring an office environment every day, and as with many things, balance will be the key to success. I’m not sure that the move to 100% virtual working by the likes of Twitter and Spotify will ultimately be sustainable: humans are social animals, after all.

Changing places and ways of working

To that end, while virtual meetings may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and they are far from real human interaction, there are undoubtedly benefits for leaders, both within and outside HR, to seize:

Most obviously perhaps, costs, both to employees and employers, of travel, office space, facilities, printing, cleaning, subsistence, etc can be dramatically reduced. Significant numbers of organisations are re-examining their property strategies with cost in mind. In a similar vein, location strategy is also important: if public transport must run below capacity and is perceived as ‘high risk’, will this accelerate an exodus out of cities – especially London – where office space and domestic real estate is both more affordable and (more safely) accessible?

Secondly, operating a more virtual workforce means that talent pools can expand, both domestically and internationally, with less reliance on physical presence. This in turn could create more diverse employee populations and bring undoubted benefits in terms of future capability and skills. I am hearing much discussion about potential and performance, and whether businesses do indeed have the right metrics in place to measure either of these. Should crisis response, communication, the ability to make decisions at extreme pace, virtual/remote leadership form part of our behavioural models moving forward – or are they short term requirements after all? Should we rip up the practices that went before and redesign them for a new post-Covid world?

Thirdly, organisations have had to learn to pivot – to switch direction unexpectedly, to turn to new business lines, automate service and create e-commerce solutions in order to survive in the near term. For some, it has enabled them to explore opportunities deemed too risky pre-Covid, but in a boom or bust scenario, often worth the leap of faith. Many executive teams have found themselves freer in their decision making, driven by the urgency and reality of dramatic revenue reductions. The role of the HR partner as coach and change agent will be critical as these same teams are now trying to work out how to retain some of this pace and greater appetite for risk as they move forward.

Community has also become a common thread for discussion: what role does the organisation really play in its local community, and what role do I play in mine? Am I willing to go back to being simply a ‘regular overnight guest’?  As national lockdown eases and local ones become a reality, we must surely also consider our supply chains. Could Covid reinvigorate the UK’s manufacturing sector, bring previously offshored roles back onshore, and encourage people and businesses to buy local, even if that costs us more financially?

And what about the other behavioural benefits: in a virtual meeting we are less likely to be late (no traffic or waiting for a lift!), to have a side conversation, or to shift our focus away from the screen/speaker. We are allowing colleagues into our homes and virtually into our lives (although in my experience, it’s not kids, but cats, that interrupt the most) and it’s this intimacy, I suspect, that is leading to increased levels of engagement being reported, even in heavily impacted industries and amongst furloughed staff.

Keeping hold of the positives

In my view, the very best leaders inspire others to deliver at their best, and this inspiration generally comes from a combination of behavioural traits, the least common of which – in the boardroom at least – are vulnerability, authenticity and humility. In this time of crisis, they feel more able to talk about their fears and concerns for the future, speak with honesty about their own situation and response, and they do this from the heart.

In environments where people see their leaders do this, they too feel empowered to both seek and offer help, feel more able to cope with uncertainty, and ultimately feel more included. While it might be an unexpected and possibly even controversial suggestion, I would hope that by being apart, organisations will have ultimately learned how to be more inclusive.