HR In 2020: How Can We Respond When The World Of Work Is Moving So Fast?

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In my 30 years as an HR professional, I don’t think I’ve ever worked at such a pace, with so many different businesses, in so many different ways; truly, it’s been a steep learning curve for everyone over the last few months.

The day we went into lockdown seems like so long ago, yet here we are, planning the return to work – and the time seems to have gone so quickly. Everyone has had their own experience of lockdown; some have lost loved ones, some became ill, and some avoided many of the challenges which others have experienced.

In the South West, we have been fortunate that many have escaped the virus, and relished the extra time and space to enjoy their family, learn new skills, and take up a new hobby. Whatever your experience, I doubt any of us have ever encountered anything like this before, and hopefully never will do again.

Evolve, Understand, And Overcome

From an HR and employment point of view, whether you’re a sole trader, small business owner, or SME, you too have had to adapt at pace.

You will have needed to learn a new vocabulary of terms like: lockdown, furlough, shielding, and social distancing, and interpret new regulations that have not been tested before, then understand these well enough to integrate them into your business.

Now, as we’re at the point where many have returned to work, business owners are telling me that most of their conversations with staff about returning to work have gone well. The majority are keen to return and regain some form of normality. However, some are anxious and worried about going back to the workplace.  

From a human behaviour point of view, there are two useful models that can help us understand how people might be feeling.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is a well-established human behaviour model which shows that every human has a basic psychological need for safety, security, and rest.

In a crisis situation, like the one we have been in for the last few months, our basic need to experience safety, security, and rest has been challenged. People have reacted differently, but the majority will have experienced some degree of anxiety.

Those feelings are likely to have been heightened if they were shielding, or were separated from friends and loved ones who are vulnerable.

Similarly, the Kubler-Ross Change Curve describes the journey most of us go through during periods of intense change, or loss.

Back in March, you may remember feeling a sense of shock and denial; of spending hours watching the news, or checking social media to see if it was really true.

A few weeks in, many started to feel low, depressed, or angry at what was happening. Slowly, however, we became comfortable with the uncomfortable.

The journey through change isn’t a straight line, and people often swing back and forth between feelings.

Here we are in July, for example, with another set of changes coming; a release from lockdown, a return to school, and a return to work – these are significant changes that have sent some people back to their early feelings of denial, anxiety, and concern for their safety and security.

This article isn’t meant to be about psychology, but it is here to help you understand your people better, and to help you get them back to work.

Business is all about people, and whether you’re self-employed, a business owner, or a leader, you work with people, and what your people experience will impact not only on them, but on your business too.

Staying Connected Is Crucial

I have seen that those businesses who have been able to stay connected with their people throughout lockdown, either through regular phone calls, emails, Zoom, Skype, or informal group chats on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger etc., will find it easier to bring their staff back to work.

If for whatever reason, you haven’t stayed in touch with your people,
or if you suspect they have become disconnected, or disengaged from the business, it’s not too late. You may have to work to reconnect with them, understand how they’re feeling, what they’re worried about, and what’s stopping them from coming back, before working together to find a way to overcome those issues. Talk to them, and listen when they tell you what they need in order to feel safe and secure in coming back to work.

This may be as simple as reassuring them that you’ve done a COVID-19 risk assessment, and have put systems in place to protect them. Ask staff for their views about what can be done to keep your team safe; they could understand their workplace even better than you do. Also, consider obstacles like children’s schooling.

If your staff aren’t key workers, recent announcements that primary schools in England won’t return until at least September, could mean significant problems for parents. How can you be flexible enough to retain good people, while understanding they may need to look after their children?

One way to do this, could be that from July 1st, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (i.e. the furlough scheme) will become more flexible, meaning you can bring employees back to work part-time, while paying them their usual rate for the hours they do work, and then claiming under the CVJRS for those hours which they don’t work.

For staff who have been furloughed, coming back to work on a part-time basis could be extremely helpful. Equally, for those staff with caring responsibilities, offering a part-time return could help them be flexible in re-entering the workplace.

In an uncertain world, feeling safe is a basic human need, but feeling certainty is not. Uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and accepting uncertainty can help us to harness our creativity; just look at how many people have started new hobbies during lockdown, or how many new businesses have formed.

Humans are highly adaptable creatures, and as Charles Darwin said, ‘it is not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, it is the ones most adaptable to change.’

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