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The new normal demands a new strategic approach to HR

This article first appeared in InsideHR in June 2020

Understanding individuals’ needs and preferences when it comes to their desire to return to the office versus work from home – and what that office experience should look like – will be critical to success. Flexibility around work hours would be one of the places to focus. Interest in this increased from our first to our second survey, rising from 13 per cent to 15 per cent, writes Helen Attia.

After several months of working from home, it’s starting to become much more clear what our “new normal” might look like – and it is indeed very new for the vast majority of organisations previously accustomed to having all of their employees working from a central office-based location. After all, many employees are now likely to never again work from the office full time while others will be returning to a much-changed office environment.

A shift in routine of this magnitude creates a whole host of new considerations for workers and the businesses they work for – and therefore for human resources professionals. From bolstering culture and engagement amongst increasingly hybrid teams, to ensuring compliance with new workplace health and safety rules and supporting those who may be experiencing mental health challenges or anxiety. In Civica’s most recent employee survey, more than a quarter (26 per cent) of employees said they have concerns about working from an office post-lockdown.

Rather than getting caught up in the latest shiny new HR program, we must focus our attention on going to the heart of what our stakeholders need and solving their challenges in innovative ways.

Hybrid approach

Communication will be a huge priority. In a “future normal”, one of the greatest tests we’ll face as HR professionals relates to preserving culture and keeping staff connected to our vision, strategy and values. More of our leaders’ time will be spent on employee engagement and doing it effectively will require more deliberate planning.

Leaders will need to place more importance on this and take ownership of regularly managing and communicating with their team, with support from HR. They will need to talk from the heart and be clear on their purpose and goals as an organisation when they speak to employees. Investing in leadership development including practical “how-to skills” will be an important focus area, to ensure leaders feel confident and prepared to lead their teams. For example, at Civica, we recently launched our Leadership in Action Training, which focuses on maximising performance in teams, coaching, giving feedback and inclusive leadership – skills that will become even more important for leaders operating in a virtual world.

For HR teams, effectively on-boarding new colleagues, keeping them engaged and ensuring they build and maintain strong relationships with their colleagues from the outset will also take on new significance.

Bringing balance

Helping people balance home and work life must also become even more of a focus. In Civica’s April and May employee surveys, managing stress stood out as an area of concern, with challenges in this area increasing from April to May from 9 per cent of respondents to 16 per cent. Switching off from work was deemed one of the greatest challenges for our people, decreasing slightly as an area of concern, from 18 per cent of respondents to 15 per cent in May.

Leaders will need to place more importance on this and take ownership of regularly managing and communicating with their team, with support from HR. They will need to talk from the heart and be clear on their purpose and goals as an organisation when they speak to employees.

Such results demonstrate that while for many an increase in remote working brings newfound flexibility, there is also a need to ensure that a sustainable model of remote working is developed and that people have the skills to make it work. Those of our staff who already had the occasional experience of working from home continue to be the most positive about the current situation in our surveys, while those who have rarely worked from home before are finding the adjustment most difficult. To support our employees, we have rolled out additional support across a number of programmes including mental health awareness webinars, mindfulness sessions and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) focused on effective integration of work and life. We’re also reinforcing via our leaders the importance of regular check-ins, not just with direct reports but with a wider audience to ensure people are connected and to keep the ideas and feedback flowing.

Civica’s surveys also highlighted how much people are really missing those informal catch-ups that help them bond with their team members and relax. Preserving social connections requires that we find new ways to enable these. Since lockdown started, we’ve implemented online drinks, virtual book clubs, nationalised the office social committees so everyone in the business can connect, share ideas and collaborate, as well as encouraged staff to reach out to five new colleagues each week to improve social connections.

Not one-size-fits-all

A one-size-fits-all approach to HR is not going to work in the new normal. Understanding individuals’ needs and preferences when it comes to their desire to return to the office versus work from home – and what that office experience should look like – will be critical to success. Flexibility around work hours would be one of the places to focus. Interest in this increased from our first to our second survey, rising from 13 per cent to 15 per cent.

The ongoing involvement of people to shape the approach we take to helping them manage will be important. Managing this will require a very refined approach to communications, based on an understanding of employees’ preferences and feedback on our people practices, via continued regular staff surveys.

Many employees are now likely to never again work from the office full time while others will be returning to a much-changed office environment.

A strategic ally

While all of this may seem daunting, I see a future in which HR will become more strategic, leading change and guiding and supporting those across the business. Rather than getting caught up in the latest shiny new HR program, we must focus our attention on going to the heart of what our stakeholders need and solving their challenges in innovative ways.

In this expanded role and fast-evolving reality, HR will need to innovate and make decisions rapidly – something that this period of change and disruption has already demonstrated we’re better at than we may have previously thought.

The new normal presents huge challenges – and huge opportunities. Now’s the time for HR to play a defining role in creating a better future for organisations and our people.