How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Changing the Role of HR

Coronavirus has changed where & how we do HR, but what will the lasting impact be?

The Coronavirus crisis is continuing to drive business transformation at a pace not witnessed since the global financial crisis of 2008. Human Resources has found itself throughout this period at the forefront of crisis management, risk handling and redeployment of workforces to remote working.

As we enter the final quarter of the year, with the Coronavirus crisis failing as yet to abate. What lasting impact will the crisis have on HR practitioners? What changes will be felt in the world of Human Resources Management?  And what does the ever increasingly unpredictable future have in store?

Where has HR’s focus been up to now?

It could be argued that Human Resources Management throughout its continued evolution has transitioned over the past 30 years, moving from being an administrative, personnel welfare & disciplinaries focused function, to one that has become more strategic, holding an influential seat at the top table. 

The strategic and board level seat that HR leaders now hold, is one credibly engaged with influencing stakeholders, whilst focusing on shareholder value and protecting shareholder return.

Yet, the increasing focus of HR to excel both strategically and operationally in recent years has resulted in HR’s attention being placed on controlling human capital costs, whilst moving to mirror and respond to the wider challenges being felt in business and economics. 

This shift has resulted in notable improvements being made to the relationship between HR and key business stakeholders. However, by contrast, not all of the changes made in HR have resulted in positive outcomes. 

The agility and pace of HR have been slowed by the introduction of layers of procedures and bureaucracy. As a result, the most recent focus of HR has according to well known HR expert Dave Ulrich, ‘been mainly talking about social, economic, and technological change – with a focus on the gig economy and artificial intelligence’, “but the virus has changed the world in which we live.”

As a result, the change experienced in the world due to the pandemic, is now driving business transformation, which has given human resources professionals an opportunity to shake up what HR does and the ways in which it does it. 

This opportunity is one where putting the human back into human resources will have a long term significant impact.

Putting the human back into Human Resources

The impact of the Coronavirus crisis will undoubtedly be a lasting one. Covid-19 has resulted in loss of life worldwide, causing unprecedented challenges to public health, food systems and global supply chains. In addition, the ongoing impact is one causing seismic disruption to the economy and the ways in which organisations are able to operate. 

Businesses have been faced with little choice but quickly evolve their ways of operating to accommodate challenges ranging mandatory shutdowns and furloughing staff. This in turn has seen HR and business functions working together to apply, embrace and utilise technologies, becoming more agile and technology centric.  

However the automation and digitization of many business processes, including the effective use of HRM cloud based systems like Sage HR, to manage HR processes, has opened up time and space for HR leaders to focus on the employee experience. 

Utilising Sage HR for example allows HR teams to move away from being burdened with administrative tasks, that can be the result of increased compliance requirements. 

Some of the key HR processes that are effectively managed through the use of automation and HR Management software include employee on-boarding, employee offboarding, performance review preparation, payroll audit, notification of leave absence requests, shift scheduling, timesheets, expenses and recruitment. All of which see these processes being streamlined effectively, resulting in minimal intervention being needed from HR. 

The benefit of course, is that Human Resources leaders and managers now have the capacity to spend more time with their people, whilst handling more strategic priorities aligned to people needs. In short, putting the human element back into Human Resources and being given the bandwidth to do the necessary thinking on people strategy.

Remote Working

Covid-19’s lasting impact on how people work and the changing role of HR, will include the continued embracing of remote working. The extensive adoption of remote work, video conferencing and telecommuting is unlikely to shift back to pre-covid ways of working in the immediate or long term future. 

Social distancing will likely be here to stay, but with it, as HR and wider workforce teams adapt to efficiencies in remote working, long, inefficient video meetings will likely be replaced with greater clarity, context and succinct delivery. 

In contrast to the gains in efficiency however, intrusive surveillance practices, employee monitoring and redundancies being delivered in short, in-personal conference calls that fall far short of best practice, will reduce. Human resources are quickly adapting to the lessons learned as the crisis rolls on. 

A study by Gartner revealed that 82% of the 127 company leaders who were surveyed from their areas of legal, compliance, finance and real estate, intend to permit remote working some of the time as employees return to the workplace.  

Figure 1: Company leader intentions regarding flexible working after COVID-19
Figure 1: Company leader intentions regarding flexible working after COVID-19

Nearly half (47%) of the Gartner survey respondents, said they intend to allow employees to work remotely full time going forward. However for some organisations, flexible working time will be the new normal as 43% of survey respondents reported they will grant employees flexible days, while 42% plan to provide flexible hours. 

Moreover the survey response also highlighted how organisations are having to consider not only how they will continue to manage a remote workforce, but also how they intend to tackle managing a more hybrid workforce, composed of employees working remotely, in office, part time and flexi-time.  And how this might potentially impact their organisational culture.

The culture challenge

Workforce culture and how to create an engaged and collegiate one, has typically always fallen within the realms of HR to manage and maintain. However, in this ongoing Covid-19 landscape the impact of workforce culture challenges are expected to escalate whilst continuing. 

The value of having a Human Resources leaders has increased throughout the global pandemic.  The organisations that have thrived in response to these cultural challenges, have been those that have got the focus on people, culture and engagement right. 

Micro-managing every detail of how employees should behave is demoralising, inefficient and impossible

Embracing an agile work culture, is now well regarded as being a definitive means to engage workforces and teams who find themselves geographically dispersed. Greater agility also enables workforces to adapt and respond to challenges as they arise, far better than when work cultures are fixed. 

Agile cultures also allow for greater assessment of productivity, which in dispersed and increasingly remote organisations is essential to help keep individuals engaged in their work irrespective of their physical location. 

The culture challenge ahead now for Human Resources is one where if the culture hasn’t worked effectively in the past, how this will be changed to get it right now.  Or if the culture has been affected by the ongoing pandemic, how to respond and get organisational culture back on track. 

Whilst it’s not possible to change a company’s culture overnight, it can be influenced to change over time and it’s this lead in gradual transformation that HR will be tasked with driving forward. 

Culture is in essence, the way that things are done around here. Every company culture is unique and it’s essential that people are involved in the evolution of culture and that the organisation is also prepared to take the time to work on evolving its culture.

Bringing it all together

Human Resources practitioners have performed a central and critical role in the lives and work of their organisations people throughout this crisis. The challenge and opportunity lying ahead, is one where the issues of bureaucracy felt in the past, are now overcome to increase flexibility, agility and to evolve the role of HR in response.


Sage HR

For companies where people are paramount to success, Sage HR  helps businesses overcome the complexities of managing their people, so they can focus on growing their business.

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.