Corona: A HR diagnosis

16.04.2020 | Sarah Murray


Unless you're lucky enough to be living on a desert island somewhere, by now you'll be very well acquainted with what has become the biggest international crisis for decades.

The coronavirus outbreak, a viral pandemic which could come straight from the pages of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, is creating havoc on every continent and in every country, and the world of work is shifting rapidly as this tiny predator cuts a swathe throughout the global economy and reshapes human society and social interaction. According to the economists, the coronavirus pandemic has already put the world into a recession. The last event like this occurred over a century ago and long before the era of international supply chains and globalisation of the scope and complexity of today, thus there is no example to look on to know how to handle this.

It's a tough time for everyone at the moment.

No matter what the industry, things have changed in a way that was unthinkable just weeks ago. If you're unlucky enough to be in an industry that has been adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, you may be having conversations on how to rescue the business from the pandemic's storm. This may involve discussion on furloughing staff or even a full restructure and redundancy process. Even at the best of times this is never a happy task in human resources, but now when all eyes are focused on how companies are responding to the pandemic and how they're treating their people, the potential for a negative backlash adds additional perils to such a course of action. Even if you're fortunate enough to working in an industry where things are still "business as usual", things are anything but "business as usual". Almost all of us are having to operate in a remote setting, using technology and communication even more than we previously needed. For HR that means looking at how we're interviewing, onboarding, and keeping our company culture intact. And in my case, it means converting my attic into an office, with my cats joining in the company Friday evening social hour. From nations to multinational corporations to small businesses to us as individuals, we have all been trying to find ways of carrying on.

The effect of the pandemic on work has been quite fascinating.

Workers in the health sector have seen their workload increased to an intolerable degree, whilst also being placed in very real danger due to their work. Additionally, many of them are having to isolate themselves from their friends and family as this situation continues. But a less reported extra burden on health workers and the medical support services is a hasty yet necessary mass retraining of the health workers to handle respiratory problems by using equipment such as ventilators or techniques such as intubation. This is in addition to the construction of tens of thousands of new ventilators worldwide. Most senior Human Resources people have experience of organising a large project, but rarely have we seen this happen on this scale, with such a high degree of care and expertise required of each and every participant, whilst also being placed under such enormous stress as well as the potential danger. The Soviet relocation of industry to the East during the Second World War is the only example I can think of which comes close.

The UK had a standing ovation for medical workers...

... but little regard has been paid to the other essential workers who are braving contact with the public in order to keep our society going. Jobs which have traditionally been thought of as "low-skilled" or unimportant have revealed themselves to be essential the functioning of our society.  Supermarket workers, tors, and delivery drivers need to continue working, and potentially exposing themselves to risk at the same time. Will the people working in such jobs continue to receive some of the lowest wages possible? Or is there a chance that they'll leverage their vital role during this crisis to get better pay and conditions?

Elsewhere, people are finding themselves without any job to go to.

The United States...

... seems to have been hit particularly hard in this way, with an extra 3 million unemployed. But all over the world, many workers are having to deal with the sudden cessation of all economic activity in the field in which they work. Travel companies, tourism, restaurants, hospitality, events, hoteliers and airlines have all been casualties of the virus, with cruise ships very likely to be joining them. Governments have been responding with economic rescue packages of various sorts, but whilst they can certainly prevent industries, companies, and individuals from falling victim to poverty or financial insecurity they cannot recreate the pre-coronavirus world. The viability of large-scale tourism and related industries going forward is a huge unknown right now.

One major consequence of the coronavirus on our working lives has been a sudden and large uptake in home working. This is something that I'm sure many readers will have found out for themselves, I certainly have. The adjustment wasn't difficult in my case, as I'd already work from home for one day a week in order to get things done - a paradox of work is that it can sometimes distract us from our work - but now there are the added obstacles of a loud toddler who demands to be played with as well as a husband who likes to pretend he is pirate for the toddler's amusement. Handling serious meetings via videolink wasn't a difficult adjustment, but having work meetings punctuated by anguished cries of "Who is going to clean this up?!" or "Oh my god he's found the guitar!", all broadcast to colleagues and bosses alike, very much was. But oddly enough I've come to find some strange appeal to the situation, as I've similarly had glimpses into the lives of colleagues as well. Barriers are coming down and we're all finding out a bit more about the people we work with. Another paradox - due to our being forced to be apart by our need for physical distance, we're somehow being brought closer together.

In a large number of cases, working from home works!

Another consequence of everyone working from home has been a demonstration that, in a large number of cases, working from home works! For a long time companies and managers have resisted any move towards flexible working, remote working, or working from home, largely due to suspicion that those who want to work from home will slack off or otherwise not perform at their best. What it basically comes down to is a lack of trust in the worker. The coronavirus pandemic has taken the choice to trust out of the hands of companies and managers, unless they can somehow find a way to call their work "essential". Time will tell if home working has seriously dented productivity and output, but if it has not then the world might have to adjust to a lot more working from home even after the crisis is over. For HR this will mean a rethink in how we provide systems, processes and tools to support, develop and nurture our employees.

A huge factor in the catastrophic scale of this pandemic has been normalcy bias. Much has been made of the slow response of politicians in various states and the fact they were skeptical of the potential of this virus to have such a catastrophic impact. But to point the finger at them is to ignore the fact that experts were similarly complacent. That very human tendency to believe that tomorrow will be much like today, no matter what, needs to be cast aside in situations like this.

Our society, how we interact, and how we work is being reshaped right now, and we in the HR world have the opportunity to influence what that shape will be, if we're bold enough to take it.

About the author

Sarah Murray
The HR cat has been lurking in various human resources departments for years, and has survived to tell the tale despite her inherent curiosity. HR can be a strange, mysterious and ever changing world full of cryptic lingo, acronyms, and clandestine meetings, sometimes with stern HR mistresses telling you off. The HR cat is here to give you an insight into the HR world, tell you what all the lingo, acronyms, and scary meetings actually mean and how they’re relevant to you, whether you’re an employee, manager, shareholder or CEO, without abusing you with technical details or HR minutiae. Hopefully the HR Cat’s insights will  not deter any budding HR professionals from taking a leap into the fascinating, fun, spooky, dark and sometimes dangerous jungle of human resources.

In her years as a HR professional she has hired and fired countless people, restructured and harmonized many business and workplaces, disciplined and developed hundreds of workers, and given hope to the world that yes, HR departments can be an asset and facilitator, not just a cost and an obstruction.

She knows all about EU employment law, best HR practices, and workplace cultures, so if you need HR advice with a European flavour feel free to get in touch. However, this is a busy cat who doesn’t just bask in the sun all day, so please be patient when awaiting an answer.