Our ways of working will be irreversibly changed because of coronavirus, says Dean Corbett, so people professionals need to pool their knowledge to decide best practice.

HR has been thrown into the deep end during this crisis. For the lucky HR leaders, it’s about navigating the difficulties of home working; for some, there has been the agonizing task of communicating redundancies. Nonetheless, the saying goes that fire tests gold, and from the fire of this crisis perhaps HR professionals can extract some brilliant new practices and ways of working to take us into the future.

The exact shape of these new practices is most likely to be found by pooling our knowledge, resources and experience to test theories, from which we can develop new processes appropriate to our contexts. After speaking to experts from across the field about their strategies for this ‘new normal’, there were some common themes that came across from everyone:

Living in the office
One of the biggest challenges has been the adjustment to working from home. Despite the hype, many people are finding it difficult, especially those with children, those whose partners are also trying to work from home and those in house shares. Many of us feel that rather than working from our homes, we are living in our offices, created both by our environments and an ‘always on’ culture that has worsened as managers feel they have less oversight of what their teams are doing.

Other people have described finding melding their work and home personas challenging, managing with children who may simultaneously need to be homeschooled. Switching between our work and home personalities can be a mental challenge too. To counter all these problems, we need a switch in perspective, from a focus on input and time at a desk, to output. This will help to counter a presentism problem: as long as the work is done on time, that’s all that matters. It’s also our responsibility as HR professionals to intervene to make sure managers know that this is the best approach and how to make it work, as well as to ensure that the human needs of our colleagues are being fulfilled.

Encouraging people to build and maintain personal boundaries between their home and work lives, for instance having distinct times for each, rather than feeling the need to always answer calls or be online, can also improve employee wellbeing. This could have a positive impact on productivity — although, of course, understanding from employers if people cannot work as productively as they usually would is also vital, given the circumstances.

Bringing honest conversations to the surface
The anxiety that the pandemic has caused won’t go away if we simply ignore it. Having transparent and honest conversations with people is the only way to get through this; pretending that there are no problems, be they in the company’s financial health or in bringing people back to offices, will only make them worse. The importance of reaching out to your teams, especially those who may be vulnerable or suffering (sometimes silently), cannot be overstated.

The rise of self-development
There have been opportunities for agility and for people to take more meaningful steps in their own development. For instance, Kirsty Lynagh, chief people officer at Nucleus Financial, described a practice called ‘crowdsourced progression’: any member of a team can create a new role for themselves, as long as they can get the approval of a senior member of the organization.
While ‘development’ and ‘progression’ are different, this is an innovative way of meeting people’s needs and is something we will be looking at implementing ourselves.
The chaos of coronavirus has meant that many are trying new ways of working and thinking about how they want to move forward. As such, we’ve seen a significant shift to individual-led, self-funded education as people explore learning and development for their personal benefit and, in turn, future-proofing their career. Perhaps it’s time for organizations to change how they operate and move away from a prescriptive approach to a more entrepreneurial format. Setting up processes and systems that allow and encourage employees to develop and progress in their own way is more likely to improve their satisfaction, and possibly guarantee their engagement and retention.

HR and L&D professionals are always the first to know when adversity is affecting people, but the experience of this crisis will hopefully make us all better at what we do. There is so much to learn, both from our people and from one another, and together, we can innovate and push organizations forward into yet another brave new world.

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