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Why HR is a new Frontline

If your firm is not operating with HR at the centre, be prepared for extremely difficult times.

The years that followed the banking crisis saw HR leaders and functions in most organisations grow in strategic influence. While that period wreaked economic havoc on businesses, the social impact on firms has had a more lasting effect. This was the first major recession experienced by that generation of line managers. HR initially became the go to function for answers to almost anything new that arose, and a central focal point as rapid retrenchment and organisation change became necessary. While HR was already a strategic function in some firms, it now had the real attention of line managers and leaders in many more. The pandemic has escalated the critical nature of HR functions higher again. If your firm is not now operating with HR at the centre, be prepared for extremely difficult times ahead.

Much like the financial crisis, the pandemic has forced firms to develop new work processes and operating models. Cultures must be redefined as colleagues work remotely and engagement takes on a whole new level of need and challenge in equal amounts. EVP's have moved to being about flexibility, wellbeing, and time off. Employees require different psychological contracts with their organisations, including fuller trust and more fluid feedback. The people agenda in firms has changed more in the last year, than in the prior thirty. People centric organisations and their HR Teams know, this is no longer an evolution, it is a revolution.

The great organisational paradox of the banking crisis is that at a time when HR was so critical to businesses, it became the function most likely to be cut. A HRM research report at the end of 2009 indicated that well over 50% of companies in Ireland had made significant reductions in their HR headcount with indigenous firms being twice as likely as their multinational counterparts to do so. The subsequent recovery for most firms was slower than necessary and few would disagree that the excessive scale back of HR functions was a significant leadership error contributing to this. It appears that lesson has been learned and many firms have developed their understanding of the true, critical nature of effective HR strategy and implementation.

The military term “frontline” has become an emotionally centred synonym for workers who have defended and supported us during this pandemic, medical staff in particular. No HR professional would expect to be compared to those who have faced and continue to face the unimaginable horror and human cost that Covid has visited upon us. And yet, HR teams all over the country must take responsibility for the health, safety, physical and mental wellbeing of employees, as they return to their workplaces. In a vast majority of cases, these are not the same employees who left in March 2020 to work from home. Many have experienced a form of burnout that makes it difficult to perform at previous levels. Others are still extremely worried about the level of interaction with others they will experience. The opposite is also true, that a significant number of people are eager to return as much to support their mental health as to enjoy the company of colleagues again, while several organisations have discovered employees can deliver just as well outside of their offices as they can when in attendance, sometimes better.

Alongside the complex logistics that HR teams must address, is the need to respond at a very core level to the individual needs of employees many of whom have experienced loss or endured the consequences of the virus themselves. While much is written about what organisations must do next, in truth it is all conjecture. The challenge faced by HR teams is unique to each organisation and as individual as the personal needs of each employee. Capability and capacity planning in an unreadable landscape to ensure organisation effectiveness demands the highest level of effective leadership.

For those organisations who plan to continue with employees working remotely on a permanent basis, a whole different set of challenges must be addressed. A re-write of business models, employment policies, new leadership practices, wider communication streams and the development of culture supporting initiatives. Managing the wellbeing of remote employees remotely is difficult and organisations may find themselves facing new extended boundaries as they seek to support employees working from home.

While all the above transformation is occurring, operational HR and delayed HR projects must continue. If there is a dividend, it is the rapid learning these awful times demand. If any organisation was previously in doubt as to the importance of making their HR functions central to business strategy, that has surely now changed. HR is the new frontline for all firms.


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