Human Resources has always played an integral role within business. Similar to a ship’s engine room, the actions and efforts of Human Resource Management (HRM) can be unseen by the rest of the company yet are essential in propelling the company forward. Things like investing in learning and development, organising workplace health and safety plans or maintaining company culture don’t always provide tangible results but have a significant impact on the company’s overall productivity. However, in the year of COVID-19, a spotlight has been put on HRM like never before. When self-isolation polices were first announced, Human Resources (HR) was responsible for initiating and managing these within organizations- whether figuring out how to migrate the majority of their organisation to work remotely, or if considered an ‘essential service’ (as many organisations in the Public Sector are) figuring out how to ensure their workers were able to continue to do their job without endangering themselves or the wider community. HR was also responsible for navigating the changes in labour demand; managing staff numbers during these unstable periods and finding alternate ways to manage wage costs if organisations were experiencing a downturn.
Despite restrictions beginning to ease, the journey is just beginning for our human resource and central support staff. Organisations within the public sector must now plan and establish the most effective ways for staff to return to office settings (if at all) and redefine the ways employees will work moving forward, that will be beneficial to both the individual and the organisation overall. As organisations continue to navigate their post covid-recovery strategy, the following trends and areas of talent management will be particularly important, thus highlighting the need for a strong HR presence.
Training and Development
Prior to the pandemic, the McKinsey & Company consulting firm conducted a survey on future workforce needs that revealed nearly nine in ten executives believed their organisations either faced skill gaps already or expected gaps to develop within the next five years. Their research also indicated that as many as 375 million workers globally, might have to change occupations in the next decade as the world’s dependence on technology and artificial intelligence grows and replaces the need for human workers. The pandemic has made it easier than ever to identify gaps within a workforce’s skill base. Companies have had to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and workers have been thrown into new roles and activities, especially as industries like travel and hospitality have been depleted by COVID-19 restrictions. An employee’s ability to quickly transition to a new role or handle new responsibilities signifies their skill level; the longer the process takes, the more gaps within their knowledge. The pandemic has highlighted the importance continuous learning and development plays in ensuring a workforce remains competitive and agile; a key responsibility for HR.
A particular area of learning and development that will be a focus for HR going forward, is the development of ‘soft’ skills. While hard skills refer to the specific knowledge and capabilities required to perform a particular task, soft skills are defined as the qualities, behaviours and attributes needed to succeed in the workplace and include traits like interpersonal skills, creativity and teamwork. In their 2019 Global Talent Trends report, Linkedin found that 91% of talent professionals believed soft skills to be vital to the future of work while 92% of companies surveyed, ranked soft skills to be more important than technical skills. This is because, while advancements in technology can replace certain job roles, they can’t replace or mimic traits like empathy or emotional intelligence, which highlights the importance investing in soft skills has for a company’s longevity. Furthermore, soft skills are transferable. Collaboration and emotional intelligence are considered core competencies and are required in all jobs available today and tomorrow. Developing an employees’ soft skills will allow them to efficiently adapt and shift to new roles within an organisation; a key requirement in the public sector, where collaboration and secondments across different departments are common.
Focusing on developing soft skills, will again be a key focus for HRM moving forward, and the learning and development strategies that can be rolled out for staff to achieve this, will help boost the organisation’s overall resilience and growth.
Tailoring The Employee Experience
COVID-19 has also had a significant impact on the employee experience; the approach to work tasks and employee interactions are now much more tailored to the individual and will require a people-focused approach to HR, especially in regards to connecting with others, motivation and workplace health and wellbeing.
COVID-19 demonstrated the possibilities of remote work and many believe it will now become a permanent fixture in the majority of workplaces. According to a recent survey conducted by The Guardian, 81% of respondents thought employees should be able to work from home, even after physical distancing restrictions eased. While remote work can be beneficial to both employees and organisations, implementing policies to make it a permanent fixture comes with its own set of challenges; something HRM will be responsible for ironing out, as organisations across Australia embrace the ‘virtual office’. One of the biggest challenges is connectivity; ensuring employees can still communicate and interact with their colleagues despite the physical distance. Technology has played a big part in this, with many workforces relying on teleconference aps such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams and cloud-sharing platforms like Google Docs, to make the process easier. However, many employees had never needed to use this technology in their roles prior to lock-down and weren’t confident in using it, while others didn’t have the necessary equipment at home. HR became responsible for coordinating the necessary equipment for each employee’s requirements and coordinating IT training for all staff, so they could feel confident in using these new systems and sharing aps at home. Managing this process, especially as new team members come on board or change roles, will be an ongoing priority for HRM moving forward.
Working remotely also highlighted the importance of motivation; something many employees have struggled with as the lockdown continues. According to a recent article by Forbes, 75% of workers in the U.S claimed they were struggling to stay motivated while working remotely during the pandemic. Certainly, the monotony and lack of stimulation that comes with consistently working from home can make it hard for employees to stay engaged and prompt feelings of isolation. While these feelings won’t be as extreme when restrictions ease, it highlights a new area of training HR will need to focus on; motivation and accountability. There are many different techniques and resources available (aps, performance management software) that can help manage workloads and concentration levels, however employees need to be educated on these techniques and why they’re important in order to apply them successfully within their own routines. Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom, has done numerous studies on the impact of remote work and believes training to be a key factor for productivity, arguing that if you aren’t properly trained or set up for remote working, it’s like “joining the army, then on day three being told you’re going to be parachute-jumping at lunchtime, and you’re given a parachute and thrown out of the plane.”
The increase in remote working has also seen organisations put a greater level of importance on mental health and wellbeing. COVID-19 has placed a lot of additional stress on workers across the globe, but especially within the public sector. Those employed in ‘essential services’ are experiencing workloads that have almost doubled, a strong sense of isolation from co-workers due to physical distancing and a greater pressure when making business decisions, as they will often impact the wider community’s safety in addition to the organisation. Suddenly, the mass upheaval from the pandemic which has touched everyone in some way, is giving people permission to talk more openly about their mental health - especially at work. Organisations that have invested in wellbeing and engagement initiatives, are starting to witness the benefits of these initiatives first hand. In a recent article by Reward Gateway- an employee engagement software- different HR professionals listed the benefits they were already noticing from implementing mental health initiatives; higher levels of productivity and innovation being two of the most common. The direct impact mental health and morale have on workplace performance, emphasises the need to create a more people-focused approach to work moving forward. Organisations will depend more on their HR team to identify what processes they have in place to care and support their talent and what initiatives they can invest in to motivate and reinvigorate employees.
Redefining Workplace Policies
As organisations move on from the pandemic and try to formulate a new normal, there will be a heavy reliance on an organisation’s HR team to roll out the policies and practices outlining what this new normal will look like. It’s a chance for HR to reimagine the practices currently in place, particularly in relation to recruitment and onboarding, returning employees to work and instilling greater flexibility within the workplace.
During lockdown, many companies were forced to recruit and onboard new employees remotely which again, highlighted the potential opportunities for onboarding in the future. While there is certainly a place for face-to-face interactions, there are unique benefits to a digital onboarding scheme –given a company has the right technology in place. Both online recruitment and onboarding caters towards a global workforce, which could potentially widen an organisation’s talent pool and growth prospects. It also ensures a consistent experience for all new starters, as the human resource team can create one ‘welcome video’ or one ‘values induction course’ that can be uploaded and provided to every new employee electronically. And finally, digital onboarding can easily incorporate social networking opportunities for new employees, instantly allowing them to join internal team chats or groups on platforms like Slack, Skype or Workplace For Business, helping employees to feel a greater sense of inclusion and ‘belonging’ when joining a team.
In regards to recruitment, the fall-out from COVID-19 has highlighted the value in contingent hiring and temporary labour. Many organisations’ budgets within the public sector might not allow for permanent employees at present, but will have projects with accelerated deadlines and need additional staff to help alleviate the workload. Such is the case for many transport, health and community infrastructure projects that have been deemed a priority in ‘revitalising’ the country’s economy post covid. These situations provide the perfect opportunity for contract and freelance workers, as key deliverables and a clear end date for the work is established. As we see the uptake and acceleration of more projects, HR could see a corresponding rise in demand for freelance and contract work, which will impact the recruitment process.
Another key policy HRM will need to revaluate is workplace health and safety compliance, particularly in relation to returning to work. As restrictions across Australia ease and the opportunity to use a physical office again beckons, organisations need to consider how they can safely migrate employees back into the office while adhering to strict social distancing regulations. What this will look like will vary organisation to organisation, depending on their individual structure and business needs, but it will be up to HRM to implement the new policies and monitor their facilitation to ensure safety restrictions are being adhered. When developing their policies, staff will have to consider firstly, the allocation of staff; how many staff want to return to the office vs. how many staff does an organisation deem essential and need to come in on a regular basis. Once this is established HR will then need to establish if staff coming in will need to be staggered or carried out on a rotating basis to avoid too many people in the office at any one time? HR will also have to consider work commutes and if staff can do this safely- will the organisation need to supply masks? HR must also consider the physical office space: is it possible to maintain safe social distancing with the current office plan? How can this be achieved in communal areas like kitchens, meeting rooms and bathrooms? What other protocols will need to be implemented to maintain good hygiene (office deep cleans, external or on-site meetings)?
In addition to changes in both hiring, onboarding and health & safety policies, many organisations have been forced to redefine the working week. As we come out of lockdown, organisations have a unique opportunity to reflect on their experiences; identifying what processes and functions worked well when working remotely and what processes used prior to COVID-19, do organisations want to change to suit their new working structure? Maybe team brainstorming was harder to manage remotely but tracking a project’s progress became easier. Perhaps people realised that they worked more effectively when their core working hours were more evenly spaced out during the day, rather than condensed into a ‘lunchtime break’. HRM have the unique opportunity to reimagine working practices that incorporate the best of both worlds, rather than simply reverting to how the office functioned before COVID-19. For Public Sector People, our HR and central support team have sought continuous feedback from the wider team during remote working, to identify what they liked, disliked and what they’d like to incorporate moving forward. This intel has guided how the organisation will function day-to-day as we move into 2021 and includes re-working the core set hours for the business and greater flexibility around working from home.
Ultimately, COVID-19 has presented organisations within the public sector to facilitate change within their current business structures; a new working model that can better cater to the individual needs of employees and ensure they’re able to be their most productive selves. However, these new models can’t be created or successfully implemented without a dedicated HR effort, which highlights the importance HR will play in organisations as we navigate towards a post-pandemic future.
Public Sector People have a number of consultants who specialise in placing roles within HR and central business support within the public sector. For those wanting to have a confidential chat about the current opportunities that are available or would like to work with us on finding HR talent, reach out via the email below: firstname.lastname@example.org