How to

HR functions that stepped up during 2020

2020 has created countless challenges for the HR function. HR Grapevine looks at the functions that stepped up for the business and the workforce and how they made those changes...

Words by Dan Cave | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Dan Cave

Design by Matt Bonnar

A recent London School of Economics (LSE) blog, entitled The impact of Covid-19 on human resource management, stated that: “The general sense is that people management is having to become more agile and more responsive as a consequence of the changed situation.”

This need to deal with change, something all HR practitioners will have acutely experienced at some point this year, creates a resulting set of challenges. HR hasn’t just needed to become adaptable – “agile and responsive” as the boffins at LSE describe – but needed to become increasingly people-centric, as Josh Bersin noted at the start of the year, and be able to get to grips with a rapidly piling in tray. (In this issue’s cover feature, HR Grapevine notes one leading CPO’s blog about her ballooning to-do list.)

The question is: has HR stepped up? Whilst the simple answer is there can be no simple answer to that question, there are many examples of HR leaders who are ensuring that their organisation’s function has become adaptable, resilient, agile, people-centric and business aligned (the latter being a key distraction for many leading thinkers in this space).

Below, HR Grapevine charts some of these leading HR practitioners, looking at what they’ve done throughout 2020 to make their function resilient.

Harriet Shurville, Chief People Officer at Iris – Curating a blended culture

Throughout 2020, Shurville has exclusively shared her weekly HR diary with HR Grapevine, noting the rapid changes that she has brought into the company and HR function in order to keep it resilient. She noted that one of the biggest challenges was keeping the in-office culture flowing into a remote location – sharing how the firm used creative solutions and transparent, regular communication to keep the culture strong.

She said: “In our HR team, we designated a person to focus on this engagement, and their role has been transformed into what is an internal comms role during the period – working closely with the Board to drive key communication. This not only kept everyone updated on what they need to know in regards to the company but also created fun stuff to keep everyone a bit upbeat which has been received really well.

“On the fun stuff, we’ve had a live DJ set from someone in their room, we’ve had a different employee who is reading kids a bedtime story but remotely. We’ve also done fitness classes and yoga – trying to make sure everyone still feels connected and that we’re taking care of their wellbeing but virtually.

“We’ve also switched from a monthly company newsletter to emails three times a week. It’s about ensuring that we adapt to the current situation as there’s more to communicate. It’s also really important that we’re open and transparent with our people about how Iris has been affected by the current situation. To help with this, our CEO took a Zoom call with our people to answer questions and he’s going to be doing this weekly. In many ways this is almost easier. Before we would’ve had to set up chairs and a slide deck and now we just set up a Zoom.”


Catherine Allen, Head of Keeping People Happy, at Ella’s Kitchen – Looking after some of those most affected

For Catherine Allen, Head of Keeping People Happy, at Ella’s Kitchen, part of her response – and thus improving HR during the pandemic – involved looking at the heterogenous nature of the workforce and ensuring that employees particularly affected were cared for.

With a keen interest in how working mothers were impacted – especially when schools were closed – she cites a study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education, which showed that working mothers have been able to do only one hour of uninterrupted paid work for every three hours done by men during lockdown. Thus, the business wanted to check the mental load that mothers in their organisation were bearing.

Explaining her response, she said: “Back in March, as soon as schools were closed we realised the parents would have to juggle home schooling with work so we immediately reassured the team that they should place their families first and we would continue to pay people in full regardless of how many hours they were able to work amongst home schooling and childcare.

“With the relentless pressure of juggling work, childcare and many other household tasks becoming intolerable for many, we put in place support for parents including an internal support group, a session with an external parenting coach, a virtual training programme working on mental health and resilience run over six weeks. We made sure our Mental Health First Aiders were available for one to one support, our employee assistance programme number was understood and used and provided external CBT and counselling in some cases.”

Michael Hakes, Global HRD at Mondi – Becoming an information hub

With work locations all over the globe, Mondi had to adapt to the coronavirus challenge before many other EMEA-based firms. It meant information had to be digested and disseminated quickly, as the situation rapidly evolved and business practise needed to change, in an informed manner as possible, in response. As Michael Hakes, Global HRD at the £7billion-by-revenue firm told HR Grapevine in last month's cover feature, he headed up a multi-functional response team that monitored developments as the pandemic evolved. This allowed HR to become a central hub for information and internal comms, aligning itself with the business leadership to show worth.

He said: “HR has [now] been recognised as an important partner to the business – I’ve held this role at Mondi for two years, during which time we have been working on developing this business partnership model and we have seen good success recently. I think the pandemic has helped the business to recognise that HR can be a valuable partner.


“This role has emerged over the years and now we are at a really critical point and we need to continue to provide value to the business – not just in moments of crisis. This means listening to the business, understanding the challenges and how we can provide support, as well as challenging the business. If we can continue like this we will be recognised as a [valued] partner.”

If you have an example of an HR function or leader who has revolutionised their function during 2020 – or stepped up and added value to the business or employees' lives – please get in touch with the editorial team at [email protected]

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