Why HR?

Coronavirus had everyone turning to HR. What was it about the people function that meant it had the answers?

Words by Sophie Parrott | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Sophie Parrott

Design by Matt Bonnar

A recent article from The Economist notes that when the global financial crisis hit in 2007, senior leaders turned to their finance chiefs in order to solve the most pressing problems; it being widely considered that this type of exec would have the skills to bring companies out the other side intact. 2020’s crisis was different. When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, it presented a raft of challenges which ended up being given to the HR function to fix. As the department which, pre-pandemic, worked to keep staff engaged, productive and healthy, many leaders turned to the people function to keep stable the core channels of employee work life. The pivot to remote working. The need to keep frontline staff safe. How on earth to keep staff productive and even employed. These were some of the core issues organisations were dealing with and which it was perceived HR would have the solutions to.

In fact, HR guru Josh Bersin argues that this ongoing crisis has, primarily, been a people-centric one. He uses the mantra ‘People First, Economics Second’ to illustrate his point. “...For me as a business person, professional, and analyst, the message here is clear. What we need [during the pandemic] is a focus on people, not business,” he wrote in an early-year blogpost. This diagnostic is not apropos of nothing. His thoughts illuminate a growing channel of contemporary HR and business thinking which suggests that if employers put their people first – by, say, making engagement, wellbeing and morale a priority – then staff will be more productive and ultimately benefit the business commercially. The same thinking appears to have been applied in this crisis moment too: that by looking after staff, via HR help, businesses could survive, or even thrive, during the crisis.

The importance of HR in a company
has been clearly demonstrated…


This mindset could explain, in part, why HR has had a rapidly growing in-tray during this period. Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic sparked a wide range of people-related problems. “Everything in this moment has been about people,” Harriet Shurville, Chief People Officer at Iris previously explained to HR Grapevine. “HR has had to make huge decisions about our people, and everyone was looking at us for understanding and guidance.” And if it is possible to equate workload to a growing sense that HR is being turned to solve problems – writing in a LinkedIn post Sharon Doherty, Chief People Officer said: “Since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic on March 11…the volume of work for a Chief People Officer has never been greater,” – then of course there has been enough evidence to suggest there has been a pivot to HR during this time.

While all these points might indicate, generally, why HR was turned to during the peak crisis, there needs to be a proper unpacking of all of what the function was able to offer both business leaders and employees which other departments couldn't, and what this means for the future of the function. By interviewing leading HR practitioners, across a range of different industries, HR Grapevine hoped to find out just that.

Why HR?

As the dedicated people function, it is undeniable that both employees and executives turned to HR for support and guidance during the pandemic. Support was sought over setting up home offices, for reassurances over job security, or answers on how to balance childcare struggles, financial concerns and mental health issues – and even for help with understanding novel changes, like the introduction of furlough legislation. “We did find that when things like furlough legislation would come in, everyone would naturally turn to [HR] for answers,” explains Emily Hawkins-Longley, Group People Director at M&C Saatchi.


Aside from being a pivotal function for helping staff understand initial logistical, legislative, and pay changes, Hawkins-Longley also adds that staff also leaned on HR for psychological support. “I think [HR] really was the centre point of activity [for the] things that people were needing support with,” she adds. This notion, agrees David Wilkinson, HR Director at Premier Foods, means “people leaned on the HR team more than they normally would”. In particular, Wilkinson says that line managers turned to HR for advice and support and this is largely because we are in a situation that no one has ever experienced before. “The challenge for the people team [during COVID-19] is that we have not experienced this before either,” Wilkinson adds. And though the Premier Foods’ HR honcho’s answer suggests HR might not have had oven-ready answers, perhaps it was the broad nature of the function’s usual remit that made it best suited for this multi-channel crisis – able to adapt itself to delivering financial, practical and even mental wellbeing help.

[HR] really was the centre point of activity for the things that people were needing support with

This malleability, and usual role as a support function, likely also played a part in allowing HR to take pandemic-enforced changes in its stride (perhaps more so than other functions). As Wilkinson noted, HR was going through this period of unprecedented change at the same time as everyone else and this meant that there were some things the function hadn’t come across before. However, there was still an expectation that it would deliver solutions and answers. One example of this was the furlough scheme which Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled earlier this year when the UK went into lockdown. “Furlough didn’t exist in the UK prior to the pandemic so as an HR professional you were learning a new concept while trying to give a sense of confidence [to staff members],” adds Nicola Forshaw, Director of Human Resources at The Landmark London.


In fact, when furlough was first introduced as a lifeline to employers, Forshaw explains that the hotel’s people turned to HR assuming that they knew what the furlough scheme was and how it worked. “To begin with, that was a challenge,” Forshaw explains. This was echoed by Hawkins-Longley who explains that staff naturally turned to HR to get answers regarding furlough legislation. “It was nice that everyone naturally assumed that [HR] would know exactly what to do but it was coming in at such a fast pace that you had to make a real effort to try and keep up with what was going on,” M&C Saatchi’s HR lead adds.

What HR has done to
support staff amid the pandemic


Following the success of its homeworking measures, tech giant Twitter told staff members earlier this year that staff could work from home forever if they choose too and if their role permitted it.

With a wealth of research pointing towards an increased appetite in flexibility and homeworking, it is likely that this announcement will have been well received by staff members.

The firm said in a statement: “The past few months have proven we can make that work. So, if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.”


To combat work from home stress, the jobs board Indeed gifted its 10,000 staff members an additional six days of paid annual leave.

After receiving positive feedback from a ‘You Day’ which was hosted earlier this year, the firm has rewarded staff with an extra paid day’s leave for each month worked until November 2020.

“At Indeed, we felt it was important that our employees could take a moment to focus on their personal lives. While our benefits exist to attract, engage and retain talent, they also play an important role in allowing us to rest and recharge,” explains Helen Durkin, Employer Brand Programme Manager at Indeed.

The Zebra

To boost employee mental health, particularly amid the pandemic, the US-based insurance firm The Zebra has offered staff several hundred pounds in a stipend to adopt a new pet.

The Zebra will cover annual expenses up to a given amount to help those who want to welcome a new cat or dog into the family.

The firm’s CEO, Keith Melnick, says that he introduced this work perk to help remote staff who felt lonely when working during the pandemic.

“I know this kind of companionship can make a huge difference in quality of life,” he adds.

Culture protectors

It’s not just legislative changes that HR had to keep an eye on. For example, research has pointed towards the negative impact that the coronavirus crisis has had on employee mental health. In fact, in May, the Chief Executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, said that fast action was needed to support mental health services after the charity saw one million people download content from its site within a few weeks. Speaking to Sky News – as was reported by Metro – Farmer warned of an ‘emerging mental health crisis’ due to the lockdown period. At a time where so many employees have struggled with lockdown – and, for many, the stress of living and working in the same space and being separated from friends and family – many HR teams were tasked with rolling out initiatives to keep morale up and to boost staff engagement.

Richard Roberts, People Director at Pure Planet, explains that the energy supplier had lots of little initiatives such as virtual pub quizzes, magic shows, DJ sets and ‘lunch n’ learn’ sessions to keep staff engaged and to dilute stress and anguish. And challenges in this area keep evolving. With lockdown measures, for many people, currently less stringent than they were at the start of the year, HR also faces the task of coming up with evolving the way in which get teams together. “[Employees] have been doing it informally if they live locally such as going for a walk around the park, socially distanced obviously. But we are now thinking what else can we do?,” he explains. As a renewable energy company that is big on sustainability, Roberts says that the firm considred getting staff together for a beach clean, to ensure brand and culture is still reflected when remote. “It is outside, we can keep our distance, we can see each other, it is sustainable, and we like that – that is our passion,” he adds.

People problems

In 2020, burnout doubled from March (2.7%) to April (5.4%)
– LinkedIn’s Glint

Work anxiety rose by 4,000% among British workers in the early stages of lockdown
– Mitrefinch

695,000 workers fell from company payrolls between March and August due to the COVID-19 crisis
– Office for National Statistics

Third of UK employees are scared of returning to work, claiming they don’t feel it is safe to go back
– Cartridge Save

The majority of workers have put in an extra two hours per day since working from home in lockdown
– NordVPN

Individual safety

It’s not just about getting creative in order to keep staff engaged and wellbeing high during the pandemic. HR has also found itself tasked with ensuring that every type of employee is safe during the pandemic – from those who couldn’t work from home to those who were suddenly forced to work from less-than-ideal living conditions. It’s something that HR at M&C Saatchi took very seriously. With the World Health Organisation (WHO) sharing that lockdown measures led to a spike in domestic abuse, M&C Saatchi repurposed its whistleblowing app – which had been developed pre-pandemic solely for whistleblowing and grievances – as a way for domestic abuse victims to safely make contact with work.

“[The app] has got this extra layer of security, [so we used] that as a way to communicate with people that were having difficulty with openly talking about things,” Hawkins-Longley explains. It was used specifically for the COVID-19 crisis with a section dedicated to asking questions, for example about furlough. “People can communicate with us anonymously so even if they don’t want to share it was them going through it, they could have a channel of communication that way,” Hawkins-Longley adds.

Communications hub

Having solid communication channels with staff members has also been a key part of HR’s remit during the pandemic. The scramble to keep up with quickly changing Government guidance – and communicate it with staff in a timely manner – was a huge challenge and one many leading HR practitioners had to deal with. Denise Bird-Newell, Director of Human Resources and Facilities at Clarins UK, says this was a challenge to begin with. In the early days of the pandemic, the luxury cosmetic firm’s HR lead recalls writing several communications where the information had changed before she had chance to “get [it] out of the door”. “I think it was a case of everybody was dealing with a level of ambiguity and [the] unknown – it is an unprecedented situation where at times nobody really knew what was going on,” she explains.

But she adds that HR were probably the best function to be in charge of it as they understand communication isn’t merely about the exchange of information. “For us, I think engagement and wellbeing links to communication,” explains Bird-Newell, HRD at Clarins. “If you don’t know what is going on and aren’t kept informed then that exacerbates the problem,” she adds. In order to ensure that comms were working for staff, Bird-Newell ensured that HR circulated FAQs and answers, homeworking hints and tips and best practice to ensure that staff were taking regular breaks and properly separating personal and professional life.


Everything in this moment has been about people

For, Wilkinson – who had staff members working in the factories as well as from home – keeping engagement and wellbeing up for those going into a central workplace was key too. Ensuring staff members knew how critical their role was, both to the business and to wider society, and that they were safe in their work environment was a top priority for the people team. “[They needed to] know they are valued in a number of different ways by talking to them, writing to them, producing videos and we gave recognition to our factory workers as well. We gave all of our factory workers an additional two days holiday and a bonus as well,” Wilkinson adds.


What next for HR?

With the pandemic unearthing a plethora of people-related issues regarding engagement and wellbeing – and the people function largely stepping up to help solve issues and keep business running as usual – HR could still find itself at the centre of conversations about how work and people are structured after this moment has passed. For example, Wilkinson feels there will be an increased emphasis on employee welfare and wellbeing in the medium to long term. “I think it is the people teams that need to support and drive that,” Premier Foods’ HR lead adds. “It has been something that we have focussed on in the past, but I don’t think to the extent that we are going to have to in the future. People have become much more aware of physical and mental wellbeing; It was happening before, but COVID-19 has accelerated it.” This, Wilkinson adds, is one area where HR can really step forwards and “lead from the front”.

With this added value on health and wellbeing, Bird-Newell explains that employees or prospective talent will be “looking for levels of support that really honour that”. This dovetails with Hawkins-Longley's thinking. The HR honcho believes that we are now reaching a point where talent will be critical of how businesses operate and consider whether this suits them – adding that if it doesn’t suit, then they will look for work elsewhere. “I feel HR really needs to think about that and [ask] whether we are offering the best for our employees and the best for the organisation at the same time,” Hawkins-Longley adds.

Whilst other functions will also be jostling for primacy within the organisation – and acknowledging that the pandemic and its impact is far from over – Pure Planet's Roberts feels HR is capable of now being leading. “I would say that the importance of HR in a company has been clearly demonstrated [through the pandemic]: the value that is offered and the guidance that can be given by HR. I would like to think that [HR’s] credibility and how we add value has gone up,” Roberts explains. Forshaw feels the same. “HR’s role has been essential during the pandemic,” she adds, indicating that it has overseen the move to remote work, kept the company updated on legislative changes as well as being a comms, health and safety and operational hub.

The challenge for the people team [during COVID-19]
is that we have not experienced this before either

“In some situations, [the pandemic will] have put HR to the forefront [of the organisation] if they weren’t already. In some industries, they will realise that [the HR function is] more complex than they may have imagined,” the hotel's HR lead explains. However, to maintain this leading position, it is crucial that the function continues to drive the business forwards through its people agenda – by focussing on some of the areas that it has traditionally had ownership of such as engagement, morale and wellbeing, as well as adding business strategy to its remit. And, as Wilkinson noted earlier, with an increasing focus on employee health and wellbeing in light of the pandemic, this is one area where HR can 'really step forwards and lead from the front'.

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