COVID-19 changed work overnight.
To understand what HR’s role is on this quickly evolving landscape, HR Grapevine speaks with the Global HRD of FTSE 100 giant Mondi…
For most, changes to work sparked by the pandemic came on so fast – and, by now, seem to be fairly permanent (not to mention, for most, extremely repetitive at certain points (at least initially, leisure time and work time and family time and social time all happened in the same space)) – that to remember a time before COVID-19 had an impact on working structures can seem difficult. And although almost every industry and type of work has been impacted – some in ways that were, and are, immediately life threatening and increase stress and danger levels – it is to office-based work that the changes have appeared most total.
In fact, city centre office districts are now very different to how they were at the start of the year. One individual, who used to work in London’s financial district – an endless maze of high-rise corporate workplaces and looming glass towers housing thousands of workers; an area once replete with hurried financiers in suits, clutching coffees and bags full with objects necessary to the undertaking of work in a central location – explained to The Financial Times that the location, once considered one of the world’s most famous hubs of work, is now like a “ghost town”. Another told the financial news outlet that “you could practically see the tumbleweeds”.
This is because, for people that do not need to complete work from a central location, efforts are now being undertaken, mostly, from home. In April 2020, statistics released by the Office for National Statistics showed that almost 50% of adults in employment were working from home and despite Boris Johnson’s mid-July efforts – Government advice to work from home wherever possible, apart from in places slapped with localised lockdown restrictions, has long been rescinded – to get people back into their offices, it just doesn’t seem like work will return to what it was pre-coronavirus.
Communication is one
of the most important
points during a crisis…
The reason for this is both driven by employers and employees. According to a July report in The i, four out of five people who worked from home during lockdown want to continue doing so into the future – citing additional productivity and better work-life balance (health concerns likely do factor into this as well). One study even suggests that workers would happily lose up to £3,000-a-year from their pay packets to stay at home whilst a Robert Half report from 2019 reveals that it was remote and flexible work that workers wanted most (2020 has since provided it for them).
Add into the mix that less than 40% of UK workers have been asked to resume pre-pandemic working arrangements – as well as anecdotal evidence that only skeleton teams or strictly ‘bubbled’ groups of staff will be asked to return – and the landscape starts to look a lot different. In fact, corporate megaliths such as Twitter, Google and Facebook, not forgetting NatWest, Standard Life and office comms firm Slack, now see remote work as the long term or permanent future.
Mondi is a FTSE 100 firm and creates packaging and paper solutions
Europe’s #1 paper bag producer and global #1 industrial paper bag manufacturer
Over 9,000 customers – including those in healthcare
Over 26,000 employees across 30 countries
HR’s pandemic role
For Mondi, at least in the Group offices, it was no different. The start of the pandemic forced the FTSE 100 firm into going remote where it could – with its main business being the production of paper-based and plastic products, this was not always possible – and to adapt to changing guidelines in over thirty operational countries. The scale and immediacy of the undertaking had HR playing a core role in the upheaval, which for most senior HR practitioners will come as no surprise. As Michael Hakes, Global HRD at the £7billion-by-revenue firm tells HR Grapevine, he headed up a multi-functional response team that monitored developments as the pandemic evolved. In practice, this meant coordinating communications with HR leaders in different countries, acting as the central hub of communications and liaising with the executive to give them the information they needed to make critical decisions. As he relays, this process re-emphasised to him the importance of communication and the ways in which HR adds value.
It is one of the critical things that we need to get better at in the future… people management…
He says: “Communication is one of the most important points during a crisis. It’s why we had a multi-functional response team so we could deliver all the messaging and learnings to our senior leaders. This was done through twice weekly calls set up in the evening with the Executive Committee to inform the management team. From an HR point of view we also used our regional and country networks of HR managers, who had twice weekly calls to share updates from each area, best practice and learnings to help adapt to whatever was necessary to face the pandemic.”
HR’s value-add evolution
It’s this coordination and communications hub's role – which, anecdotally, many senior members of the HR community have told me that their function has acted as during the pandemic – that Michael believes showcases the ability of HR to add immediate high value to the business; as a trusted partner that can cohere learnings from different channels of the business around the world. It’s something that Michael saw work at Mondi during the lockdown and a modus operandi that he believes can chart a course for the function’s future identity and success.
Michael explains: “HR has 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.
“I’ve been in HR more than 30 years and this was previously an administrative function doing contracts, recruitment, and payroll. 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.”
You have to be even more creative and listen to the needs of people…
In fact, what Michael has seen Mondi’s HR function achieve during the pandemic – driven by clear, cross-border, cross-function comms, learning-focussed executive partnership and flexibility in the face of change – could see them well placed to be a directive function as the organisation reshapes on the new landscape of work.
With leaders and employees – not just at Mondi, but in almost all organisations across the globe – experiencing widespread and structural transformation at a pace not seen before, continual change is an area he believes that HR can take the lead on. He explains: “We have established a taskforce to look at new ways of working, flexible working and remote working. This team have been given three months to analyse what it means, what the advantages are, what the disadvantages are, and identify any other ideas and problems. Once they’ve shared these we will take it from there.”
The role of HR is to
provide help and support
Comms, comms, comms
It is certain that the taskforce’s findings will be supplemented by data from the workforce surveys that Michael’s team has undertaken. A crucial part of employer-employee communication – Michael believes clear communication is one of the lynchpins of success – Mondi’s HR function has undertaken surveys throughout the pandemic to measure how engagement and wellbeing was doing. “We were surprised by the results,” explains Michael. “89% said they were very happy with the information they received from their manager, 84% were very happy with how Mondi reacted to the pandemic, and 89% said they had the tools and the technology to be productive in their home office. Overall, there was really positive feedback.”
Michael agrees that this, again, shows the importance of communication; it is unlikely that nine in 10 workers would answer positively if they hadn’t felt secure in the comms they were receiving. And, under Michael’s direction, good communication won’t merely be owned by HR going forward but will be a skillset disseminated throughout the organisation. As he sees it, this will require creative direction from managers to ensure that face-to-face communication, development and socialising has a virtual replacement. “Engagement is trickier. The nice stuff you provide in the office, that’s not possible. You have to be even more creative and listen to the needs of people, which will likely be a challenge for each and every company,” he says.
However, to get that calibre of management within a firm – something many believe is crucial to future organisational success – HR will have to ensure the right individuals have the skills. At Mondi, there are plans for a whole variety of online learning modules to be deployed and Michael adds that creativity will have to be a part of it. He continues: “It is one of the critical things that we need to get better at in the future. People management – we have been training our workforce in this – this is now a different ball game. Communciating when you are face-to-face, when you have your team gathered in a room, is different to when you only have the opportunity to share information online.”
Creative, nurturing, people-focussed HR
This focus on ensuring people management skills – which contemporary HR thought suggests boosts engagement and productivity – are disseminated throughout the organisation is indicative of two parts of Michael’s HR thinking. The first thing it does is show that firms – unlike at the start of lockdown – shouldn’t be making blanket decisions about the future of work. For Mondi, that means ensuring that remote working doesn’t continue in perpetuity – “We won’t go as far as others and announce we don’t need offices anymore or that employees won’t need to return until the end of 2021… because we believe human beings are social animals” – but that working meets the varied needs of the workforce.
The second relates to what he believes the future might hold for HR if it is to be valued as a critical partner to the business. Everything he has told me in our time together – which, of course, was via video chat, as we sat in different countries – suggests that he believes HR’s future is as a people information gatherer, a nexus of comms, and as a valued guide for leaders. “It’s not up to HR to lead,” he says. “The role of HR is to create ideas for how to do this and provide help and support, but the implementation itself is the role of management."
With plans to overhaul development, onboarding, an understanding of where work takes place and to ensure that the workforce has creative ability to adapt to the newest challenges, Mondi’s HR has their work cut out but are certainly going in the right direction. As Michael explains, this vast challenge could also provide an opportunity for the function: crisis, he says – and 2020 has been one continual crisis, also delivers opportunity. It's one that HR could take advantage of for the betterment of business and workforce.