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How HR has changed during a pandemic

06 Aug 2020

Aoife O'Donovan

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the nature and pace of many jobs and the HR sector is no exception.

Restructuring, redundancies, employee engagement, recruitment, rolling out remote working facilities; all things a HR professional has to face during the working career but never all together in a short space of time. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the nature and pace of many jobs and the HR sector is no exception.

From the initial flurry of working together with other departments such as IT in order to get people working from home to managing furlough and government subsidy schemes together with the finance department, HR hasn’t stopped for a moment since the beginning of lock-down. Helping shape organisations, drive leadership momentum and ensuring the best way of working as well as engagement of employees is a huge responsibility. And in many respects, HR bears the weight of this. HR has had to be the connecting line in the business, understanding the needs of each department from top to bottom. They have to ensure that there are no skills gaps on any level from front-line to the C-suite level and that all skills / resources are being used properly.

Employee Relations / Industrial Relations

Sadly the pandemic has meant both temporary lay-offs and redundancies and HR departments have been heavily involved in this process, especially when it comes to unionised environments. Those with ER and IR experience have been in demand as they work with leadership throughout their organisations to identify where redundancies are needed and where redeployment can also be used in order to keep staff on, albeit not necessarily in their usual roles. This has had to be carefully monitored in order to ensure business continuity but also to ensure that those still working are not stretched to the maximum, thereby risking burnout.


Hiring is still continuing throughout the pandemic. HR professionals have had to establish virtual interviewing facilities as well as remote on-boarding. Training programmes have had to be hastily revised to reflect new health and safety protocols. HR has also had to work together with IT, H&S and facilities in order to facilitate home-working, visits to the office when remote working isn’t possible. Adaptability is the key to smooth recruitment in these times and those HR professionals who are able to switch gears are of huge value to their organisations.

Employee Engagement

Working from home can be extremely isolating  and many employees are working harder than ever. Several studies have shown that remote working, although seemingly offering a much in demand flexible work/life balance can mean that employees can suffer burn-out or demotivation. In many cases, it falls to HR to keep them engaged and ensure their mental well-being. According to a recent survey by Monster’s US arm, over two thirds of employees are suffering burnout while working from home. Fear of being the next one to be laid off is a huge driver in not taking enough time to recharge and it’s up to HR to manage this. There is added pressure during this pandemic and employers need to be alert to any signs of burnout in order to take preventative and supportive action where required. Main causes of burn-out that are easily manageable when aware of them are:

  • Unrealistic time pressure on tasks
  • Lack of any communication or support from management team
  • Unmanageable workload
  • No recognition of individual circumstances (eg childcare

In order to counteract these, HR can put in place strategies that are embedded in a culture of well-being and include:

  • Setting (and monitoring) achievable workload / KPIs
  • Set clear expectations for working hours and productivity (allowing for child care needs and individual circumstances)
  • Clear communication plans for each department
  • Allowing for physical breaks (eg for lunch / physical activity)
  • Training for management on strategies to keep their teams engaged and motivated

Creating a culture of well-being

Mark Carney, the retiring governor of the Bank of England wrote in the Economist recently that the pandemic could “cause a fundamental shift in how companies in future will be judged based on how they treated people in the crisis”. Any HR professional is extremely mindful of how their company’s reputation is perceived in the market so they have had to be both cautious and brave in how they handle all aspects of the HR process. This includes the redundancy and temporary layoff processes as well as ensuring that employees still continuing to work in the organisation are positive about their own experiences. Recognising and celebrating employees’ achievements is one way of helping boost morale and is a strategy very much driven by HR.

Looking towards the future

HR professionals have to be forward thinking at a time when many businesses are struggling. From plugging skills gaps to managing a hybrid way of working for most of their workforce, HR must work together with the leadership team to ensure both business continuity and a positive working environment for everyone.

Aoife O’Donovan is Principal Consultant with Brightwater’s HR division and recruits HR professionals of all levels across a range of industries. If you would like to have a confidential conversation with her, please contact her by email [email protected] or at + 353 1 592 7855