Cultural shift: dealing with the HR challenges posed by COVID-19

Our recent history is full of examples of global events causing change at an almost incomprehensible rate. These are invariably challenging times. However, once the dust has settled there can be many positive outcomes.

The trauma of the First World War resulted in huge mechanical and technological advancements, while the Second preceded mass labour participation by married women.

Today, the unforeseen crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic is creating many challenges to manage – and opportunities to experiment – for societies and businesses across the world.

COVID-19 hit us almost overnight and homes and workplaces have had to rapidly adjust daily routines to keep pace with the development of the pandemic.

One major change has been the rise of flexible working, something which was previously under-appreciated in the majority of workplaces, which were largely rigid by nature.

Now, however, flexible working has become more accepted as business face an existential threat with employers given no option but to allow their employees to work from home during lockdown.

For business owners, especially smaller companies which may lack the resources to implement cultural change during such a stressful period, the challenge will be how to create arrangements which offer, for example, better work-life balance for working fathers.

For those who travelled for work this has created an opportunity to work flexibly, to spend time with their family and perhaps play a more active role in their children’s development, without the fear of being frowned upon by the business. This is a truly seismic societal change which I believe will have long-lasting and positive repercussions.

For those parents who do the majority of childcare, having their partner working from home has bought its own insights and challenges. Home schooling while remote working has posed never-ending challenges, even without the constant threat of kids and pets video bombing online meetings and compromising your perceived professionalism.

In general, however, the benefits are there for all to see. We are reconnecting with our local communities, so may well see that personal and local services are given more prominence and value than was perhaps the case previously.

As I mentioned previously, these changes have happened fast and are widespread, so companies will need to adapt accordingly. The challenges posed by employing millennial workers were already real for business owners. Now they have the additional challenge of meeting new expectations of their existing workforce while maintaining trust in that relationship and ensuring the productivity remains high.

Not all workplaces have adapted to remote working arrangements as freely as others and there are some industries where flexible work arrangements are not practicable.

Still, with the stigma of flexible working now gone, most businesses will need to consider how to absorb flexible working arrangements into their structures.

Productivity may be better managed by setting agreed tasks or project milestone goals in remote settings rather than managing employees over their shoulder.

Whether it is through focusing on key deliverables or developing pathways to deliver tangible outcomes, employers will have to quickly adapt their management practices, so that businesses can continue effectively and to ensure that management goals remain achievable.

One thing is for certain, the workplace has changed as we once knew it and for those who are fortunate enough to embrace the opportunity flexible working arrangements presents, it could mean a change for the better. As ever, communication is key and discussions with your workforce, to ensure a collective and collaborative route forward, are likely to pay dividends for your business in the long run.

Pia Engstrom, The HR Dept Western Suburbs Perth