People professionals around the world share their experiences of responding to the coronavirus pandemic

To mark International HR Day, the CIPD shares inspiring #HRtogether stories from its worldwide community of people professionals

Over the past two months, the people profession has been sharing stories about their response to COVID-19 using #HRtogether on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

The stories started to come in thick and fast after Peter Cheese and David D’Souza issued a big ‘thank you’ to all those working hard to keep people safe and organisations running during the pandemic.

To mark International HR Day, the CIPD joins the European Association for People Management and the World Federation of People Management Associations in recognising the people profession for five key reasons:

  1. We are working hard to put people first during this crisis
  2. We are enabling remote and flexible working practices
  3. We are championing physical and mental health and wellbeing
  4. We are encouraging virtual collaboration and engagement
  5. We are supporting people and organisations to adapt to a new normal.

Putting people first

When we asked which of the five reasons people professionals are most proud of, ‘putting people first’ came through loud and clear as the winner, with comments including: ‘Putting people first should be front and centre of all we do’.

Arguably, all of the stories we’ve seen are about ‘putting people first’ – it’s simply an unbreakable part of our profession’s DNA and core purpose. But some really stood out for their commitment to standing by this principle and for their values-based approach to decision making.

Rob Caswell, an HR leader for Carewest Innovative Healthcare in Canada, said: ‘We’ve had to make a lot of quick decisions without the benefit of all the information we would normally have. Our guidepost on those decisions have been our shared values (caring, responsibility, learning, relationships). If the outcome did not match our values, then it was not going to be the right decision. Values are a grounding point and guiding light. Crisis is not the time to abandon them.’

Nicola Hewitt, Head of HR, at Scottish childcare provider Common Thread, agrees: ‘My team has demonstrated that anything is possible when you make decisions that are ethical, evidence based, and values led.’

In the Philippines, HR leaders have been guided by the Filipino value ‘KAPWA’ (the self in the other). Rene M. Gener, DPM, Executive Director for the People Management Association of the Philippines, said: ‘Despite the worst business outlook in the coming months, HR leaders [have been] putting more emphasis on protecting lives and safety above profitability and revenue generation. The order of priorities is to first take care of their people, the customers come in second, then their partners and last is profit.’

Similarly, Cathy Donnelly, Senior Director of Talent at Liberty IT, a technology company in Belfast and Dublin, explains in her video blog how the company adopted the moto ‘family first, work second’.

For Kate Bates, People Director for Brewdog in Scotland, and Steve Rockey, People Director at Homegrown Hotels, which operates in the UK and France, putting people first has meant protecting jobs and livelihoods even in the face of falling revenues: 'Although we've got no revenue coming in, we've kept on some staff at the company's cost because in the long-term it's the better thing to do. We didn’t want to make any knee-jerk reactions’, said Rockey. Charlotte May, HR Advisor at UK-based IT firm, Risual, added: ‘Our strength, our culture and our personality lies in our people, and we must protect them at all costs’.

Elly Gallagher, Head of People and Values at Dynamic Planner, captures the mood well when she says ‘kindness always wins’.

Enabling remote and flexible working

The pandemic has created the world’s biggest home-working experiment, and provided an impetus for some HR leaders, like Matt Elliott at the Bank of Ireland, to ‘supercharge’ their plans to get more people working remotely. But the pandemic has also proven to the world something that people professionals have known for a long time: that flexible working comes in many guises and flexibility works both ways.

People teams around the world have been working hard to keep remote workforces healthy, engaged and productive and adopting new shift patterns to keep those still going into the workplace as safe as possible. Others have been supporting people to adopt completely new ways of working as their organisations change business models in response to the new circumstances.

For many, the home-working experiment has been a success. 'We're in no hurry to rush people back into the office – we're working really well remotely and proved it can work,’ says Jane Harrington, Group HR Director at Clarity, a business travel company which operates in the UK, Ireland and Netherlands.

But remote working, particularly in these unusual circumstances, is not without its challenges. Alicia Bedford, HR Executive at Cambridge Commodities, explains: ‘The need for our employees to be able to work more flexibly has never been more crucial, with some trying to juggle being a parent, teacher, carer and employee all at once. Many have struggled with differentiating between ‘home’ and ‘work’ and so we have done our best to provide advice and support on how to work from home successfully.’

And it’s not just parents who need flexibility, which is why Kate Bicknell, head of people and culture at Fideres Partners, which employs people across the UK, US, Germany and South Africa, has been ‘really open to anyone – not just parents – if they need to work more flexibly or reduce their hours.’

Championing health and wellbeing

Employers’ duty of care for their people has never been more apparent than during this pandemic. The stories we’ve seen have proven that the people profession is committed not only to keeping people physically safe and well, but to ensuring they feel psychologically safe and supported whether they’re working from home or working on the front line.

Matt Elliott, Chief People Officer at the Bank of Ireland, said: ‘Wellbeing is a top priority. We're supporting employees working from home to get the right ergonomic setup and we've been really clear about social distancing for those who still need to come in. We partnered with Karl Henry to create a 10-week programme covering mental, physical and financial wellbeing through online seminars, live feeds and interactive sessions.'

Karen Bates at Brewdog added: ‘We’ve been really creative about how to help staff feel safe in the brewery and distillery.'

Dr Noraslinda Zuber, Director of Human Capital for the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, is encouraging staff to use their online learning portal to ‘upskill themselves’ on mental wellbeing – which she says ‘has become such an important topic in light of the changes and anxieties brought about due to COVID-19’.

Encouraging virtual collaboration and engagement

With so many people working from home, it’s no wonder that virtual collaboration and engagement has become a key priority – and challenge – for the people profession.

The first priority for many was to ensure that people working remotely had the equipment, technology and information they needed to do their jobs safely and effectively. For Jane Harrington at Clarity ‘communicating to 620 people spread across countries who are wrapping their heads around working remotely has been a massive cultural change.' A new internal podcast, released three times per week, has enabled the organisation to keep people informed and answer questions from staff. And with 300 people tuning into each episode, it’s safe to say it’s been a welcome touch.

We’ve also seen some really creative approaches to fostering engagement and a sense of team spirit among remote workforces. Charlotte May explains how ‘Risualites’ have embraced collaborative technologies to run a virtual ‘Risual Olympics’ that sees them competing in various ‘events’ including pub quizzes, walking, cycling, reading books and watching films and many more. ‘We wanted to create a challenge that everyone could get involved in, whilst also championing the physical and mental wellbeing of our people,’ she said. ‘It’s quite difficult to explain quite how competitive Risualites are!’

Adapting to a new normal

The pandemic has seen people professionals juggling new priorities on a daily basis.

Samantha Whann, Senior HR Manager at Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, said: ‘Our HR and OD teams have been working hard recruiting new staff, co-ordinating childcare for key workers, sourcing accommodation, supporting employee well-being, analysing absence data, and balancing remote working with a core office presence.'

Some, like Mouien Al-Madhoun, Chief Human Capital Officer at Majid Al Futtaim in the UAE, have had to work fast to redeploy and reskill people in response to sudden shifts in demand for products and services: ‘We treated the temporary closure of our Leisure, Entertainment and Cinema assets as an opportunity to reskill and redeploy more than 1,000 employees to our Retail business. This has enabled our people to continue working, while learning new skills within the Majid Al Futtaim ecosystem.’

With the goal posts changing on an almost daily basis, and no one really sure if or when we’ll ever truly return to ‘normal’ working life as we once knew it, adapting to the ‘new normal’ has become the new modus operandi for most people professionals. As Dr Noraslinda Zuber in Singapore puts it: ‘COVID-19 has been an eye-opening experience […] creativity and willingness to try new and different ways have taken centre-stage. The world of work has changed within a short span of time, and even as we adapt; preparing for the future of work, workforce and workplace post-COVID 19 needs to start today.

The unprecedented circumstances have forced people teams to take on challenges they may never have seen or anticipated before. And with no precedents to guide their practice, they’ve been guided not only by their principles, but by each other too.

Matt Elliott at the Bank of Ireland says: ‘We're talking to banks and HR colleagues in Italy and Spain to get a sense of what the demands might be in three or four weeks’ time. There's a sense in HR of more sharing and learning than normal’.

And Pamela Pendo Lwakarbare, a Human Resources Management Consultant in Tanzania, gave a shout-out to fellow HR professional Judith Sequeira, Regional HR Manager for Gatsby Africa, for sharing her experience of navigating the crisis. ‘Her willingness to share and empower NGO HR managers in Tanzania is commendable,’ Pamela said.

No matter what the new normal looks like, it’s clear that the people profession’s true priority will never really change. Claire Vaughan, Executive Director of Workforce and OD for the Welsh Ambulance Service sums it up nicely when she says ‘If, or when, the predicted second wave comes, I know that my team will be ready and will do their very best to protect, care for and support our workforce, so that they may do the same for our communities. #HRTogether, always.’

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