Human Resource Management & Covid-19: Some Uncomfortable Truths

Written by Mark Butterick

The statement ‘people are our greatest asset’ is widely used by many employers. For some this represents a genuine belief from the top of the organisation. For many others, however, this kind of rhetoric can feel like pseudo-socialist guff that actually has limited -if any- meaning.

The recent and ongoing Covid-19 crisis has inadvertently provided a unique opportunity to consider leadership behaviours and the effectiveness or otherwise of contemporary Human Resource Management (HRM) practices. Covid-19 has shined a bright light upon many organisations, their approaches to HRM best practice and whether employees really are treated by their employers as ‘the greatest asset’ that they are said to be.

Presenteeism & Succession Planning

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Let’s start at the top. As the UK Prime Minister stood applauding the NHS on the steps of 11 Downing Street on Thursday 2nd April he was clearly unwell. He had tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday 27th March but stubbornly continued to work rather than rest. By Sunday 5th April Mr Johnson had been admitted into hospital. By Monday 6th April he was in intensive care and clearly very ill. Throughout this period the Prime Minister was unwilling to relinquish power even when he should have been resting. For a time he even tried to conduct business as usual from his hospital bed. Was this exceptional “Churchillian” leadership deserving of admiration. Or did Mr Johnson provide a personal endorsement of the ‘working lots of hours shows greater commitment’ culture that plagues so many workplaces?

In addition there was no obvious deputy to assume Mr Johnson’s duties when he was no longer able to hold virtual court from his hospital bed. The UK was therefore left, for a while at least, in a highly precarious situation. The country faced the very real prospect of losing its Prime Minister during the most serious national crisis in 75 years. A situation that was greatly aggravated by the lack of a clearly defined number two to take over the reigns of power. The seriousness of all this was clear to many. Why was Mr Johnson unable to take a step back when he became so obviously unwell? And why did he not confirm who his second in command would be sooner?

Good leadership necessitates an understanding of a leader’s limitations. It also requires the leader to fully understand and accept these limitations. Good succession planning requires strength, depth and resilience at all levels of an organisational structure. In terms of these two key areas of HRM practice the UK government exposed itself and the country to a potentially catastrophic and entirely avoidable level of risk. The underlying reasons for this will no doubt be debated in the future. But a combination of bad decision making, poor HRM practice and ego clearly played their parts.

The Value of Work

In the social media age that we all now live, the value that society places upon work has become increasingly distorted. Covid-19 brought this distortion sharply into focus. The England footballer Harry Kane reportedly earns £200,000 a week. A Band 5 Staff Nurse on the other hand can currently earn £24,214 to £30,112 a year. At the higher end of this a Band 5 Staff Nurse therefore earns in a full year what Harry Kane earns in a day. By any reasonable measure this is absurd.

Some will rightly say that this is not an appropriate direct comparator and perhaps it isn’t. But the kudos rightly given to healthcare professionals during the Covid-19 crisis has challenged the value society places upon the work that people do. Not only in relation to healthcare workers either. The same also applies to those who empty our bins, postal workers and the often zero hour workers who deliver our parcels, groceries and takeaways amongst many others. It now seems clear -maybe even obvious- that the relentless race to the bottom in relation to labour costs and the widespread lack of value placed upon so many employees now requires urgent reconsideration. A recalibration exercise is long overdue. But whether this will deliver tangible holistic changes in the longer term remains to be seen.

Homeworking is not a Silver Bullet

Picture the scene. It’s Monday morning and you are sitting in your car on the motorway. Every other car has one other person in it and the traffic is barely moving. You know all the pinch points along your commute and the timing cycle of every set of traffic lights that slow your journey. Your heart rate increases continually as the time you start working approaches. You pray that a broken down car or an accident won’t block a carriageway and make you late. Then came Covid-19. The 09:00 meeting that the technology-averse (often older and male) senior managers in your organisation insist on having in person is now taking place online. Not by choice, but because it’s the only option now available. The meeting takes place. The same or similar outcomes are achieved.

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Given this triumph of technology (all of which has been around for many years) will we now see significant amounts of work activity moving online? I doubt it. Whilst there is definitely a place, and indeed need, for more online working its limitations have been highlighted during the lockdown. Human beings are social creatures. We need to have human interaction. Softer interactions can be just as important -and sometimes more important- than hard outputs.

This said, with a fair wind, we now have an obvious opportunity to end the nine to five working day culture and foolish, counterproductive and polluting rush hour chaos this brings. All this can be achieved simply by using tried and tested technology more effectively. It has to happen. But the notion of the majority of workers simply getting up, working from home and then going back to bed before doing it all again is totally unrealistic. Many workers have always gone and always will have to go to “a place or places” to do “a thing or things”. No amount of technology will alter this significantly.

In addition, the goodwill currently being shown by many workers toward their employers has obvious limits. A limit that is fast approaching for some. Many workers are currently using their own equipment (PCs, internet connections, facilities etc). Employers will encounter significant challenges if they choose to migrate to a more home based operating model. Work/life balance considerations, training and development needs, setup costs, health and safety and data integrity are just a few HRM issues that require careful consideration. But there is clearly now an opportunity for more home working and there will be obvious productivity and environmental benefits that could and should flow from this.

Trust and Confidence

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In many organisations a doughnut model is operated by employers. A relatively small core of permanent employees at the centre of the doughnut is supplemented by an ever growing outer ring of contingent employees. An outer ring populated by temporary, contractor, freelancer and zero hour workers. After decades of outsourcing, subcontracting and the widespread peripheralisation of employment activity the so-called “gig economy” in the UK had grown to over 5 million by the time the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Anyone who works in the gig economy develops an inherent ability to pivot and change. They have to be resilient in what can be a Darwinian professional existence. Gig economy workers hope for the best but often expect the worst. This precarious world of insecure employment just got unimaginably worse due to Covid-19. With the likelihood of even peak and trough employment (often with many troughs and relatively few peaks) now snuffed out for many. When combined with other extraneous variables Covid-19 has effectively created a perfect storm for those working in the gig economy.

But what of the favoured few at the center of the organisational doughnut? Some of whom have often fought tooth and nail for permanent contracts of employment. Including the face fits yes men and women who don’t rock the boat and always claim to love their employers come-what-may. Has Covid-19 resulted in their employers repaying this loyalty and obedience? Apparently not.

A staggering 25% of employers plan to make permanent redundancies as a direct result of Covid-19. In addition almost half of companies plan to place employees in the “furlough” scheme. Many of these employees probably won’t return when the dust settles and normality eventually returns. Somewhat bizarrely the question of whether a company can use the furlough scheme to pay their employees isn’t means tested for employers. Unlike state benefits such as Universal Credit, which many employees -particularly those in the gig economy- are now finding at best unfathomable and, for many, inaccessible. For many employees falling out of what, until a few weeks ago, many may have considered to be “safe employment” the pace of recent events will come as a major shock. Attempts to access the benefits system will invariably prove to be emotionally damaging and exasperating. Many will question whether the system into which they have paid national insurance for many years is fit for purpose.

At the heart of a contract of employment is an implied obligation of mutual trust and confidence. As many of the projected 3.5 million employees currently heading toward Universal Credit are now finding out, however, millions of employers had neither the resilience nor a reciprocal commitment to them when the going got tough. For many employees the elastic band of trust and confidence was broken by their employers almost immediately when Covid-19 took hold.

Many employers have had no choice about this. But there will inevitably be employers who make tactical redundancies and adopt unethical HRM practices to deal with perceived problems and legacy issues. For some rogue employers the dark clouds of Covid-19 will have a silver lining. The impact of some employers adopting such approaches will be that the centre of some organisational doughnuts will become even smaller. The gig economy will get even bigger and levels of trust and confidence will inevitably deteriorate further. The low trust, low productivity puzzle that nobody seems willing or able to tackle will appear to be even more of an enigma.

Yesterday’s Greatest Asset?

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Dr. APJ Abdul Karam famously stated ‘love your job but not your company, because you may not know when your company stops loving you’. None of us could have accurately predicted the devastating impact of Covid-19. Or the speed at which this catastrophe has unfolded. But many thousands of employees are now indeed realising that the love of their employers suddenly ran out. The greatest asset, it transpires for many, is no longer in fact the greatest asset. Many workers will understandably -albeit belatedly- be asking if they ever were truly valued as their employers had previously claimed.

Major change is the only certainty that most workers now face. The ability or otherwise to adapt to the huge changes and disruption that lie ahead will have profound consequences for all. Two key choices now present themselves. An acceleration of the race to the bottom HRM practices of the past. Or a root and branch appraisal of and change to how we value and treat people. Nothing can ever be the same again though and those of us in the worldwide HR community will all hope that this proves to be for the right reasons.

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