Who is HRing HR?

6 min read  |   20 August, 2021   By Nick Hardy

A woman wearing a yellow cardigan is smiling at her colleague. She has placed her hand on her shoulder and is giving her some support.

Support for HR managers and practitioners during the pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, we have hosted webinars to help those responsible for HR and people management in small businesses adjust to a constantly changing landscape. The commercial challenges have been both varied and significant for so many companies and for a recent webinar – who is HRing HR? – we brought together three experts to reflect on the last 18 months and what they have learned.

In a period of unparalleled pressure on HR practitioners, administrators and people managers who have had to make difficult decisions we wanted to find out how well supported they have been throughout the pandemic and to understand how they are feeling now as we begin to emerge from the crisis.

Our three experts – Greg Guilford from HR Solutions, Rebecca Woolmington from HR Central and Michael House from Aspectus – discussed the long hours they have had to put in to support their business clients and the challenge of keeping up with rapid and regular changes to employment legislation.

The webinar was also attended by more than 100 HR practitioners and people managers – some with formal HR qualifications and others who are responsible for this area of business which they combine with other duties.

We surveyed our webinar attendees and in this post, we will look at the responses we received and what we can glean from these as we plan for the future.

First of all we wanted to find out how much extra work HR practitioners and people managers have had to put in to cope with challenges brought about by the pandemic:

Has time spent on HR increased as a result of the pandemic?

  • Agree or strongly agree – 95.1%
  • Disagree or strongly disagree – 0%
  • Neither agree nor disagree – 4.8%

If yes, by how many hours per week (on average) has time spent on HR increased?

  • 1+ hour – 9.7%
  • 2 hours – 23.1%
  • 3 hours – 23.1%
  • 5+ hours – 31.7%
  • Not applicable – 12.1%

That 95 per cent of HR managers have seen an increase in their workload isn’t surprising in itself. Making sense of adjustments to employment law and implementing new measures, processes and procures as a result, including managing furlough for the first time has been complicated and time-consuming for many people.

This was echoed by our panellists who discussed the challenges of working long into the night to understand new legislation in order to brief their clients the following morning and remain compliant with employment law.

We then wanted to dig a little deeper to understand what areas of HR management were taking the most time to manage during the pandemic:

Since March 2020, what have you been doing more of at work?

  • Updating company policies – 21.4%
  • Recruitment related admin – 17.3%
  • Maintaining employee records – 15.8%
  • Furlough management – 15.1%
  • Absence management – 10.3%
  • Payroll management – 8.1%
  • Redundancy management – 6.6%
  • Other – 5.1%

Again, these findings were very much in line with our panellists’ experiences although as HR consultants, their focus was more on managing these areas on the behalf of their clients in addition to providing support as trusted employment experts and advisers.

Many companies have had to adapt to multiple changes to the extent where their underlying businesses models have had to change. HR has been central to these changes:

Has your company's HR policy adapted in response to the pandemic?

  • Agree or strongly agree – 92.6%
  • Disagree – 4.8%
  • Neither agree nor disagree – 2.4%

For our panellists, helping their clients’ transition to new ways of operating such as working from home has been one of the biggest challenges. Many businesses’ working patterns were long-stablished and deeply rooted. However, with our panellists’ support, businesses were able to make very rapid changes – in some cases overnight – to accommodate new working patterns that ensured people were both safe and productive.

Of course, one of the greatest challenges of the crisis has been to support employees and colleagues in terms of their physical and mental wellbeing. With so many people affected directly and indirectly by COVID 19, ensuring people are well protected during and in between lockdowns has been the number one priority for most employers. This is reflected by the responses we received to the next questions we asked in our poll:

To what extent do you agree with the following statement: 'There have been times where I have been concerned about the wellbeing of my team-mates in the last year'?

  • Agree or strongly agree – 87.8%
  • Disagree – 7.3%
  • Neither agree nor disagree – 4.8%

87% of SMEs say their teams have remained productiveIn our 2021 Culture Economy report we discussed the extent to which the pandemic had affected peoples’ mental wellbeing with anxiety about the virus, the health and wellbeing of loved ones and the challenges and uncertainties about employment all contributing to the strain.

Our research- conducted in January 2021- indicates that 68% of SME business leader have seen an increase in mental health issues amongst their teams since the beginning of the pandemic. We asked our webinar attendees if they have seen or been involved in implementing mental health training programmes:

Has there been additional training to cope with the increase in mental health concerns?

  • Agree or strongly agree – 58.5%
  • Disagree or strongly disagree – 26.8%
  • Neither agree nor disagree – 14.6%

Although it’s encouraging that more than half of our respondents have additional training, the fact that a quarter have not is a cause for concern. There are predictions that despite the fall in the number of COVID-19 cases, there will be a surge in he number of people suffering from issues such as PTSD and this will be a long term legacy of the pandemic.

With HR managers under so much pressure to support colleagues and team-members, we wanted to see is they felt supported by their organisations:

As an HR practitioner, do you feel you have been supported (both mentally and physically) during the pandemic?

  • Agree or strongly agree – 41.4%
  • Disagree or strongly disagree – 34.1%
  • Neither agree nor disagree – 24.3%

With so many HR managers shouldering the burden of supporting people, these numbers don’t suggest that those involved in people management have themselves been particularly well supported. This is a concern, especially in the context of the answers we received to the next question we asked:

Are you concerned that your duty of care has changed following the lockdowns?

  • Agree or strongly agree – 78.0%
  • Disagree or strongly disagree – 10.9%
  • Neither agree nor disagree – 10.9%

These numbers suggest a sea-change in the role of HR. In smaller companies, the role may traditionally have been seen as administrative but the pandemic has fundamentally changed this. Even companies which don’t employ an HR team, people managers are now taking greater responsibility for employee wellbeing.

Final thoughts…

So, what can we conclude from our poll and the experiences discussed by our webinar panellists?

Many businesses have achieved great things during the pandemic in terms of supporting their employees and prioritising their wellbeing but it’s clear that more needs to be done to look after those people who have been responsible for looking after their organisation’s team members.

With many companies adapting to long-term hybrid working patterns and the ongoing need to monitor and support people working remotely or back in the office, all eyes are now very much on HR. People managers themselves need to be supported as we enter a period of recovery which will be key to helping businesses and the UK economy come back stronger.

Establishing mental health training programmes and setting up Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs) are just two examples of measures that can be established by SMEs quickly and relatively inexpensively and these will benefit those responsible for HR in organisations alongside their colleagues and team-mates.

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Author: Nick Hardy

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