Remote Work and The Changing Role of HR

Future of Industry

When companies start hiring for roles like Director of Wellbeing, it is clear that the profession of Human Resources is undergoing a paradigm shift.

The COVID-induced lockdown has accelerated transformations and brought in, what’s being called, a new normal way of life. Physical offices have given way to virtual workplaces, intensifying the urgency for digitization. And this has brought with it a new set of challenges, as people work from home and businesses try and manage productivity and myriad other issues remotely.

It comes as no surprise then that HR teams world-over are under immense pressure, trying to put together a well thought-out and people-first response to the crisis, while dealing with an overload of information, minimizing disruption of day-to-day business operations and enhancing productivity, and of course, catering to the concerns of an anxious workforce.

According to a report released by American multinational product-led digital corporation, Cognizant ‘Cycling through the 21st century Career: Putting Learning in its Rightful Place’, 73% of workers depend on their employer for support, when it comes to preparing for the future of work.

As a result, the human resource has become the most critical function for any organization in these uncertain and trying times.

But this sudden shift in work culture has brought on new challenges for HR professionals. 

How the role of HR has changed lately? Let’s find out!

Table of contents:

Changing role of HR in COVID-19

Remote work has blurred the boundary between work and home, as people work long hours, triggering high levels of stress, anxiety and burn-out. This is, of course, not a novel issue. It has plagued the workforce long before the pandemic. In the UAE for instance, the 2019 360 Well-being Survey by a global health company Cigna, showed that 22% of residents faced high levels of work stress.

The uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has only increased these stress levels. As people step up to take on the challenges of working from home, they are compelled to stay connected at all times, as fear of job security and  financial uncertainties loom large.

Under such circumstances, it is important to prioritise the mental health and well-being of people. Organizations have always created wellness programs and provided employees with health benefits, but this is the time to offer them real-time emotional support and comfort.

It may sound easy in theory, but in practice challenges remain. When you meet your team members face-to-face in an office space, it is easier to communicate and also understand any problems being faced by them. But in a remote work set up, it may not be as easy to know what people are facing, and also communicate effectively.

A COVID-19 Pulse Survey conducted by Josh Bersin – a global industry analyst, educator, and thought leader – revealed that HR professionals across the globe responded to health and well-being of the workers to be a major concern.

This is the time for HR professionals to work towards building a stronger focus, and a more holistic view of the well-being of its people.

The changing role of HR – remote work

Pre pandemic, remote work was seen as an exception than the norm (with the exception of a few, remote-first organizations – WordPress being one of them). Now, it’s the reverse. Organizations have come to the realization that remote work is an optin, and while it may have some challenges, it can work. What seemed impossible earlier has now become commonplace. Who would have thought that sales pitches, new launches, and even appraisals would happen virtually? But they are happening in a seamless manner, forcing organisations to rethink their working models and move towards a hybrid work post-pandemic.

But, as with any situation, this too comes with its own set of challenges for HR.

Earlier, policies were designed periodically, or much in advance. Today the need of the hour is to take decisions in real-time. The role of HR today is to help people find the right remote working tools to be productive, gather updates from them from time to time, and offer support in case of any concerns. At the end of the day, it is all about ensuring that the team members feel valued motivated, especially in these times.

Engaging a remote workforce

Remote working has taken a toll on people, as they work in isolation and miss the water-cooler conversations and coffee breaks at the workplace. Add to it the loss of team events like with lunches, birthdays, or even off-sites, which were once an integral part of the office life. Hence, engaging a remote workforce is a challenge that HR will need to focus on now.

While technology has helped bridge gaps during these hard times, it has left much to be desired for in terms of personal bonding and human touches. There are no easy answers, but HR needs to drive engagement through innovation in the near future. And that’s a big task.

Organizational trust and safety

With technology being at the centre of all our work, it is critical for HR professionals to model an ethical and responsible workplace. As digital transformation assumes greater importance in these times, the expectations to uphold this responsibility will only increase.

In 2019, joint research conducted by Oracle and HR advisory and research firm, Future Workplace, found that a large number of respondents were concerned about data-security breaches. Of the 8,370 HR leaders, hiring managers, and workers surveyed across ten countries, 71% were “at least sometimes concerned” and 38% said that they were “very concerned” about data breaches. In fact, 80% of respondents believed that companies needed to ask for permission before using AI to gather data on them.

Understandably, people are increasingly concerned about data privacy, and have questions about lack of data inaccuracy and transparency.  The need for data privacy in the age of algorithms has brought the HR’s role into greater focus to ensure fairness and accountability in the organisation.

Find out more about cyber security.

Lack of agility

This is one of the biggest reasons why HR teams are struggling to deal with the crisis. HRs have always been attuned to creating policies much in advance, and most of the time, the frameworks that were created at the start remained untouched for several years.

In this crisis, however, it is critical to respond fast and move quickly. However, bureaucratic processes tend to slow down the response time, even when a crisis demands immediate action. This is where organizations must come forward to prioritize agility as a key goal, especially amongst middle management and executives. This is not the time to dither.

Changing role of HR post COVID-19 – perspectives

2020 has been a life-changing year for all of us, but it will certainly serve as a “reset moment” for HRs. Although these challenges are hard to navigate, one of the biggest learnings from COVID-19 has been that “change is the only constant”, and it’s best to get a head start.

What is certain is that the global health crisis will be a case study for HR professionals to change their priorities, and build more effective crisis policies and frameworks. In this manner, HR teams in collaboration with management leaders, can ensure that organizations remain ahead of the curve.

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