Pandemic lessons for HR pros

COVID-19 forced us all to be flexible about working arrangements. Companies should heed that lesson as we reopen physical workplaces

As we popped corks and clinked glasses at the beginning of 2020, it’s unlikely that a global pandemic was front of anyone’s mind.

Throughout this year, the world of work has seen unimaginable change. The way we stay in touch has changed, as have our routines and our expectations of each other. And whether it’s our washing hanging in the background of a Zoom call, or kids making an unexpected meeting appearance, we’ve certainly, despite the physical distance, welcomed our colleagues into our personal lives more than ever before.

Across the board, the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have required flexibility on all fronts. When we do go back to our offices, in whatever form, it’s vital we continue that flexible approach.

After all, we’re not really going back — we’re simply stepping into a new normal. There’s much we’ve missed in our offices, but there’s plenty we’ve learned away from them, too.

As a key strategic enabler for business, HR has a significant role to play in helping us adapt to this new normal. Here’s what I believe HR leaders must keep front of mind as we eventually look to head back to the office.

Go at your own pace

It’s tempting to return to the office at the first sign of a rosier outlook — but, as the arrival of the second wave of the pandemic has shown us, you may find yourself having to backtrack.

It’s important to remember that you don’t need to make rapid decisions in response to every new change. By looking beyond the everyday, and making decisions based on the individual needs and choices of your business, you remove the pressure of having to make contingency plans for every development.

At ServiceNow we have deliberately taken a slow follower approach. This allows us to be more agile, leaves our employees feeling more supported, and provides a greater continuity of service for your customers, too.

Make an effort to debrief and reconnect face-to-face

When we do return to work, there’s a fair deal of housekeeping that will need to happen — and I don’t mean just rescuing office plants. But in the rush to get back to normal, it’s important not to gloss over everything that’s happened.

Planning an in-person event or team-building exercise is a great concrete step you can take to reconnect and come back together as a team — or perhaps even connect for the first time. After all, some employees have never even seen their offices, having started jobs in lockdown. Since March, my team has welcomed a large number of employees that have been onboarded, integrated, and already excelled as part of their teams without ever setting foot in one of our offices.

You might also consider getting people to share their stories, and open up about the experiences they’ve gone through over the past year.

Bear in mind, it’s just as important for leadership to reconnect and refocus, too. We need to get back into the field, meet our clients and teams, and show that we’re aligned and ready for what’s next.

Health comes first

It almost goes without saying, but health and safety must remain the No. 1 priority — both mental and physical.

We’ve all dealt with this crisis in very different ways, and everyone will have different priorities and concerns. Some may miss the social aspects of office life, for example, but others may worry about commuting with the virus still in circulation.

It’s important to offer employees choice where possible, and equip them with the tools they need to work, wherever they are. For those who do choose to go back, crisis management and safety apps, like our COVID-19 Response and Safe Workplace apps, ensure we return in a safe manner.

Maintain culture

It’s vital we keep culture alive in our workforce. Many companies have stepped up social offerings to keep spirits high and help team bonding from afar.

At ServiceNow, we pride ourselves on being like an extended family, having offered well-being activities not just to our employees, but to their families, friends, and acquaintances, too.

That sense of belonging is vitally important to a successful business, and it’s something that we should continue as we return to our offices. We’ve seen people’s authentic selves — and they should be encouraged to bring those back to the workplace.

Look to the future

The past six months have seen a mass-customisation of work by employees. This will put immense pressure on HR departments to work differently. Any HR team or organisation will have to double down on how they manage talent.

There’s a range of things to consider. How do you set goals, objectives, and expectations for how teams and individuals are going to work? How do we want to use our offices? How do we operate effectively on a local level, whilst remaining aware of the greater, global issues that impact our businesses?

Every company will have a different answer. At the very least, we’ll all need to take a fresh look at KPIs and training programmes to ensure we’re getting the most out of our employees, so that they — and we — can succeed in the new normal.