Will we remember to care?

Last week I was having a conversation with a member of my team. Reminiscing that when I started in HR as a Personnel Officer I used to know all the colleagues absent with long term sickness, what they were off with and when they were having any treatments. I’d diarise (paper version) to speak with them on a regular basis just to check in. I wouldn’t pass the test as strategic HR these days, but there was something utterly right about it nonetheless.

As we start to emerge from the current situation, we can reflect on what we’ve learnt in organisations about colleague’s lives, things that we probably didn’t know about and had left to line managers. My team have personally contacted by phone over 900 colleagues who registered that they either have, or live with someone with, a vulnerability – to agree a personal care plan. The process has been both humbling and reassuring. It goes without saying that has received universal gratitude from the colleagues receiving the call, but it has also been a moment of pride for the HR colleagues involved.

It might just be a “big organisation” thing, prone to the application of some sort of bastardisation of the much loathed Ulrich model (yes Dave, I know you were misunderstood), where employee wellbeing is pushed to line managers and shared service centres. But I do wonder whether we can learn something from this about what employees really want from their HR departments and teams?

My guess is that it isn’t another change or development to the appraisal process, a new recruitment methodology or a self service portal. More likely a group of people who know them, understand their needs and can support them through work, whatever challenge they’re facing. Let’s not forget the the very origins of HR we practice lies in workplace welfare teams.

Sexy? Maybe not. Strategic? Probably more so than many activities that we do. Feeling safe, cared for and known is more likely to drive productivity than the new expensive leadership course you’ve been busy designing. It doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t do all these other things too. But let us not forget what is at the very core of our being and hope that this current situation brings it back to the fore.

What next?

It was noticeable last week that the conversations across organisations and networks started to shift from how we “endure/survive” the current situation to how we “recover” (with no intention to be insensitive through language). Shaped in the context of the debate about  the possible lifting of restrictions,

Understandably, we focus on the short term. What will social distancing mean for our organisations? Will there be different expectations on work spaces? How will people feel about travelling on public transport? What will we do about childcare and schools? Can we afford the current workforce?

And whilst we will need to answer all of these questions, whilst we will need to understand the practical implications. At the same time, there are perhaps more serious, longer term considerations that will come to test us.

The economic impact of the virus will be long term, not just for the organisations that have had to close their doors, lay off their workers or close down. But in the money that Government has invested to respond to the current situation. A generation could be set back by the financial burden, as we saw in the financial crisis.

And whilst we can’t definitively know, opinions on life, society and the economy will also be shaped by the experience we are having. There will be the demand for change, a level of recrimination, but hopefully too things that we have observed and experienced that will act as a future force for good.

As I’ve said multiple times, organisations are in effect a microcosm of society, we exist in a bubble at our peril. The debate will ultimately involve us having to explore our social purpose, consider issues of equity and fairness, challenge us on the treatment of all our stakeholder groups and in some cases require fundamental change and adaptation.

In many ways, the challenge for leaders is far from coming to an end, and not just because restrictions will go on for some time,  it is just starting. The virus and our ability to respond and manage it is one thing, the likely change it drives in society will raise a whole other series of fundamental, ethical and structural challenges.