HR in Lockdown

How we handle a situation defines who we are

Georgina Elrington heard from HR leads about how they are dealing with the enormous and sudden task to keep everyone going during the COVID-19 lockdown.

COVID-19 lockdown stipulations rocketed employee well-being and online collaboration to priority status practically overnight. HR teams scrambled to find ways to help the workforce keep in touch, maintain morale, and enable more self-service methods for job responsibilities, performance, payroll, holiday and sickness reporting. The CEO of a workforce intelligence platform e-days, Steve Arnold encapsulated it well: “Businesses are trying to cover a multitude of issues facing them, from managing an unwell workforce and resource management, to legislative leave changes being enforced, to creating furlough strategies, and keeping staff motivated and productive during a pandemic. In short, HRs are being asked to change their thinking and models and think on their feet more in the last twenty days than they have in the last twenty years.” 

If we think back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, proposed in 1943 regarding human motivation, there are five categories to nurture: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualisation. I found it interesting and uplifting to hear how the HR effort en masse attended to these foundations, with a mixture of empathy and modern technology, to help shepherd us through confined times. 

Adopting a more personal approach to personnel

Julie Chell is chief people officer at Civica, a public service sector software firm that provides HR and payroll technology. She gave us some insight into how the firm has been coping: “Over recent weeks, our IT teams have done an amazing job in providing us with the technology and resources we need to continue providing business as usual. This is also something we’ve been able to use to stay in touch on a personal level. For example, we use Yammer, a space for social chat and collaboration, and we’re also doing a range of ‘drop in’ sessions where people can join colleagues at an agreed time for a virtual work-out, mindfulness sessions, virtual coffee and book club discussions, or any number of other activities to keep our spirits up.

“Our leaders and managers want to inspire, support and help their teams in any way they can during these challenging times. We’re therefore providing an ongoing series of webinars, coaching and online resources to help them adapt their leadership and management style to better support their teams. As well as individual leaders interacting with their teams, we realise that the current situation puts us all in uncharted waters.

“As we’re currently unable to get a sense of how people are feeling through normal, ad-hoc conversations, we’re rolling out regular ‘pulse’ surveys to understand the issues that our people face around the globe, so we can proactively and quickly improve things and make sure colleagues feel supported.”

Thank you for asking

The use of online surveys has certainly spiked as companies look for ways to understand how a workforce is feeling. Peakon, whose clients include EasyJetPret, and Capgemini provides anonymous employee surveys to help track what’s going on inside the minds of a workforce. It then uses data and analytics to recommend actions to help improve employee engagement. In response to the sudden WFH movement the company developed a set of survey questions – which can be found on its COVID-19 Support Hub online – to help organisations understand the impact of the outbreak on employees and the efficacy of the actions being taken. It would be beneficial, I feel, if more companies continued to engage with this kind of insight when we emerge to the new normal. 

Peakon also offers an ‘acknowledgement tool’ to help people feel that they have been heard and are valued with graphical responses such as: ‘thanks for sharing’, ‘working on it’ and ‘would love to talk in person’. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Phil Chambers said: “Our leaders are also using our Acknowledgement Tool more to ensure that everyone continues to feel heard and valued – even though working from afar. By reassuring our people that we are doing everything within our power to keep them safe and listen to their needs, we hope to strengthen our bond with them, and the trust they have in us in the long run.”

I hear you

Frequent recognition has also risen up the agenda for a happier and more connected, and therefore productive, workforce. And, at a time when many people may be concerned about the future of their jobs, employee-manager check-ins are crucial to reassuring employees. These are strongly valued principles at Workhuman, a provider of performance management and social recognition platforms. “Because we already had social recognition technology, our Gratitudes product, in place we’ve been able to keep up company morale from the start. Peer-to-peer appreciation has been an antidote for isolation and generated some much-needed positivity. We’ve seen some powerful messages in the Gratitudes award feed, sharing sentiments of strength, support, and resilience, and it’s truly helped us come together as a company even in these tough times,” said Niamh Graham, the company’s vice president of global HR.

Unit4 is also supporting employee feedback, performance management and productivity gains through ‘Intuo’. “As part of our focus on wellness, we’re using our own talent management tool to help us engage and communicate with our people and understand how they’re doing. It’s vital to know how your employees are performing, regardless of where they are, but it’s also important to understand and gain their feedback. We believe in the importance and value of the tool and have extended this to customers for free for the next six months. We hope it will provide meaningful support to businesses as they nurture their people during the pandemic,” said Unit4’s chief people officer, Lisa Dodman.

“Well-being and a people-first culture have become more important than ever. As well as regular online chat sessions and mandatory breaks, we’ve kick-started wellness and fitness sessions to help people stay active and positive and even involve their children in our fitness campaigns. We’re also running Inspiration4, where we bring in external speakers to engage our people on new topics. Those kinds of initiatives I expect to see more of, even as we get back to ‘normal’ in the future,” said Dodman.

The ones that fail will face costly re-structures, stagnation and extinction. Those that master the mass of data they now have, and ally with the future reality and adapt, will prevail.

Deborah exell

Sharing coping strategies 

The nature of some companies means that remote working practices have already been in place for years and this pre-existing strategy has helped them to adapt swiftly to the lockdown. Infor is one such example and its HR tech helped the company to be able to react promptly in response to the confinement. “The company’s HR service centre was equipped with technology to answer the many and various questions we were fielding as well as track illness reports, using our service centre tools. Our HCM provided us with headcount data to be able to estimate VPNs needed and load on systems,” said Ben Perry, Infor’s vice president of international HR and global reward. He went on to say: “The business is looking to us to lead the organisation through this crisis, taking care of our employees while also keeping up with changes in legislation and learning as much as possible about COVID-19. We have also been working as a collection point, crowd sourcing and sharing good ideas. It has been an opportunity to demonstrate our caring and our culture, through the communications and resources we’ve made available, and the decisions we have made.”

Adopting strategies to understand better

From a workforce well-being perspective, Advanced has been running dedicated conference calls for managers to help them support teams working remotely – specifically those who are not used to it and may find it an isolating experience. People are being encouraged to have regular ‘switch on and off times’ and understand all the ways that they can keep in touch. And Sue Lingard, a director at Cezanne HR commented that there has been a surge in interest around restructuring existing processes such as onboarding and performance management to suit remote-working teams. “One-on-one interactions suited to working in an office are being rethought to cater to an online workforce. In some instances, it’s actually giving businesses a chance to realise efficiencies that haven’t been previously explored. HR systems are being turned into communication hubs, helping everyone stay in touch with each other and the business, providing much greater visibility across and between teams on resource availability,” she said. 

Another HR tech provider, CoreHR added additional services for UK and Eire customers via its HCM platform, CoreHR XD. Aside from updated COVID-19 information and HR platform help, it introduced a COVID-19 tracker app for employees working from home to keep up with an individual’s health and if they are appropriately supported with the right technology to be productive. Dean Forbes, the CEO at the company communicated to us that some employees weren’t coping with certain aspects of lockdown but weren’t forthcoming as they didn’t want to make a fuss. CoreHR started using the ‘pulse check’ capability via a mobile app to help HR understand employee sentiments and get feedback as the new realities unfold.

A developer of consumer vacuum cleaners and kitchen appliances, SharkNinja also found that every team needed to adapt to new and challenging circumstances. “Overall, we were very well prepared for the crisis, but swift action was still needed to be taken to ensure a smooth transition,” said Jon Wright, the company’s senior director of HR Europe. “Being a relatively young business, we have been lucky to have modern systems in place which allowed for a smooth transition. Not having to spend precious time updating legacy systems meant we could instead focus our efforts on supporting the employees whose roles aren’t so simple to carry out from home such as engineers and design workers. We began our preparations around three weeks before lockdown was announced. Knowing most staff would likely be working from home in a matter of weeks, we focussed our efforts on ensuring all colleagues had the necessary equipment to continue working from their homes. After undergoing health, safety and risk analyses for home laboratory working, we got started with the delivery and setup of key pieces of engineering equipment, technology and appropriate seating.” 

“The most important coping tactic for us has been an increase in communication. The office leadership team has a daily morning meeting to review how things are going and to discuss any issues as and when they arise. Any problems are then being reported back to HR in a timely manner and we are dealing with these on a case by case basis as usual. Commuting time has become communication time! Spending an extra half hour on communicating any changes and developments across the business has so far been vital to getting us through this challenge.”

People data for vital insights 

Kevin Green is, amongst other roles, the former HR director at Royal Mail and also founded the HR consultancy Qtab which has clients such as UnileverBAE Systems and the UK Cabinet Office. He said: “Many businesses when seeking employee data at speed found that their core HR systems were not up to scratch. Some deployed work-arounds often involving manual processes. Others who had invested could get access to the data they needed so that evidence based decisions could be made. The gulf between those that have invested and those that haven’t has never been so stark. I predict that in the next ten years investment in HR systems and tech will be at the top of the corporate agenda.”

Deborah Exell has spent 25 years in senior roles including global SVP for performance and change at The Coca-Cola Company, and similarly integral transformation roles for financial houses such as Deutsche Bank, Lloyds Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland. She said: “HR leaders will need to adapt to permanent changes to workforce planning as a result of COVID-19. Government, commercial and consumer practices won’t simply snap back to where they were. Yet strategic workforce planning – predicting future capabilities and skills – is still considered a ‘nice to have’ by too many companies.”

Our leaders and managers want to inspire, support and help their teams in any way they can during these challenging times


Exell went on to say that: “It is clear that HR leaders are gaining a greater appreciation of the need for ‘people analytics’ that enable them to improve how they oversee and engage with thousands of employees remotely. Digital transformation projects that were already underway have now been accelerated as a result of COVID-19. Now more than ever, every top team needs more control over business performance and greater foresight into market changes. The ones that fail will face costly re-structures, stagnation and extinction. Those that master the mass of data they now have, and ally with the future reality and adapt, will prevail.”

While stacks of technologies exist to help keep actual business going in terms of processes, there’s also the other vital side to remember that we are all actually still human beings: sensitive creatures that need social contact, empathy, kindness, and encouragement. I have loved hearing about new regimes and more relaxed approaches to engaging with the workforce and thank those that got in touch about: the benefits of pets on team conference calls, corporate time out for coffee hang outs, colleagues starting book clubs, Friday night quizzes, and even mental health experts sharing uplifting advice and experiences over video sessions for workers. I think it is important to keep these engaging options open and be reminded that we are not AI, we are not simply output tools, we are not devoid of emotions. We are, however, striving to do the best we can and as work takes up the largest portion of our days – masked or unmasked – let’s keep some of the new-found fun and empathy going when we’re allowed out into the new world.