Honest Burgers went into the pandemic with more than 730 staff, including 287 chefs. When the first lockdown hit London — where most of the chain’s 40 restaurants are located — almost half its chefs went home and decided not to come back.
The group’s human resources managers were suddenly involved in critical decisions about the future of the business, as they grappled with the implications of new government rules on wage subsidies and workplace safety.
“Before it was, ‘People are important: don’t forget we need pay rises’,” says Chantal Wilson, head of the group’s people team, which shrank from 12 members to 10. “Now, it’s ‘I don’t have enough staff because track and trace [the UK government’s Covid-19 monitoring service] has forced someone to self-isolate’.”
As the only corporate function with “human” in its title, it is hardly surprising HR managers have had to rise to the challenge of supporting staff through a crisis with profound personal implications for many. As companies try to weather the ensuing downturn, they are also the tip of the spear for restructuring and lay-offs.
“The pressure was pretty phenomenal,” says Emma Hardaker-Jones, the group HR director of financial services company Legal & General, describing the early part of the crisis. As lockdowns shut down offices, she had to deploy some members of her team to ship new laptops to staff forced unexpectedly to work from home. Karima Silvent, chief human resources officer at Axa, the French insurer, had senior managers organize urgent shipments of masks to staff. Already, though, signals from Axa’s operations in China, where coronavirus originated, were suggesting “it would be a marathon rather than a sprint”.
HR managers are often associated with the mundane, but essential, tasks of policing payslips, appraisals, and grievance procedures, or denigrated, sometimes unfairly, as perpetrators of unnecessary bureaucracy and defenders of senior management. The crisis is changing attitudes. “Some executives thought it was just [about] fads and shiny new fashions, but now they realize that HR is a critical new element,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology and chief talent scientist at Manpower Group, the recruitment company.
Having a sophisticated personnel department may even mark out winners from losers in the crisis, according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor who studies productivity and management practices. Bigger companies “have more effective management processes”. That allowed them to move to remote working faster than some smaller enterprises.
Big companies have made a point of sharing their experience with peers locally and globally. “If nothing else positive comes out of this, some of that collaboration across UK plc is really good evidence of how you can put aside competition and think ‘we’re all in this together’,” says L&G’s Ms. Hardaker-Jones. In the US, chief human resources officers from companies such as Accenture and Verizon created a free online platform — People + Work Connect — to help redirect displaced workers to other employers that needed them.
The crisis has underlined that some HR tasks cannot easily be automated, despite pre-Covid forecasts that machines would displace many HR responsibilities. The first phase of the crisis required people managers to “adjust their management styles to show more empathy, increase the frequency of communications, and ensure people didn’t feel isolated”, says Axa’s Ms. Silvent. Donna Flynn, vice-president of talent at office furniture group Steelcase, made a point of showing vulnerability to staff, describing days that she had found personally tough during the crisis.
Having largely played “good cop” in the opening phase of the crisis — rolling out support systems for staff’s mental wellbeing, for instance — HR managers are now having to switch to “bad cop” as the economic consequences of the pandemic prompt hard-pressed chief executives and chief financial officers to force through job cuts.
Peter Cheese, who heads CIPD, the people managers’ professional body, says the contrast is “inherent in the duality of the [HR] role”. He says HR executives need to point to alternatives to mass lay-offs, such as flexible working and shorter hours and stress the duty of care owed to those who are made redundant. HR is “front and center [in the debate] about how do I restructure the business in ways that are fair and ethical”, he says.
In the first phase of the UK lockdown, for instance, Honest Burgers pre-empted government furlough payments by agreeing to pay all staff 50 percent of average earnings, then kept them engaged with virtual social, fitness, and wellbeing courses. The chain later instituted a mandatory program to retrain servers as chefs, called “Back to Brixton” in a nod to the chain’s roots in south London, when the founding team “did every job.” Even so, “enticing staff back to work, knowing they had furlough [payments] until October was really, really tough”, says Ms. Wilson. In the end, overall staff numbers have fallen by 220: “We lost the amount of people we needed to lose, but we did it in a way that didn’t rely on redundancy law.”
Inevitably, the intense pressure has taken its toll on HR managers. “Realistically, none of them are doing the jobs they went into Covid doing,” says Ms. Wilson of her small team. Speaking at the recent Global Peter Drucker Forum, Steelcase’s Ms. Flynn underlined the need to manage the energy of the team, “to be able to tune in to when someone might really need your validation to take a break and do things differently”. Axa’s Ms. Silvent says that despite the demands on the 2,000 HR managers in the group’s HR network, they have become more engaged with their work because they “have a sense of mission”.
In some ways, the rapid evolution of HR during the crisis has fulfilled the longstanding hopes of senior people managers. For years, surveys of HR officers have found that they see themselves as close partners of chief executives. The crisis has shown that such a strategic role is possible, even essential, but that it involves being accountable for the outcomes of restructuring and redundancy plans as well as mindfulness and wellbeing programs. As the CIPD’s Mr. Cheese puts it, once the immediate crisis has passed, “we will be judged on this stuff”.
The most far-sighted HR teams — one in five, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 HR managers by the professional development body the Josh Bersin Academy — are already looking beyond tactical responses to the changing future of work. “The post-pandemic world will be a world where this role of social organization architect will be even bigger,” says Ms. Silvent.
That sounds like a grandiose goal. With the pandemic still raging, others’ ambitions are more modest. Prof Chamorro-Premuzic says people managers “might go back to being punching bags, but mostly they’ve stepped up”.
“We have got to come out ahead,” says Ms. Wilson of Honest Burgers, which has just closed restaurants to sit-down customers again and put 100 staff back on furlough. “If we default back to the old, bad habits, we will not have done ourselves justice.”