The future of people services in the post-pandemic world

14 June 2021 5 min. read
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When it comes to human resources and organisational development teams, there are big questions that will need to be answered in the post-pandemic, write Gera Patel (partner at Campbell Tickell) and Ian Wright (chief executive of the Disruptive Innovators Network). 

As time has passed since the coronavirus pandemic first lurched into view last spring, there has been a growing sense that the world we return to will not operate in quite the same way as the world we left. The ways that we all work are central to that; and if you are an employer, now is the time to think seriously about how you structure your organisation. 

How should we attempt to digest what we’ve all been through since March 2020? How much of what has changed will just become a distant memory? And how much will mark a moment in time, from which there is no turning back? 

The Future of People Services

As the world – to a greater or lesser extent – starts to return tentatively to some kind of stability over the remainder of this year, organisations of all sizes are having to come to terms with how the past 15 months have changed how they operate.

When it comes to HR and organisational development teams, there are big questions that will need to be answered: what will the office of the post-pandemic world look like? How should we think about productivity when our understanding of work-life balance has shifted? How can people bring their whole selves to work now that we’ve all seen into each other’s living rooms? And how can we maintain united teams when some people can operate remotely and others need to be on site? 

The future of people services

To try to answer some of these questions, Campbell Tickell and the Disruptive Innovators Network commissioned a report looking at the future of people services functions in light of the coronavirus pandemic. We spoke to HR and organisational development professionals, consultants, leaders and managers from different disciplines and in both the public and private sectors – including central and local government, retail and tech – to piece together a picture of what this new landscape might look like and what we can learn from our collective experience.

What we found has been illuminating and should provide important lessons for leaders across sectors. One of the key messages that came through loud and clear in our research is that no employer can afford to stand still. Doing things the way we have always done them will not be an option if you want to recruit and retain talent.

Another lesson the pandemic has taught us is that if we want – or need – to change, we can do it quickly. Organisational development and HR teams need to harness the can-do spirit that emerged in response to lockdown to make the kind of fundamental changes that can make them not only better employers but also better, more efficient businesses for their customers.

One recurring theme throughout our research is that the role of the people function has evolved. This may have been happening in any case, but the pandemic certainly accelerated it. Contributors to our report consistently stressed how the leadership and HR functions of organisations needed to develop a more symbiotic relationship with one another.

This could mean bringing more HR people onto executive teams so that they can influence the organisations strategic thinking and decision-making. However the change is brought about, there has to be recognition that looking after their people is something that employers have to put front and centre of ‘the new normal’.

In practice, this shift in how we think about HR could and should have profound effects on how organisations behave.

For one thing, employee wellbeing should not be seen as an optional extra but absolutely central to how organisations structure their working practices. This has an impact on everything from office layout, to core working hours, to the employee value proposition and expectations around productivity. In essence, if the line between ‘work’ and ‘home’ is dissolving, responsible employers have a duty to rethink what they ask of their staff. 

One area where this collapse of the distinction between our working and home lives must make a difference is in how we think about diversity and inclusion. The remote working revolution brought about by the pandemic has not only made us more aware of the reality of each other’s lives, it has also shown all too clearly the inequalities in our society. 

It is clear that remote working does not create a level playing field. If anything, the inability to go to our places of work has entrenched some of the inequalities that we may have known about, but which weren’t always visible in an office environment. 

If there is one message above all else that we must hear as a result of the past 15 months, it is that we need to rethink diversity so that it is an output of what organisations do, not an input. In other words, inclusion comes from truly understanding what creates inequalities both within the workplace and outside, rather than from instituting tick-box policies. 

As one of our contributors put it, this would be “the ultimate change programme”, but she added that employees’ response pandemic has shown us how fast we can act when we put our mind to something and “it begs the question what other things could we have speeded up if we really wanted to?”