In June of this year, MBS will be celebrating its 30th anniversary (it’s a little older, but work got in the way and the celebration was delayed). If I have learnt one lesson in lockdown, it is that that I will never again be too busy to celebrate important milestones – I want to grab every opportunity to mark good occasions and celebrate with clients, family, friends and colleagues.
Thinking back, before 2020 (BC), there were two seismic events that occurred during my time running MBS. The first one was 9/11. It goes without saying that this was shockingly dramatic, and it affected our consultancy for about six months – and then work and life seemed to return to normal. The second time was the financial crash in 2008, and what struck me during that time was how CFOs were thrust into the spotlight. The best ones became even more important to CEOs and pivotal to companies. A good CFO could save a company; a bad one might wreck it.
In a similar way, the Covid-19 crisis has shone the light on a corporate function which has often played second fiddle to finance, marketing, trading and operations. Never before have companies needed the very best HR Director – sometimes these days called the Chief People Officer – as much as they do now.
Today, this role is critical in any organisation. Throughout the crisis, HRDs have been tasked with keeping colleagues healthy and mentally well, overseeing vast remote working networks and acting as a reminder to CEOs to remain focused on their people. Alongside all of these immensely important tasks to maintain positivity, HRDs are also having to balance retrenching, furloughing, delivering bad news of no increases or bonuses and even helping to decide whether people need to cut their salaries or work less days a week.
It is clear that a capable and resilient people leader has never been more crucial to a business’ success. But this weight of responsibility is at odds with the role’s traditional reputation: HRDs are often unfairly characterised as ‘transactional’, siloed to an area taken up with payroll, hiring, and firing. In the last few weeks, however, HRDs from across our sectors have been making difficult decisions at an extraordinary pace, many of which will have significant long-term impacts on the future of the business – and on the wellbeing of society during this troubling time.
The coronavirus outbreak has had a particularly significant impact on supermarkets, where HRDs have had to make enormous decisions, fast. At Tesco, for example, 50,000 out of 350,000 staff are currently off work on full pay, and the big four grocer has made an impressive 45,000 new hires to keep things running smoothly. These sort of large-scale changes present unprecedented operational and personnel challenges with which it is the HRD’s task to grapple.
Similarly, M&S has proven its agility in the face of a crisis. The retailer has redeployed its Clothing & Home staff to its Food unit, to help support the business’ efforts in keeping the nation fed. Harriet Hounsell, HRD at M&S said: “During this crisis, the resilience of your HR team, as well as yourself, is key. We need to look after the welfare of the colleagues inside the organisation and at the same time meet the commercial needs that are changing daily – whilst recognising everyone is under huge pressure and stress.”
“During this crisis, the resilience of your HR team, as well as yourself, is key. We need to look after the welfare of the colleagues inside the organisation and at the same time meet the commercial needs that are changing daily – whilst recognising everyone is under huge pressure and stress.”
Moreover, the short-term challenges faced by HRDs are coupled with long-term considerations about the future of a business: they are entrusted with striking a balance between the company’s bottom-line needs and its long-term purpose and values. HR executives must simultaneously identify and implement immediate measures to keep a business running, ensure the wellbeing of its employees and consider how to retain a workforce that can come out of the crisis in a positive and productive way.
This point was echoed by Harriett, who noted: “I have to be able to look far forward into the future, while also delivering value day to day.”
“I have to be able to look far forward into the future, while also delivering value day to day.”
Speaking on the matter, Hanna Linden, VP People at Signal AI said: “During this crisis, my role has become more important and valued and I feel that I definitely have a seat at the top table. If a business wants to be seen as being serious about its people, then HR has to be seen as important.”
She continued: “Businesses are changing rapidly and there is a lot more focus on the wellbeing of colleagues. Signal AI is a cutting edge, 21st century tech company. We have always taken our colleagues on the journey, but now more than ever, we need to be transparent with them.”
Looking ahead, we can expect this crisis to raise the human resources function up and lead to more HRDs sitting around the board table. Much has been written about how to elevate the HR position, and why ‘people people’ are so consistently under-represented in the boardroom.
Indeed, of the 723 non-executive directors who sit on FTSE 100 boards, just 3% have any prior HR experience in their executive career. This comes despite the fact that HR Directors have a well-balanced and thorough understanding of how businesses work. Considering the ‘our people are our biggest asset’ rhetoric adopted by so many senior leaders, it is surprising that those from a human resources background don’t get more of a weigh-in around the table.
This experience is likely to have a lasting impact on our sectors – from what we buy, to how we work. I for one hope to see the human resources function propelled up into the top of a business and around the decision-making table, where it belongs. Alas, our 30th anniversary may have to be delayed again – this time hopefully by only a few months – but when we are allowed to host a gathering, I hope that you will all join me and that we celebrate in true style.