The global COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented disruption to HRM, thus leaving a lasting impact on the industry.

Since COVID-19 was first discovered in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, it has spread rapidly across the globe. Once the WHO declared it a pandemic, many countries went into lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. While lockdowns have been fairly effective in reducing the number of infections, they have also put tremendous pressure on the world’s economy. Millions of people lost their jobs, thousands of businesses have closed for good, and entire industries have been devastated. The resulting recession will possibly be the most severe the world has ever experienced. So, what does that mean for the future of human resource management (HRM)? Is there anything businesses can do to turn the tide?

The impact of the coronavirus crisis on HRM

IBISWorld predicts that the demand for HR services will fall rapidly in 2020, leading to a 12.2 per cent decline in revenue for the sector. Despite the lower demand, 90 per cent of HR professionals who took part in Personio’s survey say they believe they responded relatively well to the crisis. However, this doesn’t mean that the recovery process will be smooth. In fact, 68 per cent of respondents from the same survey said their HR departments would have even more responsibility after the crisis. Although the pandemic-induced crisis brought major uncertainty, there have been some positive changes in the HR sector as well. For instance, HR managers are now engaging more with employees and rethinking their recruiting processes. Additionally, according to Gartner, 63 per cent of HR leaders are already applying agile methods and principles to their roles.

What we have learned from previous recessions & crises

If we’ve learned anything from past recessions it’s that business leaders should always be prepared to make tough decisions and plan ahead of time. This is especially the case with HRM, where we can use valuable lessons from past economic downturns to avoid repeating costly mistakes. In times of crisis, businesses tend to cut costs relentlessly, leaving them with fewer resources and a lot more responsibilities. During the Great Recession, for instance, 95 per cent of organisations reduced their HR budgets in recruitment, training, and development, reveals a survey published by the market research company Ipsos MORI. But this can be a double-edged sword that can end up hurting the organisation in the long run. In many cases, reducing hard costs will force managers to put in more time doing the work that someone else has been doing before. So, in the end, the cost of that extra time completely negates any savings made by reducing the number of employees.

Structural ways the coronavirus crisis is changing HRM

As the recession continues to take its toll, HR managers need to be aware of the new structural changes that could have a lasting impact on the future of the sector. Since we live in a tech-driven world, HR managers need to learn how to use new technologies to improve the employee experience. With remote working set to stay, companies will have to boost their investments in cybersecurity to ensure a safe and secure working environment. Due to the pandemic, onboarding of new employees is also increasingly taking place in a remote environment. While providing an excellent onboarding experience without meeting face-to-face isn’t easy, there are ways to make the experience as seamless as possible, according to HR Dive. For instance, organisations can utilise video conferencing tools and apps to provide online training opportunities.

The pandemic has forced companies to adopt new ways of working but does that spell the end of the traditional office space? While it’s hard to make an accurate prediction at this point, one thing is certain – our offices will need to be reinvented to fit the new reality. This means that measures like social distancing and temperature checks will become a regular thing in the office of the future, at least until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is developed. To succeed in the increasingly competitive workplace of the future, employees will have to reskill and upskill. Although face-to-face learning won’t go away completely, organisations will increasingly leverage e-learning platforms to help employees gain new skills and expand their knowledge.

Visions for the future of HRM

The pandemic has forced many companies to shift to remote work practices and this trend is likely to continue even after the pandemic. Erin Makarius, associate professor of management at the University of Akron, Ohio, thinks that even more employees will explore remote work once the pandemic comes to an end. To turn this crisis into an opportunity and better cope with future challenges, HR managers should explore the use of Big Data, Intelligence, Mobile Internet & Cloud Computing (BIMC) and make necessary changes in workforce management, advises Ningyu Tang, professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

In addition to automating HR processes, innovative tech can also help “drive organisational strategy and culture,” says PeopleStrong’s president and board member Sandeep Chaudhary. According to Chaudhary, “HR technology has to be at the forefront to enable remote work management, minimize productivity loss and enable outcome based collaboration. This is needed for both services and manufacturing.” Besides supporting collaboration and boosting productivity, digital tech is increasingly being used for health and safety purposes in the workplace. Adit Chhabra, CEO and co-founder of video analytics startup Wobot Intelligence, observes that there will be a greater need for monitoring worker safety and hygiene as offices reopen.

To make their HR departments more efficient, a growing number of companies are embracing AI and machine learning technologies. According to Richard van Hooijdonk, trendwatcher, futurist, and international keynote speaker, AI software can help organisations easily pick the right candidate for any position. This way, a process that would typically take recruiters days or even months to complete, can be finalised in just a few seconds. As the tech gets more sophisticated, van Hooijdonk predicts that AI could one day even analyse the candidate’s mood or determine whether they‘re lying about their skills.

Although intelligent tools have changed the way HR departments work, “the decisions should always belong to people,” notes futurist John Sumser. As Sumser points out, intelligent solutions that rely on machine learning and advanced analytics are only as good as the data used to train them. Therefore, companies and their HR departments should continuously update their data, because “when the circumstances change radically, the entire model is thrown off kilter and must be rebuilt.”

Recession strategies

The pandemic has placed numerous new demands on the workforce and made many jobs more dynamic. A recent Deloitte survey of 1,600 workers reveals that 26 per cent of respondents believe they will have more work duties as a result of the pandemic. To perform well in all of their duties, employees need to be resilient. Resilience is a valuable trait in the workplace, as it allows employees to weather any crisis and keep a steady head even when things seem to be falling apart. HRM plays a key role in building workforce resilience.

As restrictions start to ease and businesses start to reopen, organisations must ensure a safe return to the workplace. A team composed of the company’s HR staff, IT professionals, and leaders should carefully develop and implement a return to work plan. As companies vary in terms of their operations, function, and location, their return to work plans will also be different.

Since good employees are the main driving force behind any company’s success, HR departments should do everything in their power to keep them on or at least make them more relevant in the job market. Through training, for instance, employees can gain new skills and learn to tackle new areas of the business. Another way to keep your employees within your company and avoid strengthening your competitors is to transfer them to other departments, where they will be able to acquire valuable new skills. In times of crisis, workers tend to feel overly stressed or frightened. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of HR departments to take care of employee wellbeing and health by creating ‘priority teams’ that will check on employees, monitor their progress, and offer advice on how to stay productive and healthy while working from home.

Cases & experiments

The pandemic has forced many companies to explore new and creative ways to support their workers. For instance, the financial services firm Sun Life recently partnered with Boston Children’s Museum to create a virtual summer program called Explore It, which is designed to help Sun Life’s employees entertain their kids during the summer. In an attempt to help businesses reopen safely, Salesforce recently released, a series of new tools designed to help companies better manage their post-coronavirus operations. The collection includes tools for contact tracing, volunteer management, and emergency response management. Companies can also use to create employee health surveys and monitor wellness trends, and then use this data to devise better return to work plans and strategies.

Although there was a growing need for reskilling and upskilling of the workforce long before the pandemic, the crisis has brought to light just how valuable digital skills and lifelong learning truly are. Despite this, many companies still haven’t found the way to support rapid workforce transition, while employees are often not sure which reskilling/upskilling pathway they need to take. SkyHive’s new AI-based platform could help address these issues. Once employees complete their skill profile and enter information about their education, work, and life experiences, the platform proceeds to generate career and reskilling pathways and match employees with the right position within the organisation.

To make things easier for human recruiters in the post-pandemic world and help them improve their performance, organisations should also consider hiring a digital employee. Developed by the AI company IPsoft, Amelia is a digital solution that differs from any other chatbot on the market. Powered by sophisticated conversational AI technology, IPsoft’s innovation can communicate through text or voice and operates in more than 40 languages.

The future of HRM

Since the current business model for recruitment is rather outdated, recruiters are increasingly turning to technology to find the most promising candidates. With the help of AI-powered solutions, recruiters can spend less time on repetitive and tedious tasks and more time engaging and placing candidates. The pandemic has also pushed companies into greater adoption of remote work and this trend is expected to continue in the post-pandemic world. As virtual offices grow in popularity, it will be easier for companies to source the best talent from all over the world. Since technology promises to simplify so many HR operations, HR teams will be able to focus more of their time and energy on employees, supporting their wellbeing, and helping them gain additional skills. Though it’s impossible to minimise the impact of the pandemic on the world of work, for HRM this can be seen as an opportunity to reinvent the way companies access talent and transform employee experiences.