Should HR prepare for future pandemics?


The World Health Organisation argues that populations must learn to live with viruses such as Covid-19

Uncertainties surround the Covid-19 vaccine, from vague distribution plans to complex legalities. With the World Health Organisation suggesting that Covid-19 is “not necessarily the big one”, CIPHR’s people and services director Claire Williams believes HR should consider the bigger picture and prepare for potential future pandemics.

2020 was the year that coronavirus pandemic changed everything. With the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine commencing, HR is, once more, in uncharted waters. What exactly are the implications for people management? Will the vaccine affect all HR processes, from hiring and onboarding to health and safety assessments? My belief is it’s time to look beyond vaccines and at the bigger picture.

Before Covid-19, scientists discussed what they called “Disease X”, an infectious virus with no treatment, which turned out to be very similar to Covid-19. They suggest there are around 700,000 viruses present on the planet with the potential to infect humans, and the likelihood of this happening is growing exponentially, due to mass deforestation and the increased destruction of wildlife. So, whether it’s in five or 20 years, we’re likely to see another pandemic sooner rather than later.

Wake-up call

The current pandemic created a shockwave across the world of work in 2020 and was the wake-up call that many organisations needed. An agile response was no longer a nice to have, but a necessity.

Overnight, facilitation of remote working became essential to business continuity. In many organisations, it was left to HR teams to coordinate and manage processes and appropriate responses in chaotic times.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us a wealth of lessons that we need to learn from and to ensure that there is more of a focus on pandemics in the workplace. We’ve seen how rapidly Covid spread, so the next time this happens, we all need to be faster to respond and have those provisions in place to reduce the risk of the virus spreading and to protect our employees.

If pandemics are going to become a reoccurrence in the new normal, then HR needs to look beyond the immediate future, creating a long-term plan to ensure that organisations are ready for all eventualities. The vaccination roll-out is a small part of a much bigger picture about how HR professionals need to prepare themselves for the ongoing impact of coronavirus pandemics in the workplace.

So how can HR put strategies in place for future pandemic events? Here are five suggestions:

1. Focus on regular risk assessments

At the time of writing, we don’t know how long the vaccine rollout will take to reach everyone in the UK. If mass vaccination becomes a theme for 2021, then HR should prepare for long-term implications, starting with a thorough risk assessment.

Risk assessment will vary depending on the type of organisation. For example, are there any occupational health and safety requirements in your organisation?  So, for care homes, vaccination might become a passport to continue working there. But if you’re in a regular office environment, there’s going to be some hard choices to make if you’re going to enforce vaccination in the same way.

Employees that frequently travelled for work before the Covid-19 pandemic would need to be vaccinated when travelling to various countries. So, mandatory vaccination might already be a process that your HR teams have dealt with in the past that could serve as a way into creating a more comprehensive, company-wide vaccination policy. For most organisations however, it is unchartered territory.

2. Check legalities to minimise the chances of discrimination

It’s crucial to ensure that any decision that you make linked to the Covid-19 vaccines, including making vaccination mandatory, is legally compliant.

HR teams, if they weren’t already, should be very careful when it comes to the legalities of enforcing vaccination. There is a potential myriad of things to consider… consultation, discrimination, human rights… and what if employees refuse… you could then be faced with unfair dismissal claims, and the list goes on.

For example, the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 states that no member of the public can be forced into having mandatory medical treatments, including vaccinations – therefore HR professionals are going to have to consider legislation that falls outside of the normal employment laws that we deal with day in day out.

Key to this is having a concrete process and procedure in place, that, if faced with a review or legal challenge, you can prove that you’ve followed.

You need to demonstrate that you followed a legally compliant process, and that you’ve been fair in that process by consulting with the employee. You want to show that you’ve given them every opportunity to avoid any form of discrimination and they have had the chance to discuss the proposals with you in full.

3. Communicate clearly, openly and humanely

In uncertain times, rapid change management and up to date communications becomes essential. Empowering employees with a flexible communications platform and internal communications tools, such as Microsoft Teams, will enable you to convey information as it happens and keep people aware of any urgent changes to policies.

Openness is key. HR teams should explain what policies are changing and why. Your people want to feel that you are being inclusive and thinking about them. Be clear in your communications and ask for questions or feedback. Of course, you need to be prepared to be able to answer them.

Reach out to your people on a human level. It’s been shown that employees appreciate fragility in leadership styles. They want to be understood, not preached to, and the Covid-19 pandemic has touched us all to some degree.

4. Embrace the hybrid workplace

The past year has proven that most people can successfully work remotely. Once equipped with the right tools and software, they can accomplish everything and more from home, including tasks related to people management and payroll. But is now the time to shift the focus to a hybrid workplace in 2021 and beyond?

In 2021, you’re likely to see the rise of the hybrid workplace. Many employers now offer increased levels remote working options. At the same time, there will be lots of employers that have already done the work to make sure their offices are Covid-safe. The roll-out of the vaccine doesn’t mean that all that work goes out the window, especially as no vaccine has 100% efficacy, and it will more than likely take years until the risk of Covid-19 is negligible.

The hybrid workplace caters for everyone. There might be some teams that have really struggled with remote work and would welcome a return to the office. Others will have worked brilliantly from home – so why change things now?

5. Use technology to streamline processes

If you’re relying on manual, legacy processes to deal with people management, it might be incredibly time-consuming to keep track of any changes brought about by current or future pandemics. A solution might be to implement specialist HR software to help you streamline processes and manage your people data more efficiently.

CIPHR offers absence tracking, for example, to make sure that HR teams are instantly notified if anyone is self-isolating, if employees have met anyone who has Covid, or if they’ve had the vaccine. Other options might be to ask employees to record details of vaccinations so this can be monitored.

Another useful tool is case management, which will help you prove how the vaccination process is managed, by providing evidence of any decisions that you make. As part of your HR ecosystem, it could be helpful to have a robust case management functionality to reduce the risk of claims.

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