Hilary connects with a global audience

Dr Hilary Collins is based in Executive Education as a Senior Lecturer in Corporate Programmes.

Following the recent publication of her blog by Wonkhe, Hilary was also interviewed on ‘The experience of teaching during a pandemic’ as part of the Expert Talks for Cumulus Connects. Cumulus is the only global association to serve art and design education and research. It is a forum for partnership and transfer of knowledge and best practices with 340 members from 61 countries. Cumulus Connects is its new collaborative platform.

This resulted in an invitation to be a speaker at the ‘Immediate future for international exchanges’ forum, organised by the X‐files for Internationalisation working group, hosted by Cumulus Connects on 10 December. This forum explored new approaches, ideas and concrete proposals from institutions who are facing the current Covid-19 challenge in a creative way. It offered an opportunity to discuss on a global stage how higher education institutions can enhance collective intelligence and proposed a way forward to create motivating experiences for students and academic staff worldwide.

Hilary was asked to discuss her work within the OU Business School’s Executive Education and the development of short courses, as well as giving some insight into international student exchange and a potential transition online.

Viva success for Michela

Congratulations to Michela Pagani who passed her PhD viva on 6 November 2020 with her thesis, ‘City Leaders, Relationships and Urban Resilience. A Mixed Methods exploratory study of the City Leadership Network of Padua (Italy) and Peterborough (UK)’. The panel was chaired by Dr Owain Smolovic Jones, the external examiner was Prof Richard Bolden (University of the West of England) and the internal examiner was Prof Edoardo Ongaro. Michela’s supervisors are Prof Les Budd and Dr Alessandro Sancino and she is now looking for jobs, beyond academia, in Italy while finishing her academic projects and papers.

How Covid-19 and technology could transform the dispute resolution system

Dr Clare Jones is a Senior Law Lecturer at The Open University, and a member of the LIFT (Law, Information, Future, Technology) research cluster @OU_LIFT

The current pandemic has forced a lot of people to change patterns of behaviour and how normal activities are approached and carried out. In normal circumstances, change in the legal system is often cumbersome and slow, often reactive, rather than progressive in nature. However, overnight, the archaic legal system and its actors had to adapt quickly to the new way of life we saw thrust upon us. Technology has had to be embraced, although not always warmly, to get normal legal functions performed. To maintain some form of legal system and structure, people have had to think about changing historic practices. The law is often thought of as an immovable beast, yet Covid-19 overnight pushed the technological and digital agenda to the forefront of people’s minds. The often conservative and static legal profession has been forced to change and consider the future.

In a welcome change of thinking from someone inside the legal hierarchy, Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor of the High Court of England and Wales, addressed Harvard Law School on 25 November and posed a very interesting and progressive proposition to law students. He started a conversation about how we in the legal profession can do things differently, and not just differently because the task is carried out online but by rethinking the whole problem altogether. Something which is progressive and normally unheard of.

The proposition, in short, was how can technology be used to deal with the increasingly complex and data centric commercial and civil disputes that arise every day in their thousands. Sir Vos argued that the current iteration of the common law system of dispute resolution has been around since its inception in the 19th century and is not standing up to the modern-day forms of dispute, nor the backdrop of the digital age. The problem Sir Vos is highlighting is that with the advent of massive sets of data, blockchains, smart technology, and artificial intelligence entering the disputes, the dispute resolution system is ‘not fit for purpose’. His proposed approach would see an upheaval of thinking and practice with our judiciary, lawyers and a cultural shift in expectation from society towards disputes. His approach is three-fold – firstly, to emphasise the ‘resolution’, not the dispute; secondly, to not replicate digitally what has traditionally been done; and thirdly, the approach should be holistic.

His vision sees a system whereby all disputes are entered into the system online and are dealt with in the same way. The emphasis is on the resolution, which can be achieved at any stage. The importance is placed on resolving the dispute quickly, with minimal cost and less amount of stress. Here technology would be used to create a data set from the digitally entered documents which would be able to determine which resolution route would be a best fit for the dispute in question. Setting aside the practicalities of achieving this, the more pressing counter theoretical question, to the advent of change, is over the discretion automated technologies such as AI or, in the future, quantum computing, can have over this subjective decision-making task. His vision sees a system that can adapt to the international context of modern-day living where contracts and disputes often have no defined legal jurisdictional boundaries but rather span multi-jurisdictions. He sees technology as a means of encapsulating the expanse of data across these jurisdictions to find the pertinent legal element of dispute and point to a reasonable resolution.

Again, the question of what is reasonable and whether automated technology can be trained to make value decisions as to what is best comes in here. There are many permutations as to the logic and decision tree that technology could use to push disputes down different routes for resolution. Although Covid-19 has pushed society and systems into pursing different routes to achieve the same aim, the legal and theoretical brain of society has now started to question the philosophical and reasonableness of using technological developments. The ambit of change could be thwarted by the discourse of intellect. However, Sir Vos is right to outline radical reformative changes moving away from static practices and to use the negativity of Covid-19 for a positive reason. Society needs to find positives in this pandemic.

Sir Vos is clear that a new system cannot just digitalise the current system. The 20th century has seen a flux of document reproduction and complex disputes can have thousands of documents pertaining to the dispute. Yet, once in court, often this mass of complex documents is boiled down into one or two important yet complex parts of the law. Again, using technology to be able to determine and assess the data, as Sir Vos proposed, could streamline the system. He argues that the volume of documentation that are used within the current model for dispute resolution depreciates access to justice and the rule of law. The counter argument to this is the questionable status of whether AI should be delivering justice and whether it can adhere to the rule of law without the subjective and moral guidance of the human being.

The pandemic has forced many dispute resolution hearings to be held via video conferencing platforms but this is not a solution. Rather it is a replication of the current system. However, it has made judges and lawyers alike, question the art of the possible in order to get the job done and many now do not want to go back to the face-to-face hearings of the past. Practices have been forced to evolve and it is the perfect time to forge a new system.

Sir Vos did not go as far as to say traditional hearings will be a thing of the past. He specifically stated there is a time and place for face-to-face court hearings but that for a large proportion of disputes an online system could provide resolutions, more efficiently. His cautionary tale means that lawyers of the future will need to be progressive and technologically savvy without resting on the traditional and historical laurels of the past. Yet lawyers of the future will have to have this mindset and philosophy if they are to succeed in practice. Digital society is moving towards a more digital form of justice and legal system. With the advances in blockchains, smart contracts and big data, lawyers will have to understand technological developments and adapt quickly and efficiently, as well as being well versed in legal practice doctrines.

The UK’s COVID-19 PPE saga and lessons for future emergency procurements

Dr Miriam Mbah, who joined the OU as a Lecturer in Law in September 2020, has both a LLM and a PhD in Public Procurement Law.

Public procurement is a highly regulated government activity, governed by laws or circulars within a state. In the UK, the procurement of goods, works and services is regulated by The Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (PCR), with similar provision for utilities, concessions and defence procurement. 

General procurement procedures under the procurement regulations are rigorous, time-consuming and not appropriate for all acquisitions. For example, when procuring Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during a pandemic. For this reason, Regulation 32 makes exceptions for direct awards without undergoing a formal competition as prescribed in the PCR. In response to COVID-19, the Cabinet Office issued procurement guidance informing contracting authorities that they are permitted to rely on Regulation 32(2)(c) ‘extreme emergency ground when procuring goods, works and services during the COVID-19 pandemic’.

Has this regulation, which was intended to enable contracting authorities to respond quickly to the needs of their citizens during emergencies, given ammunition for the government to not be transparent, accountable and reckless in awarding contracts to unsuitable suppliers?

The National Audit Office (NAO) summary investigation into government procurement during COVID-19 shows that by 31 July 2020, over 8,600 contracts had been awarded, with a value of £18 billion. New contracts accounted for 94% of those awarded (valued at £17.3 billion) to suppliers, with extensions and amendments to existing contracts accounting for the remainder. Out of the number of contracts awarded during the pandemic, £10.5 billion was awarded directly without any competition and PPE accounted for 80% of the contracts awarded.

Such contracts were awarded to companies such as Ayanda Capital that supplied unusable masks to the government, costing UK taxpayers £252 million. Contracts were also awarded to companies with no history of tendering or manufacturing PPE before the pandemic. For example, Aventis Solutions, an employment agency was awarded an £18.5 million contract to supply face masks, Clandeboye Agencies Ltd, a company that specialises in nut and coffee products was awarded a £108 million contract to provide PPE and Pestfix, a pest control company, was awarded £32 million for isolation suits (read the reports here). To add to the array of procurement scandals, a BBC report details how MPs contacts were prioritised when awarding contracts. This saga should indeed be turned into a Hollywood movie, as suggested by my OU Law School colleagues!

The continuous revelation of poor procurement and mismanagement by UK contracting authorities led to the NAO investigation which found that £1.5 billion contracts were awarded without undertaking financial and company due diligence, a crucial part of the eight-stage process for assessing the capability of suppliers. The NAO report also unearthed the inadequate documentation of decisions and management of risks, a poor audit trail of procurement decisions, and the award of contract after work had started, meaning that suppliers were performing contracts on their terms instead of a formal contract detailing the terms, conditions and scope of work.

Although these UK scandals are disappointing, to say the least, I do wonder if we are too critical of the government? Perhaps, we should cut them some slack, and count ourselves lucky that while thousands of procured products are unusable and collecting dust in storages, the media is not currently reporting about shortages of PPEs in hospitals or care homes …… as would have been the case had these items not been procured.

So, what can be done to address this series of poor procurement? I argue that there are lessons that should be learnt from the ongoing revelations to prevent such scandals from occurring in future COVID-19 procurements or future emergencies. These lessons are not limited to UK procurement but can be applied or adopted in other countries.

First, contracting authorities must stick to their own rules on emergency procurement. The Cabinet Office procurement guidance on COVID-19 and key controls put in place to ensure procurements are awarded to capable suppliers should be followed to the letter. Controls such as financial and company due diligence should be adhered to in every procurement. Past performance should be taken into consideration, excluding companies with poor performance from contract awards. Furthermore, high-value contracts should not be awarded to companies with no history of producing items before the pandemic or where such high-value contracts must be awarded, adequate risk assessment and mitigation must be performed.

Contract management is a key part of every procurement exercise, and contracting authorities should not take their foot off the pedal when it comes to emergency procurement. Many of the poor procurement that has been unearthed is due to poor contract administration and management. One of the ways to remedy this is to adopt a payment structure whereby a substantial proportion of the contract value will be paid when final checks have been carried out. It is essential for contracting authorities to retain control over the performance of public contracts and should approve all procurements before issuing the final payment.

Additionally, developing research on how governments can efficiently and effectively procure in emergencies will assist contracting authorities, as one of the issues identified as a result of the COVID-19 scandals was that contracting authorities were not experienced in dealing with emergency procurements. The OU has a PhD studentship looking to effective and efficient emergency procurement advertised to start from October 2021, supervised by myself and Dr Andrew Gilbert. It is envisaged that the research will not only contribute to existing literature but have a direct impact on government policies or legislation in the near future.

In closing, we are nine months into the pandemic, and the procurement of PPE has been infected by scandals and mismanagement of funds. This has to change for future procurements, for example, vaccines. The substantial amount spent on these items requires governments to be accountable, transparent, effective and fair.

OUBS leads ground-breaking £300k project on online learning and strategic planning through, and post, lockdown in English secondary schools

A team led by Dr Jacqueline Baxter of The Open University Business School has been awarded nearly £300,000 to investigate online learning and strategic planning through, and post, lockdown in English secondary schools.

‘Leading school learning through Covid-19 and beyond’, in collaboration with Professor Alan Floyd from the University of Reading, is believed to be the first project of its kind in the UK. The project team has been awarded £295,867.24 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19, for this 18-month project which begins on Monday 14 December.

The project will look at how school leaders strategically manage and plan for online provision of learning, through the pandemic and beyond. It will address how they have coped with, and continue to manage, particular challenges such as a lack of equipment, absence of learners from school, and provision for Special Educational Needs (SEN) students.

This is quite an exceptional project involving interviews with leaders from 50 state secondary schools in England, along with questionnaires to a further 4,000. The OU is very well placed to carry out this work given our long history of supported online learning. I believe this is the first time this particular issue has been investigated in the UK – key data from the OECD (2020) reports school provision of online learning among OECD countries to be very patchy. This project will offer valuable insights into the short, medium and long-term planning for online learning in secondary education internationally.

The pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge to school leaders in England, something which has only intensified as pupils have returned to full-time schooling. During the first national lockdown, schools developed online learning strategies. There is little or no knowledge of how these strategies have been led and managed or how they have, or will, address the needs of disadvantaged pupils who are recognised to be disproportionately impacted by school closures.

Dr Jacqueline Baxter, Project Principal Investigator, OUBS

The project team will be working with three key partners – Schools North East, The Key School Leaders, and Derby Teaching Schools Alliance.

For further information or to take part, please contact Dr Jacqueline Baxter.

Strategic Agility in Uncertain Times

Jedrzej George Frynas is Professor of Strategic Management in the OU Business School. This text is based on the Strategic agility and leadership in uncertain times webinar, held on Wednesday 25 November 2020.

In a fast-changing, turbulent environment that we are currently experiencing, the challenge is how an organisation can remain flexible and can quickly adapt to new ideas, technologies and socio-economic changes.

The Strategic agility and leadership in uncertain times webinar – organised by the Business School’s Strategic Management and Leadership cluster –  brought together three senior expert panellists to discuss ideas around ‘strategic agility in uncertain times’.

Can academic ideas around ‘strategic agility’ and ‘ambidexterity’ help to make sense of what some agile organisations do, and help provide some guidance for managers?

Professor Peter Rodgers from Southampton University pointed to a crucial dilemma that agile organisations face: how to balance contradicting efforts and trade-offs between the use of resources for both routine processes and new business models. Agile companies and organisations must invest in both Exploration – discovery of new knowledge (e.g., R&D) to take advantage of new opportunities leading mainly to radical innovation – and Exploitation – using existing knowledge to develop incremental innovation.

Organisations that focus too much on one or the other may perish, as the example of Blackberry and Nokia showed. Both companies focused on exploitation – the development of better mobile phones – at the expense of exploration – developing new uses and functionalities for their devices (which their competitor Apple did).

Phil Atherton, Sales Director of Enesco Ltd., provided practical advice for managers. He listed the “Super 7” recommendations for organisations that aspire to be agile:

1. Empower your teams

2. Find a commercial and emotional reason to change and be agile

3. Less is more (such as around levels of reporting, number of meetings and so on)

4. Once you arrive at your destination, resource up (to prevent slippage back to old ways of working)

5. Find and support real change agents in the business

6. Reward Agility (build it into your incentive schemes and measures)

7. Cease and resist old habits that slow things down

Dame Stella Manzie, Chair of University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust and well-known for effective change management and performance improvement in the public sector, provided a public sector perspective. She suggested that public sector organisations are also more likely to survive, if staff (as well as customers, patients or users) are engaged in that survival process in terms of what needs to change, what will work and what won’t work. Stella formulated three simple key principles of agility:

  1. Learning as you go and continuous adaptation
  2. Developing partnerships with stakeholders
  3. Continuous communications for employees to engage with leaders

Drawing on these strategic agility principles, Stella’s NHS Trust focused on trying to make sure that staff are empowered ‘as far down the organisation as we can’. Re-deploying staff across the organisation has also been used to remain agile. For example, in the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, one senior manager from the strategy team changed his role to negotiate new partnerships with local and regional businesses such as Jaguar LandRover and AstonMartin – companies that suddenly became NHS suppliers.

Our three experts emphasised that organisations do not necessarily need a lot of resources to become agile. ‘This is about empowering people, changing the culture, changing the way you do things’, said Phil Atherton.

Companies and public sector organisations need to figure out how to best implement these changes in their organisation and adapt organisational strategy.

You can watch the recording from this webinar here.

Coronavirus is no longer seen as high risk by many – and that’s undermining control measures

During the era of US prohibition, illegal speakeasies thrived. And while the UK socially distances, there are similar reports of secret parties and raves today. Beyond such gatherings, there have been anecdotes of people from all walks of life ignoring advice to self-isolateillicitly mixing with other households and refusing to wear masks.

Research suggests that although most people in the UK intend to follow social distancing guidelines, the number who do is far lower. This demonstrates a well-known phenomenon in public health called the “intention-behaviour gap”. But why are people’s behaviours not matching their intentions, and what implications does this have for our attempts to tackle COVID-19?

There’s a concept common to high-risk industries (such as aviation and the oil and gas industry) that might explain things: “risk normalisation”. This is where small risks become gradually acceptable over time. This is down to the brain judging how likely something is to happen based on how quickly an example of an occurrence of it comes to mind.

Early on in the pandemic, perceptions of risk were high. But by the end of October, only around 1%-2% of the UK population had definitely had the virus. And of those people, only a fraction will have exhibited severe symptoms, meaning most people today have not personally seen the serious impact of COVID-19 on someone’s health.

It can therefore seem that infrequently meeting up with friends or family has a low chance of affecting your own health. This low-risk perception may then tip the scales towards people deciding to break guidelines. Indeed, studies in the US and the UK have identified that lower perceived risk levels influence people to ignore public health guidance.

How to stop people ignoring risks

There are several ways that the government could combat risk normalisation. These involve employing strategies that high-risk industries use to keep their workforces safe.

One tried-and-tested tactic is regular communication about risk. Frequent communication can help remind people about unseen dangers, making them more likely to prioritise safe behaviour. Energy companies, for example, send summaries of incidents from across the sector to teams, and schedule time for staff to talk about how to prevent something similar happening.

The effectiveness of using this tactic during the pandemic can be seen in several countries that have successfully limited the spread of the disease. Vietnam has seen remarkably few deaths, partly because of its communication strategy. The Vietnamese government has used multiple media, including a pop song, to repeatedly convey information. These communications have sent a consistent message to citizens every day.

In a survey of PR professionals, Germany’s and New Zealand’s communication strategies were also praised, rating timeliness, alignment with policies, and tone as the most important aspects of their success.

The attention demands of the cockpit can lead pilots to ignore risk warnings from other members of the crew. Skycolors/Shutterstock

While communication is key to shifting mindsets, high-risk industries have also shown that it’s important to design safety guidelines around how people actually behave, rather than how we hope people will behave. People will find themselves in situations where guidelines are not clear, social pressures make bending the rules attractive, or a distraction makes them forget about the rules.

The airline industry, for example, trains junior cabin crew to be more assertive, as pilots can become oblivious to their environment during periods of heavy concentration. Accidents have been attributed to this intense focus, when pilots ignored warnings from junior crew members and planes ran out of fuel. To avoid this happening, the training works to prepare crews for these natural but unwanted dynamics in human behaviour.

Similarly, the government could benefit from thinking about situations where people will want or need to dismiss risk and disregard the rules, and about how to design policies or guidance so that people have less desire to do so. Singapore, for instance, has given its citizens electronic tracing tokens, which tracks who they come into contact with without them having to download a smartphone app. Adopting something similar could help in the UK.

As of late October, the NHS COVID-19 app has been downloaded 18.6 million times, but assuming one smartphone per person, that still only represents approximately 30% of the population of England and Wales. There are several reasons people may not have downloaded the app, such as not owning a smartphone or having concerns over data security. Using tracing token has allowed the Singaporean government to get around these personal issues, stopping them from becoming reasons to dismiss risk.

Singapore’s TraceTogether tokens allows contact tracing without having to use a smart phone. EPA-EFE

In Eritrea, which at the time of writing has had less than 500 cases of COVID-19 (across a population of roughly 6 million), the government has recognised that people are far more likely to listen to local social networks and community elders when it comes to health advice. So, it has devolved the job of disseminating COVID-19 information to those people that the public actually listens to. The Eritrean government and UNICEF have also identified and supported disadvantaged groups, noting that these individuals might otherwise have to break health guidelines in order to survive.

With the holiday season fast approaching – and with it, the threat of compliance with public health rules falling – countries around the world should try to apply these principles as best they can. Regularly communicating about risk and designing human-centred policies that are harder to dismiss can go some way to balancing out lowering perceptions of risk.

Victoria Murphy, Postdoctoral Researcher in Professional Learning in Uncertainty, The Open University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Well done to two aspiring academics – Nicola and Marco

Nicola Croxton

Congratulations to Nicola Croxton who passed her PhD viva on 13 October with her thesis, ‘The internationalisation of corporate social responsibility: Nonmarket strategy in a global context’. Her supervisors are Prof Liz Daniel, Prof Dev Kodwani and former OU academics Prof Thomas Lawton and Dr Raquel Garcia-Garcia. The chair was Prof Jean Hartley, the external examiner was Prof Nicholas O’Regan (Aston Business School) and the internal examiner was Dr Richard Godfrey. Nicola is looking for opportunities to begin her academic career and hoping to build on her research interests. She is currently preparing two articles, that are being developed from her doctoral thesis, to submit for publication.

Marco Distinto

Congratulations also to Marco Distinto who passed his PhD viva with no corrections on 21 October. His thesis is ‘Refugee reception centres and the integration of the migrant: an exploratory study of discourses and practices of not-for-profit organizations working to support refugees in Italy’, supervised by Dr Cinzia Priola, Dr Alexandra Bristow and former OU academic Prof Peter Bloom. The chair was Dr Caroline Clarke, external examiner Dr Martyna Sliwa (University of Essex) and the internal examiner Prof Jo Brewis who each commended the significant theoretical, methodological and empirical contributions of his thesis, and recognised the sophisticated theoretical engagement of his work. Marco is currently working on the Italian version of the latest edition of Edgar and Peter Schein’s book, The corporate culture survival guide. He hopes to stay in academia and will be writing a series of papers to expand some of his research themes for this reason.

Policing project is financed by OU’s Covid-19 fund

Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Professor of Organisational Behaviour in the OU Business School, is leading on a project to research senior policing decision-making in the context of the radical uncertainties of the pandemic. Also involved in the project, which has been awarded an OU Covid-19 grant for £15,700, are Dr Nicky Miller and Dr Helen Selby-Fell in the Centre for Policing Research and Learning (CPRL).

This nine-month project will conduct case studies in two UK police forces and capture interview and archival data at a time when the crisis is still ongoing, and during a period of active early reflection and sensemaking. Professor Fenton-O’Creevy said: “The research will provide insight that can be drawn on to allow decision-makers to decide which strategies and actions worked during this time of radical uncertainty. The project has the potential for valuable impact on deliberations in policing organisations and national conversations about the organisation of policing, supporting learning from the crisis.”

Drawing on the CPRL’s network of 22 policing organisations and connections with the College of Policing and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), the team will embed impact throughout the project through joint sensemaking about emerging findings with the participating organisations and the wider CPRL network. The research also presents a good opportunity to deepen relationships with senior policing figures in the UK and will continue to position CPRL at the heart of debates about the future of policing.

5 paradoxical tensions facing HR leaders

Dr Layla Branicki is Senior Lecturer in HRM and Organisation Studies, based in the OU Business School’s Department for People and Organisations (DPO). This article is based on a project conducted with Dr Senia Kalfa (Macquarie University, Australia) and Professor Stephen Brammer (University of Bath, UK) about how Australian organisations have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research highlights how the pandemic has brought to the fore pre-existing paradoxical tensions within organisations and offers recommendations on navigating these uncertainties.

COVID-19 is impacting individuals, societies and organisations around the world in a range of ways. Besides controlling the spread and maintaining public health, the pandemic also introduced challenges for businesses, such as adopting remote work practices and organising the safe return to the office.

To understand how HR professionals navigated the pandemic, we interviewed 42 HR leaders across Australia between April and September 2020. The findings highlight that COVID-19 provoked multiple concurrent paradoxical tensions within  organisations. We categorise them below:

Employee safety vs employer prerogative – The first tension relates to ensuring employee safety and well-being while keeping a business functional and financially viable. For some organisations, continuing operations would expose employees to increased risk of infection, and for others implementing COVID safe work practices had significant financial consequences.

While COVID-safe measures were thought to be temporary, as the pandemic evolved and a recession became likely, some organisations started to plan for potential restructuring to improve efficiencies and/ or retrenchment of non-key employees.

Work intensification vs work visibility – The second tension involves employees (including HR managers) working longer hours with a dramatic reduction in the visibility of their work activities to supervisors.

Many interviewees reported managerial suspicion that employees who were not physically present at work were either not working or working ineffectively. This tension often meant that employees over communicated to signal their activities and contributions to managers and conversely managers sought for new approaches to monitor staff.

Alignment vs flexibility – Our third tension relates to the balancing act of generating plans that align with key organisational objectives while maintaining flexibility in the way employees work considering the COVID-19 related uncertainty. This contradiction placed the HR leaders we interviewed in an inherently difficult role whereby they were often expected to be certain about how to deal with uncertainty.

Old vs new normal – The fourth paradoxical tension indicates that in order to run ‘business as usual’ many organisations found different ways to work that included online platforms or virtual communication tools.

While organisational responses to COVID-19 demonstrated that rapid and substantial changes to work practices were possible, there was resistance from some traditionally minded senior managers to making temporary changes permanent.

Job insecurity vs commitment – Our final tension illustrates that identification with organisations has been strengthened throughout a period of increasing precarity and insecurity among employees. To some degree this reflects a reduction in outside options available to employees, but also a strong desire among employees to support their organisation throughout COVID-19.

We suggest that COVID-19 and the public health measures introduced to control its spread, raise the permissibility of contradictory organisational responses. As one HR manager put it, “I am the champion of the unknown”. Simultaneously, we argue that the paradoxes identified stem from pre-COVID contradictions, such as the endemic tension between improving employee productivity and ensuring employee wellbeing. By surfacing and intensifying these underlying tensions, COVID-19 has forced organisations to make decisions that illuminate previously unarticulated priorities and preferences.


Drawing on our interviews we now provide some insights regarding how HR managers can navigate the continuing uncertainties surrounding COVID-19.

Return to the workplace – The extent and timing of this process will vary across organisations. HR leaders we interviewed were struggling with the question of what next. They spoke at length about how return to the workplace was complicated by (a) uncertainty about the future impacts of COVID-19, such as a second (or third) wave of the virus and the lack of a vaccine, and (b) changing employee attitudes towards remote working.

Our research suggests that return to the workplace in the context of pandemic disease ought to be considered as an on-going process which is re-evaluated and updated as new information about the virus and its spread becomes available.

We recommend HR leaders evaluate how to balance the flexibility and (potential) productivity gains from remote work with maintaining a sense of organisational engagement and culture.

Sector trends – The desire and extent to which the businesses we interviewed were considering a return to the workplace was highly dependent on the sector. Some sectors (for eg, digital), had limited intention to fully return to the workplace as they possessed the capabilities to transition to remote working almost seamlessly, while for other more traditional sectors (eg, manufacturing) remote working was neither a feasible nor desirable option. Our findings suggest that for sectors that can offer flexible work options, not doing so will jeopardise the extent to which you can attract talent and ultimately your employee value proposition.

Employee needs and concerns – Navigating the pandemic may necessitate different solutions for different employee segments. In our interviews, HR leaders encouraged line managers frequently check in with employees to identify concerns and offer appropriate support and work accommodations.

For example, employees with pre-existing health conditions may need to work at home for an extended period, while employees who have experienced significant illness as a result of contracting the COVID-19 virus may need accommodations through a managed return to work program. Employees with caring and parental responsibilities may require pre-agreed flexibility plans to enable them to respond to the closure of care and school facilities.

Return to the workplace plans need to consider how to best balance the needs of each employee with the requirements of their roles against a backdrop of continuing uncertainty.

This article was originally published on HRM – the news site of the Australian HR Institute (AHRI) – and is available here. It was co-authored with project partners Dr Senia Kalfa (Macquarie University, Australia) and Professor Stephen Brammer (University of Bath, UK).