How have HR professionals at universities been coping with COVID-19?

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Headshot of Elizabeth Bare
Elizabeth (Liz) Baré

Liz has headed the HR function in three different organisations. Her longest appointment was as Vice-Principal (Human Resources) at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where she and her colleagues developed the function from a personnel function to a well-regarded HR division. Later, she became Head of Administration, where she was responsible for service delivery of IT, HR, marketing, property and grounds, as well as overseeing a major restructure of administrative service delivery. Liz is advisor to the ACU HR in HE community Steering Committee.

COVID-19 has disrupted life globally, and universities are no exception. HR has a significant leadership role to play in supporting universities, leaders, staff, students cope with the crisis. Here we have Elizabeth Baré, Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia, answering questions from the Q&A at the HR in HE community webinar last month. 

1. How can HR staff manage their own peace of mind in this situation?

I would suggest that in these times, the role of the HR leader becomes even more important. Regular contact between HR leaders with HR staff, which will most likely be remote, is vitally important to ensure that people can discuss problems/issues and be supported.

2. Is it ideal for universities to still grant annual leave to staff this year considering the long period we've spent at home?

My response to this is based on whether staff have been required to work while they have been locked down or confined to home.  In Australia, staff are expected to continue to work, but remotely, and hence should not have leave removed.  The situation might be different for staff who have been placed on furlough (i.e not required to work and not be paid). In those circumstances, it might be reasonable to grant annual leave, as this way those staff may have access to salary, albeit for a limited period.

3. I am worried about the legitimacy of the remote management of staff. Where and how do we draw the line?

This is an interesting question. There are health and safety and security issues about staff working remotely, and employers need to be sure that staff are working in appropriate conditions.  On the other hand, I have been talking to people who are managing staff remotely and their major issue seems to relate to their own workloads. They have been scheduling regular team meetings (many have an online check in meeting at the same time every day where staff discuss their current work) and supervisors are scheduling regular one on one remote meetings with staff, so they spend more of their time than they did previously in actively managing staff, which may offset some of the risks the questioner envisaged.

4. In the event that staff have to be laid off, which category in your view could be affected more - top, middle or support staff?

The temptation in higher education is that the first call in layoffs is support staff as they generally are not involved in face to face delivery to students or research. The research we have done in Australia into situations where support staff have been laid off in times of economic downturn suggests that this may be a flawed strategy. We have examined numerous cases and we’ve seen that once the immediate crisis has passed, support staff numbers not only increase to previous levels, but exceed them. Layoffs are costly in both financial and human terms. Overall, any layoffs should be linked to the university’s or the government’s broad strategy, with the university tailoring its activities to institutional and national requirements for education and research and the available funding. HR practitioners have a significant role to play in translating the academic and financial strategies to easily understandable people strategies, which are accepted by staff as unfortunate but necessary, as well as  developing fair processes to manage any staff layoffs or redundancies, supporting both the staff who leave and those who remain.

5. Once the university starts classes and students/teachers return to work, do you feel that HR should introduce different rules for at risk staff?

Yes. It depends on the nature of the virus, but it seems to kill those who have co-morbidities (eg heart problems, diabetes and not just age). The rules should be designed to protect the vulnerable and should be based on the health of the individual. For example, where it is possible, people in those categories should be supported to work from home or have their interactions with others restricted. I think HR has a role in identifying at risk staff, and working with them and their managers to find alternate duties or ways of fulfilling their roles.

6. How should universities respond to the issues of social distancing? How should this be monitored to ensure effectiveness?

Under the standard model of university teaching, social distancing is almost impossible (large classes, tutorials and practical groups result in a degree of close personal proximity), so shutting down face to face teaching is probably the only answer. Under government pandemic plans, shutting down educational institutions is usually one of the first mandated actions once a pandemic is declared. As part of a planning exercise at the University of Melbourne, we modelled what would need to be done to keep the university operating if the national pandemic plan were activated. It was a complicated exercise, and our planning did not envisage months long lock downs, but it showed that we were able to identify the 200 key people needed to keep a university with over 40,000 students and 10,000 staff operational.

7. What should be the focus for HR in HE after COVID-19?

While the current pandemic disrupts life as we know it, including in higher education, the pandemic almost certainly will expose problems in university systems and processes of which we were not aware. At an operational level, and fairly soon after the worst effects of the pandemic subside, I think it is important that HR departments initiate a self-evaluation of how they handled the pandemic, with lessons learned. However, some of the problems highlighted may identify systemic weaknesses in HR strategies and processes, such as recruitment, skill mix, workforce planning, remuneration and reward systems and training and development programmes. The future success of HR in HE, I suspect, will therefore rest on the capacity of leaders to identify HR fault lines within their university, propose new ways of doing things and to gain university leadership support to implement them.  

If those fault lines arise from problems of national regulations or approaches, in my experience HR in HE is most influential when HR leaders from different universities work together to identify and propose solutions to problems, and then actively work within their institution to gain support for those solutions.

8. In the near future, will technology have a greater role in deciding the structure and size of HR departments in higher education institutions?

Absolutely, yes. The impact of technology has already changed the structure and size of HR departments. Over the past 20 years, in many countries, we have moved from paper record keeping to centralised data entry, and now to large enterprise systems with online approvals where staff enter and maintain data about themselves. These changes alone have resulted in the reduction of the number of more junior clerical jobs in HR. We have also seen the rise in allocation of responsibility for management of staff to academic leaders, eg. Heads of School, and the growth of the role of HR Advisor.  The advent of enterprise IT systems has enabled the collection of more data, thus enabling HR analytics, requiring a new skill set but fewer staff. Leaders now demand data presented in clear and simple ways, so infographics are increasingly used in reports. Already, some universities are exploiting the data in their student systems to provide an on demand individualised service to students. One might expect that academic and other managers will demand similar support from HR. The use of AI may impact on the role of HR advisors, as many of the questions currently asked could be easily answered. The structure and skill mix required of HR may change radically in the next few years.