By Darren Patterson, Associate Director, People and Change Consulting, Grant Thornton Northern Ireland

Darren Patterson
Darren Patterson

To say that HR teams are busy in the COVID-19 era would be an understatement. Now, more than ever, they are central to how companies are redesigning their people practices to build resilience and drive value.

The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating pre-existing trends in key areas of talent management that form part of any progressive organisation’s people strategy: attracting and retaining the best talent, people development, managing and rewarding performance, tailoring the employee experience, and optimising workforce planning to build future capacity.

All of these are vital elements of the HR playbook in helping companies navigate new ways of working as employees gradually return to the workplace in the post-lockdown era.

For example, take learning and development; many of our clients are now faced with a choice between controlling cost pressures in a downturn with the need to deliver training to help workers adapt to a changing operating environment.

HR leaders must see this as an opportunity and help shape a new agenda for learning and development, enabling their organisations to learn and grow through cost-effective training solutions. Examples of such an approach includes:

Broad-based digital training in critical skillsets: Many organisations are expanding remote training to address challenges, such as effective leadership of remote teams (a new skill set for most managers) and building personal resilience in difficult circumstances.

Our team have been busy creating online COVID-19-related content on remote working, leadership, and wellbeing – capabilities that matter now more than ever before.

Focused upskilling rooted in changing work: Such forms of upskilling are function and team specific and tied to different ways of working. For example, HR and learning and development teams moving from a largely in-person to virtual or hybrid delivery model will need to be upskilled in the practices that drive successful virtual training design and delivery.

The right approach can bolster employee performance—and help HR demonstrate significant value add.

Leadership development: An interesting corollary of the crisis has been that businesses have had to operate with much more agility in response to unprecedented challenges.

This has seen the slow pace of corporate bureaucracy replaced by clear goals, focused teams, and rapid decision-making. HR leaders have a key role to play in making sure that this change sticks.

Leadership development programmes can provide support for faster, more agile organisations. In particular, a company can identify the three to five shifts in leadership behaviour that would be required to keep them moving in a more focused way.

Leaders who are working on these skills can spend a small amount of their learning time in formal settings (in classroom, online, or with a coach) and the majority of it working on real project-based business problems (which the current health crisis has naturally provided).

The pandemic has forced businesses to adjust rapidly to survive. The HR function continues to have a central role in managing the radical shifts facing workforces during this time. It will be exciting to see how Northern Ireland’s HR leaders evolve their talent practices during the recovery—and beyond.

For further information or advice, Darren Patterson can be contacted at

Grant Thornton (NI) LLP specialises in audit, tax and advisory services.