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Managing change, conflict and uncertainty will be at the heart of employee relations in 2022

Between August and October 2021, we issued a short survey to a group of employee relations professionals working in the UK. Being an ER specialist during the pandemic has meant dealing with a series of difficult issues - alongside employees and their representatives – such as rapid responses to homeworking, bringing in swift changes to working practices, understanding and implementing furlough at short notice, providing support with tough personal issues, sometimes implementing pay cuts, perhaps redundancy, and dealing with incredible levels of employee uncertainty – all remotely. In terms of the HR profession, those in ER were pushed into the spotlight and put under incredible stress themselves.

We had 24 responses to our survey, with 70% of these respondents working in organisations with over 500 employees and in a range of industries in the private and public sectors. Whilst this isn’t a large survey sample, their views reflect our own experiences and is consistent with the anecdotal feedback we have heard. They reveal what the last 12 months have been like, what the next 12 months will focus on and how confident they feel about managing change. We also asked about the key areas of capability required by ER professionals in the coming years.

Unsurprisingly, the last 12 months have seen just over half of these employee relations professionals focus on Covid-19 and return to workplace issues. Alongside that, a third have been focusing on redundancies, restructuring and changing terms and conditions. Managing workplace conflict was the next issue to have preoccupied their time. Given the nature of employee relations issues, the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of the pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on wellbeing and resilience. This year, on 10 October, it was world mental health day and the professionals we have spoken to are very conscious of taking care of their own wellbeing.

Looking ahead to the next 12 months, our survey participants are highly likely to be dealing with three main topics – restructuring, wellbeing and returning to physical workplaces. Again, managing workplace conflict is also seen as likely for the majority, with changing terms and conditions and redundancies seeing a mixed response – a high priority for some but not others. Those in distribution and retailing have had the added disruption and conflict arising from staffing shortages and the impact of issues with supply chains.

We asked those respondents with unions or employee representatives to tell us how they felt their representatives would respond to the challenges ahead. Over 60% said they were confident they would resolve change well. However, the remaining respondents expect to have some form of collective conflict in the next 12 months. The fundamental skills in employee relations, such as conflict resolution and problem solving, will be critical in helping to find creative solutions to these problems. This also highlights the need for support mechanisms to allow the sharing of best practice and innovation in our field.

Looking to the professional itself, the most important ER skills required over the coming year, according to our respondents, will be business transformation as the focus remains on restructuring and returning to workplaces. Managing and building effective collective relationships with unions and employee representatives will also be a skill required by our respondents. Other skills required will be managing redundancies and handling employee engagement and communication during change, transformation and in some cases, business growth.

During a debate about the results, held during our first network meeting, other themes emerged. Some participants feel that pay negotiations will be difficult with employees who have felt under pressure during the pandemic, expecting to be well rewarded to reflect that. This was described as a ‘heroes dynamic’ and also contributed to a wider point where we see potential conflict from increasing expectations from employees, increased costs for businesses and more uncertainty in the economic environment. Working from home will also continue to throw up challenges particularly around performance management and role allocation, ensuring that discrimination does not arise.

A final point raised was that, with all this change happening, resilience will continue to be a critical skill for our ER professionals.

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