As the nation heads towards a highly unusual Christmas, our popular columnist Steve Herbert looks at future remote working challenges for HR professionals

“Christmas is a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, and pleasant time.”  The words of Fred – nephew of one Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol – are I think well known to most of us.

Yet we are separated from those words by 177 years, which probably explains why Fred failed to mention another key feature of the modern festive season.  Because Christmas is also a time for television repeats, and represents an annual opportunity to sit back and enjoy those one-off seasonal “specials” of so many famous and much-loved comedy programs of the past.  And the peculiar circumstances of 2020 remind me of one in particular.

Christmas Past

For in a Christmas edition of the (admittedly rather twee) sitcom The Good Life, the relentlessly middle-class Margo Ledbetter dramatically announces on the 25th December that;

“Christmas hasn’t been delivered!”

Now to be fair to poor Margo, she had ordered her household’s entire festive provisions (everything from tree to turkey) from one high-end provider, so this failure to deliver presented some genuine challenges, and as a result the Ledbetter’s are forced to dramatically change their Christmas habits and social life that year.

But that episode really felt like something from a bygone age, until the unexpected events of 2020 hove into view.  And as a result of lockdowns, local restrictions, self-isolation, shielding, and (of course) illness, so many more of us are suddenly required to place a massive reliance on home delivery to ensure this year’s festivities can proceed.  And, like Margo and her husband Jerry, we are all faced with a much reduced round of Christmas and New Year socialising too.

Christmas Present

And it also seems inevitable that the workplace Christmas this year will be very much changed.

Gone are all those endless (and often rather joyless too) office parties.  Some will miss this annual experience, others will be mightily relieved.

And both groupings might well welcome the reduction in those largely repetitive articles on the “perils of the office party” that usually dominate the media at this time of year.  Another plus for many Human Resources professionals will be the welcome knowledge that they will have far fewer post-party staffing issues to resolve in 2020 too.

So with the scaled-back workplace Christmas activity, it’s entirely possible that at least a few HR professionals will be provided with some unexpected – but much needed – time and breathing space to actively consider the future, and what happens when normality in the workplace finally returns post-vaccine.

Christmas Yet to Come?

But what will normality look like, given that we will be emerging from the strangest trading period outside of a world war?

And how can HR influence proceedings to ensure that their vital contribution to the workplace is still felt too?  This is particularly important, as it’s not entirely clear what many workplaces will actually look like in six months’ time, let alone six years’ time.

Some workforces are of course defined by their location, but it now seems obvious that so many others (and particularly those in office-based environments) can work remotely, and that there are often benefits to both employer and employee in doing exactly that.

Of course not all line managers would agree, although their arguments against such a policy might have withered between the start and end of the current year.  As I said in my April Employer News article (written just a week into UK’s full national lockdown);

“large swathes of the UK working population are now actively being encouraged to work from home by their line-managers or employers.  And having been given the green-light to work in this way, it’s likely that many will prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they can indeed work just as effectively at home as they do in the office.  It follows that at least some will continue to work in this way once the crisis has passed.”

So, like Christmas shopping in 2020, the future workplace for many is likely to be one managed largely at a distance, and with far less personal interaction.  And this doubtless suggests some entirely new challenges for many HR professionals to tackle in 2021 and beyond.

Time for Change?

And central to these challenges will be how to ensure effective delivery of the everyday functions and communications that were considered routine in most workplace as recently as February this year.  That list could well be a lengthy one, but should include:

  • Payslip access
  • Payroll queries
  • Appraisals
  • Absence self-certification
  • Return to work interviews
  • Holiday bookings
  • Team meetings
  • Expenses
  • CPD recording
  • Employee Benefits communications/information
  • Pension scheme surgeries

Of course many employers have found workable solutions to so much of the above during the last 9 months, although far fewer have managed to delivery on every aspect, with some key items – such as Employee Benefits and Pension surgeries – often being overlooked in the rush to deliver on other services that were deemed business-critical at the start of lockdown.

And then there are a number of organisations of all sizes that are really struggling in this new world to remotely deliver most – or indeed any – of these routine office functions.

The scale of the challenge for both groupings will vary of course, but is often dictated by how prepared each employer and their service suppliers were to provide such services remotely before the spectre of COVID-19 swung into sight in March 2020.

So the potentially quieter Christmas trading period ahead perhaps represents a one-off opportunity for HR professionals to review how successful they have been in delivering these services throughout lockdown(s), and begin the thought process of ensuring that the Christmas yet to come is one beset with fewer of the remote working challenges that have frustrated so many organisations of all sizes throughout the turbulent year of 2020.

And for those lucky HR professionals who already know that their employment systems and communications are all working effectively, then perhaps it is high time to just sit back and watch a classic Christmas comedy with a glass of something expensive (assuming it’s been delivered on time of course).

Stay safe and a Happy Christmas to all.


Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing


By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.