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5 paradoxical tensions facing HR leaders

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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).