Caterina Glenn, Director and Head of the HR Division and Non-Qualified Finance at specialist finance and HR recruitment firm, Wade Macdonald, discusses the increasingly important role of employee relations (ER) in HR and how HR professionals should prepare for the future.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the role of HR has changed dramatically, one of the biggest shifts being the increased necessity of employee relations (ER) expertise. In fact, our research found that 47 per cent of HR professionals now spend more time on employee relations than ever before.

ER professionals have often been on the frontline of workplace changes as organisations adapt to new ways of working and employee needs, and their role is likely to expand further over the coming year.

The changing role of employee relations

The pandemic changed workplace practice considerably, with one of the most significant changes being the emergence of remote, flexible and hybrid working. 47 per cent of managers we surveyed last year felt they had to change their management style during the pandemic, and even now they may still be developing some of the niche skills needed to manage a team from afar.

While hybrid working has been a great benefit for many, facilitating a better work-life balance and achieving financial savings from fewer commutes, it can also mean that teams are more difficult to manage and grievances can be left unchecked, leading to greater problems down the line and a backlog of unresolved problems.

Mental health problems have also become increasingly prevalent in workplaces. 39 per cent of our respondents cited wellbeing and mental health as the top reason for increased grievances, and during the pandemic we found that mental health issues rose at around 48 per cent.

All of this, among other things, has fuelled a sharp rise in ER issues. The role of ER professionals, and HR professionals generally, has become increasingly challenging, and it is likely that employee relations will be one of the biggest training focusses of HR in 2024, with more generalist HRs receiving training in employee relations specifically.

Considering the increased importance of the HR role within organisations, it is no surprise that HR salaries have risen significantly, with ER Manager salaries in particular rising by 66 per cent in the last six years, higher than any other role in the HR function.

We measured this by comparing the data from Wade Macdonald’s previous six salary guides, spanning from 2019 to 2024, with the most recent salary guide receiving responses from 850 finance and HR professionals. The pattern of salary increases generally remains consistent for the majority of HR roles, with a pay drop during the lockdown years and quick recovery thereafter, which can be seen clearly in ER Manager salaries.

The comparative data shows that between 2019 and 2020 ER Managers took a stark nine per cent pay drop, but they quickly recovered with a 25 per cent pay rise between 2020 and 2021, and a 31 per cent pay rise between 2021 and 2022. Pay continued to rise at five percent between 2022 and 2023, and seven per cent between 2023 and 2024, higher than the UK’s national average of five to six per cent in 2023.

The increased recognition of the value HR professionals, and ER Managers specifically, bring to an organisation likely means that pay will continue to rise as HR roles become more challenging and more central to organisations’ operations and endurance.

2024 ER trends so far

There are several issues emerging so far this year that will impact ER specialists, and HR professionals as a whole, and we are expecting more to emerge as 2024 progresses.

1. Grievances increasingly reaching tribunal

Increasing numbers of grievance cases are going to tribunal with employers now often on the losing side, which is bad news for the pockets and reputations of these organisations. For example, menopause is being discussed more openly and cases based on this topic are continuing to gain traction – Direct Line recently lost £64K in a tribunal case.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has also recently provided new guidance setting out employers’ legal obligation of care regarding menopause under the Equality Act 2011. With increasing recognition of employee wellbeing in the workplace, it is likely employees will become more willing to speak openly if treated poorly, so it is essential that employers put measures in place that support all employees, regardless of whether the issues they are facing are protected by law.

2. The hybrid vs remote working debate rages on

The full benefits of hybrid and remote working are also still being debated. The general consensus is that hybrid working is here to stay, but the number of days that employees work in the office is being fiercely fought over, with some suggestions that businesses should begin paying employees’ commuting fees if they want them on site more often.

Employers in favour of in-office working argue that remote working reduces performance, damages culture, and makes teams harder to manage, whereas employees may counter that the increased freedom offered by hybrid agreements allow them to work better and improves their quality of life in and outside of work. This dispute is fuelling further tension in workplaces and increasing the need for HRs to act as a go-betweens to settle hybrid working grievances.

3. The rise of ‘chronoworking’

Additionally, a new trend of ‘chronoworking’ has also emerged over the past few weeks, whereby employees log on at a time that suits them, whether that’s 6am or 11pm, with a few hours during the day when employees must be available for workplace collaboration. This is by no means a widespread practice, but many employees are claiming that being able to set their own schedule and work when suits them best, will make them more productive.

There is an argument to be made for this, but again, it means leaders will need to adapt to facilitate the potentially drastic time differences between the working hours of employees and HR professionals will need to be prepared to handle any unexpected difficulties that may develop from this new way of working.

All of these issues, and others that will take shape over the coming year, will challenge HR and ER professionals as the potential for further conflicts rise. Leaders will be paying further attention to the role of the HR department in facilitating the smooth operation of their organisation. Over 2023, we saw HRs starting to play a greater role in business direction and decisions, and this is likely to become an even more significant part of the role.

Figuring out how to adapt to these changes will be essential for managing employee wellbeing and operational efficiency during 2024.

What should HRs and leaders do to prepare for employee relations issues in 2024?

It may be tempting for HR departments to look outwards to determine how to resolve workplace issues, however the best thing HR leaders can do is look inwards towards other HR professionals.

The increased challenges and rate of change will have taken a toll on HRs over the past few years, and in order to manage employee grievances in an organisation effectively, leaders will need to ensure that their HR department is cared for and prepared.

1. Invest in training opportunities

Investing in training opportunities, particularly in employee relations and people management, will help facilitate the smoother running of the department and ensure issues within the organisation do not escalate due to poor management. While HR professionals have been handling grievances for a long time, the drastic change of the types and quantity of issues may mean that previous best practice needs to be evaluated and altered to fit the current climate.

Investing in training will help to avoid potential tribunals and begin to make a dent in the number of employee relations cases awaiting review. It will also become easier to mitigate any other issues that may arise and help HRs feel more confident in managing unexpected problems.

2. Increased communication

Communication from leaders and HR professionals will also be essential in helping to manage employee expectations and ensure effective solutions are reached. Clear boundaries, and the reasons behind these boundaries, alongside open discussion about what support is and is not available or needed, will help to facilitate better workplace relationships throughout the organisation. There is more pressure than ever on employers to manage employee needs and preferences successfully, and it is the responsibility of leaders to determine how this happens to prevent HR workloads skyrocketing when grievances occur.

3. Looking after HR

Finally, HR and business leaders will need to ensure that effective wellbeing and support measures are put in place that all employees, including HR professionals, can utilise. This will ensure that any health or workplace problems that arise from managing employee issues are dealt with quickly and effectively, which will prevent further problems developing down the line.

When resolving other people’s issues, it can be difficult for HRs to remember that individual issues can impact their own wellbeing, which in turn can affect workplace performance. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and addressing problems as they arise are key to success in an HR role.

We cannot predict what new challenges HR professionals may be faced with over the coming year. However, by ensuring useful mechanisms are in place to provide support, training, and facilitate open communication, HR departments and organisational leaders will be in the best possible position to succeed and overcome any obstacles that lie ahead.

Director and Head of HR Division and Non-Qualified Finance at Wade Macdonald | + posts

Caterina Glenn has been Director of HR Division and Non-Qualified Finance since 2020, having joined Wade Macdonald, a specialist accountancy, finance and HR recruiter, in 2018 as a Senior Manager. Glenn specifically manages permanent recruitment, with her team dealing with roles on a permanent and interim basis.