Out of the frying pan into the fire. That is the obvious conclusion to draw from Nikki Humphrey’s decision to leave Virgin Atlantic to become John Lewis Partnership’s (JLP) new executive director for people.

Both organisations have been beset by challenges brought about by covid-19, and as bellwethers of their respective industries have faced their every decision being poured over by the media.

Virgin Atlantic, where Humphrey was chief people officer, received negative press at the start of the crisis for asking staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave in an effort to reduce costs while minimising job losses. It has subsequently confirmed it is cutting more than 3,000 staff out of a total of 10,000.

John Lewis, meanwhile, has been under the spotlight for its decision to shutter eight stores permanently putting 1,300 jobs at risk.

Redundancies never make for great headlines but are a necessary evil for businesses if they are to remain viable in the long-term.

The rush by many retailers to slim down headcounts and rebalance roles towards digital operations means HR and people directors like Humphrey will have a huge role to play in managing structural changes accelerated by covid-19.

At Anthony Gregg Partnership, we’ve recently experienced a surge in enquiries for HR director roles as retailers look to recruit people who can help deliver the kind of business transformation many CEOs are looking for.

More so than ever, being a senior people executive will require a deep level of engagement with the core business strategy as retailers seek new skills, move people into new roles and adapt to remote working practices. Those with solid core HR skills but lacking a strategic bent may themselves vulnerable to the radical shift in direction that is set to take place.

Many of these changes were in progress at JLP before the pandemic struck. Chair Dame Sharon White warned staff in February that the retailer may need to reduce its store estate and cut jobs in a bid to improve profitability. A month later, partners received the lowest bonus paid since 1953.

Humphrey will be responsible for creating a people strategy for JLP’s 80,000 partners – no small task in the current turbulent environment. She will need to apply humanity to the task of dealing with staff whose jobs are at risk and support those whose working patterns have changed, all the while taking and implementing tough decisions that safeguard the partnership’s future.

Although new roles are likely to be created as JLP continues to invest in digital, most are unlikely to be accessible for store staff. Employee turnover is set to remain high for some time and, coupled with the prospect of tough trading conditions, morale may suffer as a result.

Humphrey, who describes herself as pragmatic and commercial, has a strong CV with over 20 years leading large scale organisation and culture change including as chief people officer at Lloyds Banking Group (another business that went through a period of trauma following the 2008 banking crisis).  She will need every bit of that experience to help extinguish the flames that threaten to burn around JLP for some time to come.

In these unprecedented times, the arrival of August may not signal the usual escape to holiday destinations but I hope readers find the opportunity to rest and recuperate ahead of a challenging, but hopefully improving autumn. This column will return in September.