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HR in disruption

What shift has the pandemic and the restrictions of lockdown forced on HR and the Chief HR Officer? What key trends have emerged in our workplace practices? And has our take on the Future of Work changed because of it? In Season 2 of our Humanising the Future of Work podcast, Daniel Hind ponders these questions with Hazel Patmore, Director in our HR in our Human Capital practice and Nick Sloan, Senior Director in our Human Capital practice.

During the last year, the main shift seems to have been the development of hybrid ways of working and a big focus on wellbeing, with underlying themes around an organisation's purpose and how HR drives employee experience to ensure that the future is sustainable post-pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic has also seen employees increasingly looking for a business that has a distinct societal purpose, where they can drive their experience through their careers, with a company that has a sustainable future.

The Future of Work could be viewed as a threat to HR with its high levels of automation, particularly within some administrative functions when outsourcing talent models. But in truth, it gives HR a real opportunity to step up and lead the people agenda, particularly around the pace of policy change, adaptive working processes, amongst other things, that departments have had to do which has all been driven and enabled through the HR function.

What are the challenges preventing HR from driving the Future of Work agenda?

Capacity seems to be one of the main issues. HR is under pressure now, regardless of the sector they’re in. They must deliver the core basics and the experience, purpose, hybrid working, and automation agendas.

On top of this, the pandemic has increased the focus on wellbeing, health, and ways of working activities. All of which means HR functions are feeling the strain.

So, how can HR help build resilience, not only within their ranks but across the business as a whole? And how can they continue to support employees in a disruptive environment?

The need to build flexibility and agility by looking at capacity levels within the organisation has become much more critical in the last 18 months. After all, HR is experiencing the same pressures as everyone else while at the same time having to spearhead initiatives and interventions themselves to help the business continue to perform.

In many ways, the pandemic has accelerated change in the way we use our offices and how we use technology, which has meant culture and employee experience needs reassessing. HR should lead the way by partnering with real estate, and IT functions in helping to define what the future workplace is for their people.

Many would view this as HR's remit, not something line managers are responsible for. So how does HR approach this? Do they create something that suits specific segments of the workforce instead of a one-size-fits-all blanket approach? This would mean empowering line managers to take more accountability of their people.

Has COVID changed the way HR partners with the business?

Previous transformations have seen HR move from a more operational structure to more of a strategic partner. That said, the basic requirements still need to be performed, like the hygiene of running a business and maintaining a healthy workforce.

But it's not all about function either. It's both. When the CHRO sits at the table, they want to talk about the workforce and people strategy. And that is what HR brings to the business table, how to think about people and HR interventions supporting the achievement of strategic business objectives.

In other words, HR has become workforce architects who act as stewards and advocates of the organisational purpose. And how every decision will impact the business strategy or objectives. Adopting this workforce architectural role is a process and is a collective responsibility from different parts of the business.

How does HR bring value?

They've got to bring data to the table. Many C-suites are driven by data, so showing them the productivity measures and metrics will help. Historically there is a lack of trust in HR, which varies across organisations. Some have seen the value of HR and therefore want them to be involved in strategic business decisions. In contrast, others need time and working in collaboration and partnership with HR to see the benefit.

What's stopping HR from leading these agendas?

It seems to be down to a mixture of few things. Lack of investment has meant that HR has not been able to keep up with the shift in technology, people development, capabilities and skills. Outward perception plays a significant role; for instance, some see HR as policy and regulation enforcers, where dealing with them comes from a negative standpoint.

Other challenges facing HR – industry specific

The shadow of BREXIT still looms large. There are significant implications for the government sector and policy, immigration, and the workforce and what it means for talent models. Add effects from the pandemic and you have the perfect storm.

CHROs must navigate some real dilemmas ­– like levelling-up, for example. Remote working has proven to be very successful and businesses are looking at decentralising and switching to supporting localised workforces and economies. There is also a big drive around cost-efficiency but this must be balanced with flexible working. Add in the focus on employee experience, the Future of Work and creating the right proposition as you go forward for an engaged workforce; there are so many things to consider.

Things can be complex in the public sector too. Partly because there is no one size fits all as there are mini-sub sectors within the different sectors and all with their own set of criteria. Some have responded to the supply and demand of the pandemic, and others have struggled because they have not been able to open stores.

One area where HR has excelled is in their conversations with CIOs, where they have often led on the tech agenda because they want employees to have the latest and the best experience.

Traditionally, HR has been seen more as a customer of IT rather than a driver and collaborator of change. However, with the advent of COVID, there has been an increase of applications around wellbeing and using technology to enhance the experience, particularly in the virtual and remote world.

Building evolving capabilities

The continuous reskilling of your organisation should be part of your corporate DNA because the level of change in skills needed is high. Including tactical and technical skills required and human-enabled skills that help with problem-solving and creativity, which a bot or AI can't deliver.

We need an ever-evolving approach that's more resilient and can adapt during times of disruption. First, focus on what you are trying to achieve in terms of work outcomes and where. Don't try to change things overnight but disrupt around the edges. Find a space to pilot new ways of working and new capabilities development, test it through pilot schemes, then scale it. Think big, start small.

Capacity may feel like a strain when transforming the organisation as all HR change programmes seem to be front-loaded in the first 12 months, because everything's a priority. If you want to continue to drive these changes then add capacity - either by buying, developing, or doing something different around how outcomes are delivered.

And finally, instead of seeing HR as a cost function and trying to do more with less, look at how increasing capacity will help deliver more value and drive more business outcomes.

For more Future of Work insights, check out our Humanising the Future of Work podcast

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