The past 18+ months have been hugely challenging for HR leaders as the pandemic thrust businesses and employees into uncharted chaos and uncertainty. From supporting employee groups operating unrelentingly on the frontline to helping those who suddenly became home workers or faced an overnight closure of their business, HR bore the brunt of the business response.
But, for all its challenges, the pandemic has demonstrated the immense value of HR and we will see its role continue to evolve and develop as we move forward. As businesses carve out a ‘new normal’ and respond to the changing expectations and needs of employees, HR is playing a key part in reimagining and reshaping the workplace going forward.
The transition to hybrid
As the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, businesses underwent the largest impromptu work-from-home experiment in history, with 8.4 million employees working from home at one point.
With employers now considering the best way forward, it’s clear that many employees have relished a better work-life balance and the return to the office is unlikely to look the way it did pre-pandemic.
We’ve already seen a large number of big organisations, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, announce hybrid working models and this will undoubtedly be the future of work as employees increasingly come to expect a more agile, flexible way of working.
This will be particularly important for businesses to attract and retain talent in the future, with twice as many under-35s wanting permanent flexible working compared to over-55s. The success of any business rests on its people and the influx of Generation Z means employers need to offer a working culture that is attractive to this workforce. With younger employees more willing to job hop in pursuit of flexibility and growth opportunities, offering working options that are truly flexible in where and when the work is done will be critical.
But getting the right hybrid model in place will be a delicate balancing act for HR leaders. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to addressing and meeting employee needs, and with teams split in different locations, HR will need to ensure that managers and leaders are equipped with the right skills and tools required to maintain culture, collaboration, engagement and the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees.
Over the next 12 months, HR leaders will need to work closely with line managers and their teams to cultivate a culture of mutual trust and openness through regular, effective, two-way communication.
After such an extended period of working from home, there will naturally be employees for whom the return to the office is a daunting prospect and this will pose a challenge. Line managers will need to gain a clear insight into what is driving this reluctance and HR should identify any steps that can be taken to address and assuage this reluctance.
Equally, there will be those employees for whom remote working is no longer possible or who prefer to come into the office and their situation, and the dynamics of the overall team, will also need to be carefully managed.
It is critical that any permanent hybrid working policy touches each and every point of the employee lifecycle and is equitable for all employees, ensuring no one feels unfairly treated or discriminated against.
As business leaders switch their focus from survival to recovery and growth, HR leaders will need to align themselves more closely with the business strategy and goals – central to this will be data insight.
Using data to add insight and drive decision-making is crucial to HR, but it’s fair to say that HR has faced more challenges than other departments because of decentralised systems, with separate recruitment, payroll and HR databases.
Our research found that while more than four in five organisations have a formal HR technology strategy in place or plan to introduce one over the coming 12 months, just over half (56 per cent) currently use it for data analytics. But to meet the needs of a changing workforce, HR leaders must be continually observing data and trends within recruitment, employee turnover and employee sentiment and productivity to enable them to make more effective decisions for the future.
To allow HR the time and resources to achieve this, line managers will need to be empowered to take on greater responsibility for their teams which so often bogs down HR departments. A key focus for HR over the next 12 months will be putting in place the right training and coaching to help managers hone their people skills and become more proactive and self-supporting managers, capable of dealing with issues such as employee grievances and absence management.
It is also important that professional skills keep pace with a more data-driven HR function. Our research showed that two-fifths of HR leaders felt their technological capability within their team is basic, with just one in 10 (11 per cent) describing it as advanced.
While people management skills will continue to play a huge part in managing change and building employee-centric businesses, there will also be a greater need for statistical analysis and commercial awareness skills. A study by Cognizant revealed that no fewer than 10 of 21 new HR roles that are expected to emerge over the next decade will require some skills in data.
For much of the past 18 months, HR has been in crisis mode helping businesses steer their way through the uncertainty but as the dust settles, we will see HR emerge as an established strategic partner, adding value, enhancing business productivity and creating competitive advantage.
Noelle Murphy is senior HR practice editor at XpertHR