Employees will work for less if you truly fix work-life balance, say HR leaders

CIPD Annual Conference hears retaining critical talent is most pressing priority for people professionals

Finding and retaining employees with key digital or technical capabilities is the most important role for people professionals in the modern economy, according to a panel of influential HR leaders – but it isn’t necessarily money that will give you the edge in holding onto your best talent.

Speaking on the second day of the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester, the group – spanning the private and public sectors and containing some of the best known leaders in the profession – debated the roles and responsibilities of HR given the huge changes taking place to business models and the broader labour market.

Creating the right sort of culture and incentives quickly emerged as a critical consideration. Ann Pickering, chief HR officer and chief of staff at O2, began the debate by telling delegates she wanted her business to be “a hotel, not a prison”, adding: “I want people to choose to be there.” She said recruiting for skills had become less important than getting the right mindset among new hires and giving them the conditions that would keep them engaged: “I don’t even know some of the skills we will need in five years’ time, so it’s about attracting people with the right attitude.”

Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth, the BBC’s HR director, agreed it was getting harder to find people with digital skillsets, pointing out that her organisation was in direct competition for talent with Netflix, Google and Apple. “A lot of those organisations are poaching our staff, particularly those with digital skills,” she said. “It means thinking about employee experience rather than us in the HR department making assumptions. We put [employees] at the forefront of our thinking, not what we in the back office think.”

But how do HR teams compete for such employees? The answer isn’t as straightforward as money, according to Stephen Moir, executive director of resources at Edinburgh City Council. He said his organisation had enjoyed reasonable success in attracting and retaining people by ensuring it created the type of working environment that would appeal to a new generation of employees. “They come because we give them the work-life balance and flexible working they want,” said Moir. “They will take a massive cut in pay in order to get that.”

Meanwhile, Tim Jones, group head of HR at the London Stock Exchange, explained that he saw globalisation and the ability to create teams in different parts of the world as a key differentiator as he considered his future workforce. The business operated offices in Romania, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, he said, supplementing the core expertise at its UK headquarters and helping it pursue new growth.

“We need to encourage people to be more global in their mindsets,” said Jones. “Of course, it creates tension when roles are migrated but get those people involved [in the process].” He suggested that being open and honest about whether jobs would be shifted overseas, and helping people develop new skills relating to that outsourcing process, could help mitigate many negative effects.

The panel also considered the skills and attributes that would be required among HR professionals in the future. “We need to evolve and focus much more on harder skills,” concluded Hughes-D’Aeth, who cited a study that claimed only 9 per cent of HR professionals felt they had all the capabilities they needed in their  current role: a fact she described as “shocking”. 

Citing use of data, financial literacy and reward as key areas many people professionals needed to strengthen in, Hughes-D’Aeth offered a range of advice. “Use the people in your function and their expertise. Use the data scientists and other specialists and learn from them. Use the CIPD Profession Map.” 

But she added: “The opportunity for HR to influence boardrooms and managers is fantastic at the moment. I remember the days when it was a bit of admin and payroll or helping managers deal with a difficult employee. It has evolved massively.”

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