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How the human experience fits into the future of HR

29 Apr 2021 By Ben Whitter

With the world of work changed forever by the pandemic, it’s time to embrace a people-centred approach to business, says Ben Whitter

The world of work has changed beyond recognition in the past year or so. It stands to reason that, if organisations have changed, HR has had to change with them. But what is different now and how can we continue to maximise the full potential of the human experience at work?

By default, if you work in the people space, there will be some level of connection or association with HR and, therefore, you will no doubt be firmly a part of this well-established business idea that positions humans as resources. If you’re anything like me, this idea won’t sit comfortably with the way you work with people, teams and companies. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of why I got into HR in the first place, which was to help people fulfil their potential as human beings in work and life. 

Yet, if this was simply my personal view within a vast, established and powerful global profession, it may be tempting to stay quiet, stay in my lane and build a business and personal brand that reinforces this way of looking at employees. This would certainly be the easy path – to keep reinventing and building on this concept of HR. But it’s not just my view. As I’ve found from a period of intense research for my book, Human Experience at Work, and after speaking with thousands of colleagues around the world, something significant has happened, and is happening, in the corporate world. Companies are finding their humanity and it is creating greater scrutiny into how a business structures, organises and leads themselves into the future. 

The sheer scale of experiments and changes to work life has been profound. There has been a distinctly human feel to it all. From hybrid work practices to fully fledged digitalisation of work, the modern company now looks and feels very different. Humans, work and their experiences have converged in a way that nobody could have predicted. It’s helped a lot of people balance all of their responsibilities as a human, and there’s no turning back. For employers, there has been little choice but to become more human centred if they are to adapt to changing global and local economies and expectations. 

This begs the question: can a company be human centred and treat people like resources at the same time? This seems highly unlikely given worryingly low levels of reported trust in the HR profession. We ran one poll for this article and 70 per cent of business leaders reported that employees do not trust HR. What was so surprising, or not depending on your perspective, is that neither do many HR professionals. In another recent poll exploring the role of HR within the UK’s leading companies, 74 per cent said HR needs to change. This reinforces broader research and widely held perceptions globally. 

Indicative of some irreconcilable differences in practice, many of the piercing critiques about HR come from inside the profession itself. It is a profession intent on disrupting or hacking itself; a function that is destined to be in a constant and never-ending cycle of proving itself to its major stakeholders – employees and leaders. In many instances, walking a fence-sitting fine line between these groups is where HR departments find themselves. The ultimate middle ground: loved by no one and loathed by everyone. 

Many CEOs are saying this is simply not good enough anymore – and I agree with them because it is the CEO that institutes and establishes the overall approach of a company’s support functions. If HR leaders are poorly positioned within the business, it’s often not their fault (though admittedly sometimes it is). As I’ve discovered in my work, a business is a reflection of the CEO so they bear a lot of the responsibility for how a workforce is treated and how functions like HR operate, and getting this wrong does a massive disservice to anyone even remotely connected to the HR profession. 

Seemingly people-oriented support services like talent, L&D, OD, wellbeing, internal communications and others – all of which are usually tied and structured into HR – are often perceived by employees to be guilty by association. Well-intentioned projects are dismissed as just another HR thing. Like HR professionals, they will always have to do the harder yards to win trust, respect and credibility. It seems there is in-built scepticism within the workforce: HR is a big red flag and people need to suss out for themselves what kind of HR each colleague represents. Is it the progressive, human-centred and experience-driven kind? Or is it the traditional, management-centred and compliance-driven type? To compound this, very few CEOs come from an HR background, which seems absurd given the extent to which people skills and leadership are a key requirement of running a successful brand.

So, what’s the antidote to this poor image, lack of trust and lack of progress within a business? Well, there’s only one way to go for the future of work, according to some of the world’s leading brands and companies – a total fixation and focus on the human experience at work. Though HR is a key player when topics of EX and corporate culture come up, this applies not just to HR, but to every support function. A revamped approach, a revamped mindset and a revamped focus that puts people and their experiences first. 

In my research, I was excited to learn about companies that have already scrapped their HR functions or never even introduced them. One fast-growing firm has transformed HR and other support services into a ‘Working Life’ team. Another leading and iconic brand, with 200,000 employees globally, has recently eliminated the CHRO title in favour of a ‘chief people and employee experience officer’. One of China’s most admired and respected enterprises has a people and culture function led by the CEO of all people. A global real estate company has transformed itself from a human resources department to a human experience team. We’re just scratching the surface of a genuine transformation of HR’s role in business. Are you ready and prepared to join them?

Yet, does this mean companies lose all of those highly valued services that HR departments deliver? No, far from it – we simply unleash their full potential. From the many examples I’ve discovered or actively worked on, focusing on the human experience at work positions people professionals in a way that resonates within the business to help them build a successful brand and human experiences. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we have found out what truly matters to people and companies. It may be time to embrace a truly revolutionary human-centred approach to business. 

If your sole purpose is to create better human experiences at work then trust, respect and progress tend to arrive very quickly. The business results flow from there. That’s why well-informed, progressive and empathetic CEOs are creating workplaces that work for everyone, including HR, but especially for employees and workers. 

Ben Whitter is CEO of HEX, guest lecturer and global mentor at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, and author of Human Experience at Work

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