Even though HR still struggles to dispel its decades-long stereotype as a group of technically incompetent, soft-spoken, corporate enforcers (think of Toby from The Office), in recent years savvy, effective, data-driven HR teams have been actively reimagining everything from performance management to corporate culture. In 2020, COVID-19 and societal unrest made the HR function even more mission-critical and underscored the importance of human intellect in people management. Today, companies are leaning on CHROs and CPOs to lead their pandemic responses and to shape their growth strategies while keeping employees engaged, reconfiguring workflows, redeploying talent, and upskilling staff.
Indeed, well-resourced HR teams that successfully managed the transition to a hybrid workplace are now a top competitive advantage for companies in every sector. Just as CFOs’ roles were elevated following the 2008 financial crisis, HR’s impact and innovative potential will be fully realized in the wake of 2020. Strategic, tactical people advocates will drive tangible business results.
The Shifting Nature and Language of HR
When it comes to being both process champions (who work to improve workforce continuity, automating processes, and compliance) and people scientists (who understand, predict, and respond to or change human behavior), no other field comes close to HR. To fully realize its potential, though, HR must change its nature and language. Rather than treat people as “human capital” and focus on “measuring performance,” HR leaders must treat people as people and support their overall passions, contributions, and potential. HR must rethink what it means to be “qualified,” challenge the status quo, and find ways to be fair and equitable in a world that has neither equal footing nor a one-size-fits-all handbook.
Employees as Primary Stakeholders
More than any other factor, employees have the single greatest impact on the success of their organizations. In fact, a 2019 panel of 600 senior executives “attribute[d] 72 percent of their company’s value to their employees.” 1 As organizations adapt to putting people before profits, it should be overwhelmingly clear that the most important stakeholders in any organization are its people. Rather than treat employees as a resource (that is, as a commodity to manage or to extract value from), today’s organizations should put them at the center of their purpose.
HR must lead these efforts. As technology continues to automate manual processes, HR has the opportunity—indeed, the obligation—to focus primarily on serving and enabling employees through meaningful strategic initiatives that address their well-being and long-term growth and development. It’s time to think differently about employees, their relationships, and their impacts on organizations, and shift the focus to creating the right conditions that allow them to thrive.
In a 2020 McKinsey & Company study designed to evaluate employee “well-being and work effectiveness” during COVID-19, “ten employee experience elements accounted for approximately 60 percent of differences in outcomes.” 2 The study found that “in addition to basic needs (safety and security), three other experience themes (trusting relationships, social cohesion, and individual purpose) are having a disproportionate impact on employee well-being and work effectiveness.” If HR doesn’t prioritize enabling these drivers across every level of the organization, who will? And who stands to lose the most if they don’t?
The Evolving Role of Technology
Thoughtfully applied technology will continue to play an important role as HR functions begin to shift their focus back to their people. Foundational levels of safety and security will remain essential, and employees and leaders alike will continue to expect convenience, speed, and accuracy from HR processes. Many emerging technologies are capitalizing on these changes by offering scalable solutions designed to truly serve employees, such as easing financial strain, improving mental health through charitable giving, or keeping a pulse on employee sentiment so leaders can act on the topics that matter most to their people.
Today’s employees desire—and deserve—much more out of work than a paycheck. Armed with innovative workplace technologies and a renewed focus on supporting people, HR departments have never been more empowered to shift the employer—employee relationship from a transactional one to a transformational one. The result will be a diverse, engaged, and empowered workforce that’s agile, flexible, and responsive to changing business demands.
Karina Schultheis is the manager of human insights and human capital management at UKG, where she leads thought leadership research and content strategy and focuses on technological innovation, employee wellness, and workplace equity.