Is Chief People Officer the most stressful role?


HR has been at the centre of mitigating disruption caused by the pandemic – is this too much for the function?

Words by Dan Cave| Design by Matt Bonnar
 

Sharon Doherty, Chief People Officer at Finastra, previously at Vodafone, starts her latest LinkedIn post as follows: “Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic on March 11, it’s been a busy time for Chief People Officers.” She isn’t wrong. With businesses changing their working practises, many almost overnight, they’ve had to move employees to new working locations, parse rapid changes to employment law and make tough people decisions. “The volume of work for a Chief People Officer has never been greater,” she adds.

In fact, the workload for the entire HR function has rapidly increased. Harriet Shurville, Chief People Officer at Iris, a global agency, noted that both employees and the executive have been turning to the function for answers during this time. “Everything in this moment has been about people. HR has had to make huge decisions about our people and everyone was looking at us for understanding and guidance,” she explains. “It was on the us to work out by the second but we had to ensure that everyone else was equipped to talk about the changes that occurred. Often it was about understanding the law and applying it to our context. What do we want to do it? It is a lot of pressure on us as a function but then that’s great as we’re seen as an expert.”

 

The volume of work for a Chief People Officer has never been greater

Dessalen Wood, Chief People Officer at Thoughtexchange, a leadership crowdsourcing platform also sees this – and it’s flipped some priorities. “The change since March 2020 is that CPOs are now being asked to flex all their HR skills simultaneously, which does increase the pressure significantly. What were normally secondary disciplines that have been relatively stable in terms of attention needed, such as health and safety, workspace allocation and mental health are now high priorities along with complex compensation and logistical related issues such as layoffs, furloughs, pay decreases and remote work transition plans. Added to all this, is the extremely short timeline to address all these areas, and that results in the cocktail of pressure CPOs and their teams are facing,” she says.

With all this pressure, is there an upside? Shurville certainly thinks so. Acknowledging that the pandemic has made everyone – from entry-level staff to CEOs – more reliant on HR as the proprieter of communications and information on everything from how the next day of work might go to what the long-term design of work might be, she believes HR now has a bigger profile – which could be the answer to the ongoing ‘seat at the table’ debate.

With all this pressure, is there an upside? Shurville certainly thinks so. Acknowledging that the pandemic has made everyone – from entry-level staff to CEOs – more reliant on HR as the proprieter of communications and information on everything from how the next day of work might go to what the long-term design of work might be, she believes HR now has a bigger profile – which could be the answer to the ongoing ‘seat at the table’ debate.

 

She says: “HR is now more high-profile and is more respected by employees and the business as it is more present and visible. For example, I now present updates to the whole company and whilst that would have not always been the case there is much more expectation that they are visible.” However, this does mean a lot of added responsibility – especially now HR is at the heart of more business decisions, and especially for those at the top. “Like any board position, particularly in HR, you don’t have peers really and theres loads of confidentially, theres not always anyone you can chat to at the top,” Shurville adds.

It’s not likely this pressure will abate any time soon. Most HR practitioners, whether at the apex of the function or not, will acknowledge that the remit of HR before this moment was also getting bigger pre-pandemic and it, largely, doesn’t have the resources to match. In fact, in Doherty’s LinkedIn post, she lays out a whole slew of things that senior HR leaders need to be doing after this moment: adding increasing the external radar, having an more integral role into sustaining the business, being a people champion, committing to growth and prioritizing self and family first. While some of this will have already been in HR’s view already, some requires a change in thinking and in action. Yet, by maintaining the positive, adaptable, flexible [add in your own neo-business buzzword here!] the future could be bright, as Wood explains.

Life and work are blurred more than ever and they want us to have an opinion on what’s going on in the world

 

She adds: “Many CPOs realize that while their organizations were aware of the need to pivot towards technology, remote work and improved mental health support, many of their leaders felt this could transform over the next two-to-five years, not two-to-five weeks. While this truncated timeline may seem to some as a major stressor, for many it has been a tremendous opportunity to allow accelerated changes that were long overdue, specifically around remote work and mental health. Most CPOs now are concerned that with the ‘return to normal’ we will lose the positive momentum many organizations have made to become more employee centric and responsive.”

HR is now more high-profile and is more respected by employees and the business

It's, in her words, about ensuring that the usual hierarchy of senior HR leader’s priorities – cultural transformation, talent upskilling, diversity and inclusion et al – dovetail with this moment to work as a catalyst to ensure that short-term disruption brings long term gains. Yes, it might be stressful and yes the function might be under pressure but as Shurville concludes, its all to deliver a better experience for employees and the business – with all now turning to HR for answers.

“There big stress on the CPO and the function as a whole is that employees expect, quite rightly, a lot from their employers. Life and work are blurred more than ever and they want us to have an opinion on what’s going on in the world and ensure that we’re supporting them in their careers and their wellbeing and it’s all encompassing but it’s right they expect that,” she concludes.


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