Former North Zone HR Director,
Uncertainty is something that HR is increasingly having to contend with. Whilst the desperate need for talent is dominating the headlines – with little inklings of where it might come from, at least in the short term – the people function is also having to adapt to the changing needs of workers, evolving structures, and generational divides in employee demands.
For example, Gallup research conducted in March discovered that, whilst the so-called ‘Boomer’ generation values financial stability and ethics above all else, the number one factor that Generation Z looks for in a workplace is an emphasis on employee wellbeing. And this is just one area. It’s tiring just thinking about the amount of change that is needed.
Yet, there is good news. Over the past 18 months, the impact of the pandemic forced businesses, and the people function, to get pretty savvy to reacting to fast change – and rolling out new strategies fairly fast in order to deal with it. Concepts that looked years off were implemented overnight. A key example of this was the mass move to homeworking and the adoption of more flexible working structures in light of Government guidance. These tried and tested processes on which HR once relied were ditched in lieu of fast-paced action and initiatives were pushed through in a matter of days, if not hours. In fact, McKinsey data from early 2021 found that the majority of leaders said that their companies acted 20 to 25 times faster than they thought possible.
The certainty about HR’s purpose has shifted. Companies have come to rely on the agility that HR has shown as a leader
A key part of this successful pivot was about finding the right solution at speed. For example, with a workforce decentralised from office hubs and now potentially dispersed over towns, cities, countries and continents, how would people collaborate and communicate? How would bosses keep in touch with their workforces? How would HR replicate learning and development, or onboarding?
The answer that many found was, of course, with HR-centric technology. According to Sage data, 81% of C-Suite leaders say they would not have been able to operate effectively during the pandemic without HR technology. Elsewhere, 89% of the C-Suite and 83% of HR leaders said that HR tech enabled them to be more flexible and responsive to the changing needs of their employees, while helping their businesses become more resilient.
This technology has undoubtedly become a necessity within most organisations as they rode a wave of uncertainty. And, as the early pandemic necessitated, it wasn’t to be deployed as the panacea itself but as a fix to many people issues – even as budgets were slashed. As a result, HR is in the unique position of both being a key force in driving essential technological services that make work better whilst operating under tight financial restraints. Statistics evidence this; the recently-released Sapient Insights Group 2020–2021 HR Systems Survey found 25% of organisations plan to decrease traditional HR technology spending by the end of 2021 by an average of 23% of their current budgets.
It means that any fix that HR implements often has to be efficient at point of implementation.
Lewis believes that after a year of unprecedented workloads, HR teams are close to burning out. This, she explained, is because expectation of output is currently unreasonably high.
“There’s definitely going to be a challenge in finding an equilibrium in sustainable output. Maintaining this level of business change with a reduction in capacity, which the function undoubtedly has, is the next big challenge. The role of an HR leader should now be looking at how we can do things differently. There is a level of fatigue I think people are feeling within the HR function coming off of this tsunami of a pandemic, and how things haven’t yet stabilised. We need to challenge how we can deliver most effectively.”
However, this thriftiness creates a big challenge – especially as HR is expected to deliver against big employer depends. As one HR leader recently told myGrapevine magazine: “The certainty about HR’s purpose has shifted. Companies have come to rely on the agility that HR has shown as a leader. But whether HR can continue to deliver on that is a ‘to be determined’.
“HR functions, like any functions right now, are having to become leaner. So, HR will have to think differently to deliver on what is now a big purpose on the back of the pandemic, and different generations’ expectations for their own careers and working lives – whatever it is that’s causing this pivotal need for the HR function, the expectation is higher now than ever. It will be challenging.”
Yet, as HR looks beyond the pandemic, and into the future of HR as a function with renewed purpose, there will be even bigger challenges, especially as technology becomes the essential factor in getting work done. Chloe Lewis, who until recently held the position of North Zone HR Director at Sainsbury’s and is now UKI Client Director at Alight Solutions (she changed positions after the interview took place), believes this means people teams will look to drive a fundamental shift in how technology is used – beyond just being a sticking plaster.
She said: “Technology is [a] fundamental facilitator here. This has been a technological revolution. Simplification via tech, and technology enabling a greater employee experience defined the pandemic. But I actually think it’s a bigger challenge now than it was in the midst of the pandemic.
“When it started, there was a need to move fast and get business going again in this new normal, yet now there’s a need for businesses to fundamentally change for the future, not just in the short term, and there’s more uncertainty around that, so HR being really selective about how they deliver that with different approaches is fundamental.”
We used the saying ‘learn quick, fail fast’
This, Lewis believes, can only be delivered by HR appreciating the power that evolving tech can deliver in helping to streamline the function and freeing up the time of practitioners to focus on more people-centric and creative issues. “We’re now in an age where contact with your business starts and ends with technology. It’s at the heart of how people engage with their business. So, I do believe that technology used effectively and HR functions looking differently at how technology can bridge the gaps will make us stronger, more agile, and more equipped to deal with what the future has to offer,” she added.
And whilst many may feel like they’re fighting against the current with leaner budgets, and consistently uncertain futures, Lewis believes that technology is also the key to restoring some semblance of structure. “Like many employees, HR is burned out as a result of dealing with this global catastrophe. However, I know from my own career that it’s the next generation of technology that’s going to enable people to feel less fatigued. I’ve been in five different sectors and I’ve seen the progression of HR into the function it is today. I know that HR teams broadly no longer have the capability internally to keep going at the pace that they’re currently delivering at.”
According to Lewis, during her time at Sainsbury’s, she saw a massive shift in how businesses adapted to uncertainty and a changing landscape. She explained that this agility was completely unprecedented, even for a company like Sainsbury’s, which is no stranger to swift turnaround.
“We would watch the Government announce changes as a result of the pandemic in the evening, and by the next morning, we’d have devised a plan and be executing it. It was immense to see.”
It galvanised, as she saw it, a need to learn quickly and adapt from every failure. During her time at Sainsbury’s, she said that the changeable nature of the industry already necessitated quick turnaround on the implementation of HR initiatives.
“We used the saying ‘learn quick, fail fast’,” she added. “Things weren’t 100% polished at Sainsbury’s even before the pandemic. We’d say ‘let’s go with it, get it out there, see if it works, if it doesn’t, we’ll rip it out and try again’. Of course, this was extremely heightened as a result of the pandemic, but I do think HR was used to that because of how we had previously operated.”
For Lewis, she thinks that all HR departments can learn from this approach as long as they’re enabled by the right tools – which she believes will be, for HR at least, in the realm of technology, data, and analytics.
Lewis believes it is via analytical, currently customer-centric, data tools.
But what is this next generation of technology and technology usage? Lewis believes it is via analytical, currently customer-centric, data tools. She suggested that, in an age where data is the most effective way of countering the uncertainty currently felt in businesses, HR is, in essence, missing a trick by not applying these advanced analytics to its own agenda.
If the function utilised the tools that businesses use to analyse their customers, Lewis believes that this could be a game changer for a slimmed down more change-centric version of HR in terms of time investment. These tools, if properly used, could shape the journey of internal users, much like they currently do for customers. “If we look to the future, I do think we have a long way to go to truly understand our people the way we do our customers,” she said, noting that the customer experience is a constantly-honed product of advanced analytics.
“[Some businesses] are so advanced in seeing what customers want through the implementation of technology. HR needs to be using all of that top tech to look inward. Customer journey is a standard metric, but what about [the employee] journey? To push the boundaries of what HR can achieve in this new leaner and more agile future, harnessing the power of technology will be the defining factor behind success or failure,” Lewis concluded.
We have a long way to go to truly understand our people the way we do our customers