Star Interview

Did the pandemic change HR's value?

In 2019, HR Grapevine investigated whether HR could become a leading business function. Research indicated it wasn’t there – yet. Has the pandemic changed that?

Words by Dan Cave | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Dan Cave

Design by Matt Bonnar

HR at the centre

In this edition’s cover feature, HR Grapevine analyses why business leaders and employees turned to HR for guidance during the pandemic. By looking at facets of organisational life that became critically important during the pandemic – areas that HR had pre-pandemic responsibility for, and expertise in; such as employee experience, wellbeing and business support – the piece explores what made the function well-placed to take a central role in navigating disruption throughout 2020.

In fact, as referenced in this magazine’s lead piece, key HR commentators predicted that as the pandemic first began to disrupt business and day-to-day life, this crisis would be one of people-first-not finances-first proportions. The follow on being that HR departments would be central to business success, or survival, during this period as, get this, they’re the business function with most expertise in people. Anecdotally, this has been borne out: at least in the way that many HRDs have reported that their workloads and called-upon utility changing over the pandemic period.

From Sharon Doherty [CPO in finance industry] penning a LinkedIn article on the drastic rise in HR’s workload during the pandemic, to Michael Hakes [Group HRD in manufacturing] explaining how HR pivoted to become a knowledge and leadership support hub during the crisis, and Harriet Shurville [CPO in advertising] noting of, at least during the initial stages, how everything seemed to become about HR, the function has had a central role.


Shaking off the past

Therefore, if, as has been reported, HR’s standing has changed during the pandemic – to become a trusted ally to the business leadership and a key cog in pivoting quickly – then it begs the question: will perception of the function, and how it is utilised within an organisation, change for good once this crisis moment has passed. Which, in essence, is a way of asking: has the coronavirus pandemic helped HR shake off the widespread image of it as an inflexible support function that has merely auxiliary purpose, to become more leading and trusted? The latter being a question that HR Grapevine has asked before, albeit in different circumstances.

Becoming a leadership function

In fact, last year, HR Grapevine pulled together industry research, as well as interviewing leading HR practitioners, to try and understand if HR could become a leading function and what it might need to do to get there. At the time those interviewed, as well as research outcomes, suggested that the people function wasn’t a leading player... yet. “HR needs to change,” a LACE Partners study stated in conclusion to its review of the function’s leadership capability, stipulating that HR needed to become more business aligned, strategic, porous and performance minded if it was to shake off the image of it as merely being a bureaucratic support. Even Peter Cheese, CEO at HR industry body CIPD said: “It has the capability to be a leadership function but we have to be honest and say there needs to be a step up.”

Of course HR can lead

HR’s gilded road

Where HR has shown the critical business importance of what it owns, it has been rewarded with greater oversight of business function. Last year, Deirdre O’Brien, Vice President of People at Apple expanded her role to Vice President of People and Retail. Talking about her appointment, Tim Cook, CEO at the tech giant, noted that the soul of business is it’s people, highlighting how one huge business views the importance of an area that HR has expertise is in. Indeed, delivery in this area has allowed the function’s head to become more business leading – adding another area to her remit.

Did HR change in 2020?

But a lot has changed since 2019. Whilst the business world was already evolving at a rapid rate – if you can, remember the impact that digital transformation, big data and changing structures of work were having before pandemic – 2020 has meant that change was enforced, rather than something to consider. Within this change, there are countless examples that showcase HR departments working in the four areas that LACE Partners pinpointed it as needing to do so in order to step up.

For example, Shurville’s exclusive weekly pandemic diary - which can be read on HR Grapevine - details how her function was aligned to both the business leadership’s needs as well as employee body needs during the pandemic. Hakes’ experience, detailed in August's HR Grapevine magazine cover feature, shows how HR at Mondi aligned to what the business needed – usually information - at every moment of this evolving crisis, showcasing agile and ‘porous’ business-ready thinking.

At other points, the function has showcased a strategic mind. Within Iris, Shurville’s HR function regularly checked in on staff engagement and wellbeing levels throughout the pandemic, to help plan how culture and organisational structure – for example, who might return to a central work location in the future and who might not – was not only faring in the here and now, but how it would need to be effectively managed going forward.

Value-added, HR-driven change

Of course, LACE Partners list is just one understanding of how HR could become more leading. Zoe Walters, who has held several HRD positions in her career, explained to HR Grapevine in 2019 that HR would be considered to be a leading function if it could showcase it could add value. In 2020, there are many cases of it doing just that. For many firms, it is HR’s deep understanding of people and how they are best managed and put to work, that has allowed them to make decisions about working structures in the long term; for instance, consider the radical changes to working that corporate behemoths such as Facebook, Twitter, WPP and Barclays have made – all either stipulating that homeworking is to consider ad infinitum or will become more of the norm.

Indeed, in comments Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, made in a blogpost explaining the reasoning behind this decision he cited people prodictivity and flexibility – implicating a change of perception in how he thought about people and areas that HR own. And it’s difficult to imagine that this decision would’ve been made without deep understanding of people and guidance from the HR team.


HR needs to change

Resilient HR

In the words of Josh Bersin, 2020 has been a ‘black swan crisis’ meaning that the traditional operating model of HR functions, even high-performing functions has had to change. He determines that, now, HR, as well as business as a whole, needs to be fast, adaptative and open to change in order to be successful and resilient. In fact, in Bersin’s understanding, resilient HR functions – an operating model he is arguing for – would be quick to take local action, use high degrees of expertise, are data-driven and cross functional. As a result, they would be empowered to make decisions and act – much like many of the good examples (Mondi, Iris, Facebook) have done during the pandemic. aligned, strategic, porous and performance-minded...

Organisational capability

Any of the decisions and changes detailed above, from Iris to Facebook, can be cohered under what Janet Dalziell, ex-Director of Global People and Culture, said that a leading HR function would be able to do: which is drive organisational capability. In the WPP, Facebook and Twitter instances, its reimaging work so it is productive, safe, engaging and appealing for the longterm; adding value to the business and individuals working within it(indicators of leadership qualities according to our leading HR experts).

And, even if HR wasn’t involved in these pandemic people-centric decisions – it’s hard to imagine they weren’t - it is ownership of these core HR areas that Deloitte predicted would be key items on the business agenda going forward, regardless of the pandemic. In the consultancy’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends study, the conclusion noted that strategic thinking around HR issues- including the employee experience of work, wellbeing and productivity – would become item-topping agenda points going forward and would showcase – guess what?! – capability as an ‘organisational capability’ thinker, the exact skill that Dalziell believes is core to becoming leading within a business!

Is HR now leading?

So, is HR now leading? Well, if it’s coronavirus actions are measured by what the studies and HR leaders pinpointed in 2019, it certainly appears to be, at least in some places. The examples detailed above showcase HR functions applying strategic thinking to elements of work and people that they have always owned but are now considered business critical. Whilst the pandemic has strengthened perception of these areas as being wholly important, it appeared the direction of travel was heading in that way regardless.

And whilst HR might not be considered leading in every organisation, or is still getting used to being of central importance due to pandemic-enforced utility, it at least has a roadmap to follow in order to become more leading. And a belief that the areas it owns are important, business critical and that only it has deep understanding of. It just needs belief in itself to own them – and then becoming leading. To finish with the words of Peter Cheese. “Of course HR can lead” the follow on being, it just needs to believe it can.

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