Advances in technology mean that many of the traditional responsibilities of the HR department have now been automated — but according to Unleashed’s Managing Partner Hannah Keal, this sudden movement of the goalposts isn’t a threat, but an opportunity. In this post, she discusses the future of HR as we know it.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table right away. HR as we know it has no future. The industry is at a tipping point: this role needs to evolve or it will die.
Technology has completely changed the game, effectively replacing HR professionals in many of their ‘traditional’ functions — and what’s more, fulfilling many of those functions quicker and more efficiently than ever before.
This profession is changing and changing fast. But that change can also be an opportunity. The transformational shift that HR is going through means that we have a unique opportunity to create a whole new function, enabled by tech but fully human-centred. I believe that the simplest descriptors are often the best, so I like to call this ‘function’ People.
If we’re to seize this opportunity and avoid being rendered obsolete — we need to change more than just our job titles.
Traditionally, HR departments have favoured process over people, which meant a lot of time devoted towards ‘keeping the rank and file in line’. The rest of the day-to-day was largely composed of a lot of mind-numbing admin; payroll, legal compliance, inordinate amounts of unnecessary paperwork and a “default to policy” approach.
No wonder then that HR is often derisively referred to as a ‘support’ or ‘service’ function rather than a team that is core to business operations. This has never made sense to me, given that it is the people that determine whether a business succeeds or fails.
However, when all of this admin needed to be done by hand, HR professionals had their hands tied and were kept very busy not doing the things that move the needle.
Thankfully, that landscape has changed.
A great deal of the time-sucking admin has been taken off our plate, either by full-on automation or by software allowing more of the necessary process stuff to become ‘self-service’ (such as booking holiday, for example).
In theory, this should mean that everyone in HR has more time but in reality, it has simply moved the goalposts. The businesses of today need an entirely different set of skills to get the best out of their people. As for the businesses of tomorrow, who knows what they might need? We’re only just starting to find out.
People teams can learn a lot by begging, borrowing and stealing from other disciplines.
For example, take design thinking. Great designers understand that they are creating for a diverse range of users with different needs and expectations. So rather than assuming that they can create something that works for everyone, they start by trying to step into the shoes of potential users to understand their experiences and challenges. They are empathetic from the start.
Drawing on both quantitative data and insights gleaned from conversations with users, they define a problem to address, then get creative. Once they have come up with a solution that might stick, they put together a workable first draft and then test it, get feedback and iterate.
This might sound like a lot of effort, but it’s far better than allowing your own biases to colour your judgement and then creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist (Uber for private jets, a brand new Coke, I’m looking at you…).
So what can the People function take from this? Well, the fact that off-the-peg solutions are no longer good enough (if they ever were).
Take Perks and Benefits for example — offerings traditionally have been dictated by what the senior team value or what will cost the business the least to provide.
But a benefit is only a benefit if it actually your benefits people. So you have to start by understanding your team’s challenges and what would create the most impact.
Not only does this mean that you get a better benefits package that reflects the values of the company and the people in it, it also means that even if some people aren’t happy with the end result, they can accept it with good grace because they understand the decision-making process and can see that people were empathised with and listened to, from the outset.
Engagement surveys are a great opportunity to kick-start People initiatives using design thinking, but we often don’t make the most of them and miss the mark. Surveys are good for identifying trends and where we might need to focus our attention, but they don’t really tell us much about why people feel the way they do and what to do about it. Instead of prescribing actions at a leadership level, we should be using the data as a jumping-off point for conversations to further explore the highlights and lowlights identified.
It’s worth noting that for this approach to work, the People team has to be good at communicating not just what they do, but also how they work, and most importantly, what their “why” is. It can be hard to be truly agile with People initiatives as change fatigue can set in, so instead of producing an MVP (minimum viable product) when we’re creating something new, myself and the Unleashed team always try and aim for minimum loveable product (MLP) — something that we’re confident in as a response to the actual business problem we’ve identified, that is scalable and provides a good base to iterate on.
Another discipline that the People function (particularly those of us who operate predominantly in startups and scale-ups) would do well to learn from is Growth Marketing or Growth Hacking.
Growth Hackers drastically alter their approach depending on what stage the business that they’re working with is at and how they plan to scale. There’s so much we can take from this as People people.
Internal communication, for example, is often the very first thing to break when a business grows rapidly — because the tools and means of communication you need when you’re five people in a cramped co-working space are very, very different to what’s required when you’re 50 people. A great People person needs to use their understanding of where a business wants to get to and find constant improvements in communication, as well as helping founders share what’s ahead so the wider team are ready to embrace it.
Growth hackers also use small actions to create disproportionately powerful impact by looking at data to determine the best course of action and customising their approach on a very granular, even individualised basis. Increasingly, People professionals will need to do the same.
In some countries, ‘big data’ is already transforming the way we work. According to a 2018 report, employers in China have been using technology which tracks and monitors moods, stress levels and other indicators of productivity and health since 2014, and there are an increasing number of startups (such as the AI-driven Maaind) that aim to give both individuals and companies a richer understanding of people — what makes them tick and what boosts productivity; insight that enables positive impact on the basis of evidence.
However, if the data is going to be ‘big’, I foresee the way we use it is going to remain decidedly small. I think it will allow us to impact the working lives of the teams we work within small, meaningful ways that are really tailored to that specific employee and how they are motivated and move further away from one size fits all type approaches.
There are, naturally, some concerns around privacy and trust here, which the companies that provide the tech and People teams that use it will have to navigate. In my mind, the way to do this is by being completely transparent about what data is being collected, how it’s used and continuously evaluating whether collecting it provides a real, tangible material benefit to the individual.
The final substantial difference I see between traditional HR and what is required for the businesses of today and tomorrow is in how the People function works with managers and individuals to unlock high performance.
The traditional approach to supporting managers has been for either HR to be called in to manage difficult conversations, or for them to handhold them through the process. Neither is ideal — it robs managers of the opportunity to learn and it feels impersonal and scary for the individual.
Managers need to feel empowered to handle these conversations themselves and supported to build a management toolkit which is going to help them unlock high performance. People teams need to be able to coach managers and help them find a management style that will work for them and their teams, and then be able to flex that style based on what will work best for the individuals in them.
Equally, I think People teams need to embrace a coaching mindset and develop coaching skills. That way the People people who represent the future of HR, can enable individuals to visualise, describe and track towards achieving their full potential. As technology rapidly changes the way we work, it’s more clear than ever that the skills we need to succeed are around collaboration, adaptability and embracing multiple disciplines.
Coaching individuals in order to help them navigate career changes and portfolio careers will be hugely important in helping bridge the gap between the skills they have now and what they’ll need for the future.
I started this article with a fairly bleak proclamation — but I actually think that this is an incredibly exciting time to be a People person. We have a huge opportunity to embrace a new approach, enabled by tech and emboldened by our work having an ever greater impact as we embrace new ways of working.
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