As hybrid working becomes the dominant model, Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi of Imperial College Business School highlights five essential skills that HR leaders must harness.

1. Mindful leadership

Mindfulness has three essential components: attention, awareness, and being non-judgmental. As humans, our thoughts tend to entangle past successes and failures with present capabilities and constraints and future expectations. This complicates our lives, making it hard to be in the moment.

Thinking about the past, present and future all at once is not what our minds are designed to do. If you are attentive, you are in control and in the moment. If you are aware, you are focused on the person in front of you and listening to what they are saying. And if you are non-judgmental, you are thinking about the process, rather than pre-judging outcomes.

Mindful leadership significantly benefits workplace mental health and productivity. If HR leaders are able to mindfully convey to staff what senior figures want, they will manage employees’ stress and performance levels much more effectively.

2. Social impact

Since the pandemic began, organisations of every type have experienced rapid digital transformation. Some companies will still be struggling to adjust to their new routines. This period has had an enormous impact upon everything from skills requirements and work styles to strategy, vision, culture and structure. In those latter two areas – which often underpin HR leaders’ work – many firms have undergone systemic change.

By harnessing their social impact, an HR leader can bring all the different stakeholders who have been affected by change onto the same page. They can ensure that any subsequent change will unfold not in an unwieldy, organic way, but in a structured fashion aligned with organisational goals. That will also help employees adapt to their new realities.

3. Relationship management

We can automate as much as we want – but, ultimately, it is our people who will be responsible for taking change forward. As such, we want them to feel that they belong at our organisations.

One philosophy that has been particularly effective during the pandemic is that of connecting before convincing. If I am not connecting with you before I try to win you round, how will you trust me? Similarly, if leaders do not spend time understanding the new shape of their companies’ informal work systems, how can they hope to generate trust in the formal ones?

In the hybrid working environment, leaders must learn to virtually empathise: to pick up cues from employees’ onscreen expressions and body language that may be quite different to the signs those individuals would present in person. Arrange social periods with staff during work hours. Find out about their anxieties – after all, the virus is still out there. And remember that relationships are culture. They are the glue that binds us together.

4. Digital awareness

In digital transformation efforts, HR leaders are the linchpins between senior management and staff. And firm-wide digital strategies will support the flexible, hybrid work styles that HR departments will need to manage going forward. With that in mind, HR leaders must not only hone their Zoom presentational skills, but also become experts in all the other technologies that remote staff will need to use – for example, project-management platforms.

Digital transformation must be tackled in a systemic fashion, to ensure that change is sustainable. In the absence of clear information or structure, staff will either rely upon people they trust, or organically decide what they feel is a common-sense approach. But it is unwise to have a scenario in which employees are thinking independently about systemic challenges.

5. MentorshipLosing a good employee is an expensive game. HR personnel have a greater role than anyone in passing on organisational knowledge to new members of staff – whether that relates to the formal context of the firm’s rules and structure, or the informal one of its social spirit. Like any of the other topics we have explored, this must be managed in a systemic way.

In the hybrid model, it will be harder to ensure that employees feel they belong. So, HR leaders must enhance their mentorship skills. Create a buddy system in which anyone who feels the mental need to speak to you in person has the access they need: “Do you live nearby? Okay, great – let’s meet up and we’ll pay for your coffee.”Organisations will probably need to spend more money to enable those informal meetings – but it’s far preferable to the costs of losing a talented worker within a couple of months.

This article was first published in People Management on 24 September 2021.

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