In our turbulent and disrupted world, the workplace represents an anchor-point or safe base for people. What can HR do to influence workplace life for the better? How can HR help people at work to weather the storms we are facing? Where to start?
Well, in terms of the challenges we face as a society, grouping them into five topic areas might be a useful way to think about them. These five areas are: global health, sustainability, digital transformation, inequality and trust. HR has a critical role to play in each of these areas as it seeks to influence workplace culture, create the secure base that humans seek and provide a safe space in which humans can thrive.
It is clear that HR stepped up during the pandemic and continues to play a key role in helping to manage the impact and consequences of COVID19 on organisations and the workplace. One effect has been the exacerbation of mental ill-health: as a global community, we were already beset by a lack of mental wellbeing even before the pandemic, with recognised mental conditions such as anxiety and depression at sky-high levels across the globe. HR has a key role to play in supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of staff and will need to continue to look at creative and innovative ways to do this, including leveraging HR Tech to achieve good outcomes. There is currently a tangible drive towards creating more human workplaces and improving mental wellbeing and in this respect, HR can play a role in driving positive change in organisations, influencing the culture to ensure that wellbeing is placed centre stage.
So as we move into the future, HR needs to remain alert and agile, not least because COVID19 was not a “black swan” event (pandemics have happened before and will happen again). COVID19 is better thought of as a “grey rhino” occurrence (an event we can see coming, as it trundles towards us, grey and massive, but which, for whatever reason, we often choose to set aside, in the vague hope that it will not happen or that somehow we can side-step it). HR’s job is to watch out for these grey rhinos and plan accordingly.
HR has the potential to play a critical role in driving the sustainable business transformation agenda: it is supremely well-placed to help change mindsets such that people can see that sustainable business is about the co-existence of purpose and profit. HR can facilitate the development of the vital partnerships and links inside and outside the company ecosystem that are so critical to the success of any sustainable business transformation initiative. Of course HR will need to collaborate closely with the business to help to forge these beneficial relationships; so with its skills in organisation design, HR can influence structures, processes and mental models which in turn can be leveraged to support a sustainable business agenda. HR is also closely associated with organisation development work wherein purpose, vision, mission and values are defined and implemented as part of organisational strategy. And so, given that purpose, vision, mission and values are core to building and developing sustainable business transformation, it is clear that HR has a major influencing and implementation role to play here.
We know that re-skilling and upskilling employees for a digital future is going to be critical, not to mention the conceptualisation and realisation of new, as yet unknown roles and positions. HR can and should play a key role in leading and influencing this. At the same time, HR needs to truly embrace the potential offered by HR Tech and will want to keep its finger on the pulse of what is new and possible if it is to influence organisational culture to embrace these broad and deep changes. HR will also increasingly be called upon to take a view on where and how AI intersects with humans and so, given its unique access to personal data as well as its bird’s eye view of the entire employee experience, HR’s role in defining and upholding the ethics of the organisation will become increasingly important in the years to come.
HR is uniquely placed to advance the D&I agenda: for many people professionals this has been a core priority for a long time and indeed, great work has already been done. At the same time however, we find ourselves fighting the forces of regression, due to the pandemic and its malign influence, whereby many of the gains we have made in terms of gender equality, the rights of minorities and the improvement of opportunity for disabled people – have been compromised. HR can not only influence organisations but more broadly, society itself, by continuing, if not dialling up, its active role in this area. HR will have to work even harder in the years to come as it spearheads efforts to bring in multifaceted talent to the organisation, positively influencing mindsets to enable everyone to find a welcoming and supportive “home”. HR can model inclusive behaviours, helping to find a balance between empathy and the needs of the business, while supporting innovative initiatives around inequality and providing bridges to outside organisations and partnerships with the wider community. HR can and will be the catalyst for more impactful and deeper change in the workplace.
The development of psychological safety and trust is vital. HR can play a key role in facilitating and role-modelling the kind of leadership required to achieve this and the creation of safe spaces. We know that trust in organisations is dependent on leadership culture and so HR, as a key influencer, can help to shape this – especially given its pivotal role in talent acquisition, retention and development. HR can provide strategic support directly, indirectly and via the CHRO to the C-suite, thereby helping to build alignment with the Board around what kind of culture is needed for ongoing and future success. The development of trust lies at the heart of all of this. There is no doubt that we are living through a difficult and trying period of human history. But at the same time, in the spirit of turning adversity to advantage, there has never been a better time for HR to shine and to demonstrate its special value and contribution as a key influencer of culture – and of workplace life itself.
That time is now.
About the author - Michael Jenkins is the Chief Executive Officer at Expert Humans and Partner at FutureWork Forum. He is also an author of the book 'Expert Humans: Critical Leadership Skills for a Disrupted World'
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