Director Product Marketing - Sage People Sage Group
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Changing perceptions of HR: how Covid-19 highlighted people power

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The pandemic has created a huge paradigm shift in the way we all look at work and, more specifically, at the HR function – but is our newfound increase in influence here to stay?

19th Apr 2021
Director Product Marketing - Sage People Sage Group
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A year on from Covid-19 rearing its head and prompting a nationwide lockdown, who would have predicted the tidal wave of change that HR and people leaders would have to deal with in 2020?

HR has a critically important part to play to help organisations perform in the future. 

As part of Sage’s recent research report HR in the moment: changing perceptions and expectations of HR, we spoke to 1500 HR leaders, employees and c-suite executives in the UK, US, Australia and Canada. The aim was to uncover how Covid-19 has impacted the role, outlook and views of people and HR teams across the globe. So, what does this all mean for leaders, and how has the HR landscape evolved? What will be the knock-on effect to the HR agenda?

The HR outlook

When leading change today, HR and people leaders feel more visible and strategic, despite ongoing uncertainty. Indeed, 65% of HR leaders said their teams have had a vital role to play in the pandemic, driving change, enabling remote working, and supporting wellbeing. Furthermore, 72% of HR leaders said the crisis has helped them demonstrate their value and increased understanding of the role of HR. As a result, 59% said they feel more influential as leaders.

A crisis can spur people to take on more, however, and even before the pandemic we knew HR and people leaders were juggling a lot. It seems workloads have increased dramatically alongside expectations for HR, including the admin burden, with up to 60% saying they’ve experienced an increase across various tasks – both administrative and strategic.

The c-suite outlook

When times are tough, confirmation that your efforts are making a difference go a long way. Fortunately, HR and people teams’ hard work and greater influence in the face of the pandemic has been recognised by the c-suite, with 87% of c-suite executives crediting HR for leading accelerated change and driving new ways of operating. Worryingly though, over half of c-suite executives (52%) believe this shift is only temporary.

What’s more, there’s a clear disconnect between how HR leaders see their influence, role, and workload, and how it’s perceived by the c-suite. Despite expecting HR teams to pick up more strategic work, 57% of c-suite executives still see HR largely administrative – a clear disconnect from what we’ve heard from HR leaders. In addition, we found that HR and people leaders feel their workload has increased over the past year, yet over three-quarters of the c-suite (76%) still feel this extra workload is manageable.

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The employee outlook

It’s not just the view from the top that counts – 59% of employees noticed changes in HR’s role this year, saying they were more strategic, and 25% noted this change as substantial.

With HR and people teams becoming more visible within an organisation because of the pandemic, 54% of employees said they now know more and understand HR’s role and value better. A third (34%) of employees’ credit HR with adapting to become more responsive to their needs and requirements.

Perhaps most importantly of all, employees have noticed HR’s influence has made organisations more people-focused, with 57% of employees saying Covid-19 has been a catalyst for HR driving more people-related decisions across the business.

The accelerated digital transformation

Covid-19 has also upped the ante and accelerated the pace of change when it comes to digital transformation. More than half (59%) of c-suite and HR leaders say HR is even more focused on digital transformation because of the pandemic.

There’s still a disconnect, however, with investment in resources being a sticking point. Only 45% of HR and people leaders we polled feel they’re fully equipped with the tools needed for the future, and nearly two-thirds (67%) want to invest more in HR technology. As a result, a third see lack of investment as a barrier to their effectiveness.

Contrast this with the fact that 58% of the c-suite believe HR already has the tools it needs, and the problem becomes more apparent. While 63% of c-suite executives are fully confident HR can bring the organisation into the new world of work, this drops to 52% for HR leaders – an 11% difference in opinion.

Looking beyond the pandemic

Throughout this pandemic, HR leaders and their teams have delivered, becoming more flexible, agile, and influential with HR earning greater respect and recognition within organisations. So, now is not the time to take a step backwards – it’s time to forge ahead. HR has a critically important part to play to help organisations perform in the future.

HR leaders can’t go it alone, however. Digitalisation and automation using HR technology are vital to making this possible, helping HR teams manage increased workloads while freeing capacity for leadership and strategic influence, to provide the best experiences for employees.

With HR making its way to the forefront of businesses, supported by digital automation that eases the burden of mundane admin tasks, HR has a greater newfound influence to leverage in the workplace. In the coming years, HR as a function is even more prepared to deal with unexpected change, driving people forward and encouraging people-centric cultures.

For more expert insights and opinions, view our on demand webinar 'Four ways expectations of HR are changing'.

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