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revolutionaries at work

The future of HR: from human resources to human revolutionaries

17th Apr 2019
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Artificial intelligence may be able to take on certain tasks in the workplace, but human soft skills will always be in demand – it’s up to HR to champion and support them.

The tech revolution dominates most conversations about the changing face of our world and, inevitably, business. The consequence of digital transformation is that the workplace is now a radically different place than it was even five years ago. The context in which our organisations operate is radically different today, as is what we need from our people.

According to some reports, 800 million workers globally will be replaced by bots by 2030. If this is true, we need to be having some big conversations about what role human employees are going to play in our organisations.

It seems that AI will soon replicate many of the attributes we value in humans. It stands to reason that anything that requires analytical, emotion-free decision-making can be done far better by someone/something that doesn’t have emotions in the first place.

This means that humans are going to be valued primarily for their humanity - the very quality that we sometimes find problematic in the workplace.

It’s the non-measurable stuff – empathy, imagination, intuition, sense of humour, caring, unpredictability, left-field thinking, even mood-swings – that we will come to need from our people.

What does that mean for us in HR?

While the rest of the organisation gets excited about the whizz-bang new bits of kit that are going to transform your industry, you need to be revolutionising how your company values the contribution of human employees and how we create environments where people can be as human as humanly possible.

This is in direct contrast to the way we work today, where the organisation itself is often a major obstacle to being human.

Every year I work with a handful of HR directors and senior L&D leaders in my coaching practice.

If we expect people to bring their humanity to work we need to treat them like human beings.

I keep these slots open for HR people because, while coaching other leaders directly impacts the culture of the organisation, working with HR leaders provides an opportunity to explore the roots of the problems in our organisations.

It also enables us to generate radical ideas and initiatives about what the business of the future looks like. Also it’s really fun! When was the last time you had a conversation like that?

With this in mind, which areas should HR professionals look to when planning the future? Below are my suggestions.

Human sacrifice

The first place we look in these coaching conversations is what I call ‘human sacrifice’, i.e. where are staff unable to be their best because of the sacrifices they have to make to work here?

This takes into account things like long hours, hectic schedules, inadequate technology (ironically), tensions between teams and individuals, commutes, the working environment, unrealistic targets, working on holiday, working at weekends, not enough time with family and friends, not enough time to decompress, constant pressure to be ‘on’, etc.

According to the organisation Working Families, today’s jobs are incompatible with family life.

If we expect people to bring their humanity to work we need to treat them like human beings.

I’m not talking about lunchtime yoga and a wellbeing week. I’m talking about fundamentally critiquing the norms of work. This is the perfect meaty topic to start focusing your attention and developing radical solutions.

Time to think

Related to this is the prevailing culture of ‘busy, busy, busy’. This is not OK.

Many of these jobs are ‘thinking jobs’. The value of the person is in their ability to problem-solve, to sense, to listen, to be curious and to get to the root cause of an issue. All of this requires space.

Most employees, and this extends right up to the top of the organisation, are flat out just making it from one appointment to the next.

Work leaks in to family life in part because there’s no time in the working day to reflect. So we reflect when we should be hanging out with our kids or sunning ourselves on the beach.

We need to rethink the working schedule so there’s plenty of space to allow ideas to generate and mature. This applies to you too.


Most reporting has its roots in distrust and the hierarchy. It’s about power not empowerment, poor vision, poor communication, poor recruiting and onboarding. It’s about a lack of organisational purpose and a resistance to assigning ownership of outcomes to anyone in particular.

Organisations that put purpose above profit will be the ones to succeed in the face of this new wave of technological transformation.

Indeed, most reporting is a band-aid for so much that is wrong in our organisations today.

If we can fix what’s wrong at the core, we can free people up from the hours and hours spent working on reports, presenting reports, reading reports and reporting back.

Purpose over profit

Yes, it’s important to be commercial. For a while there HR lost sight of the commercial imperative. We need people to be productive, to do a job that enhances the business and serves the customer. Work isn’t a day spa or therapy centre.

Your FD will be the one having sleepless nights over that. You don’t have to do their job for them. Instead, you have to be the one with purpose in your heart.

My prediction is that organisations that put purpose above profit will be the ones to succeed in the face of this new wave of technological transformation.

We have to be the human revolutionaries at the heart of the business, pushing for radical thinking.

The commitment to never bend when it comes to purpose, to make tough financial decisions in order to prioritise purpose and to radically rethink how the company operates in the world in order to stay fully aligned with purpose has to come from HR.

It may make for some sticky conversations in the boardroom. By all means have the numbers at your fingertips - but use that knowledge to argue for purpose, even in the face of financial constraints.

There was a time when perhaps HR was a service provider to the organisation, helping leaders deliver on their strategy. That time has passed.

Today’s HR professionals are the leaders. We have to be the human revolutionaries at the heart of the business, pushing for radical thinking about how we survive and thrive in this new environment.

We need to make ourselves unpopular sometimes, because there is a bigger cause to fight for and we play a central part in reinventing how business contributes to the world.

Interested in this topic? Read Employee experience: the five practices that will create a more ‘human’ workplace.

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