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Three predictions for HR in a post-pandemic world

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During the pandemic, HR has rightly taken a seat at the top table of organisations as people became a priority. Now that the end is in sight, let’s not relinquish that. Here, we look at three key things that are likely to change in the next few years and how HR can maintain their level of influence going forward.

9th Mar 2021
Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams That People Thing
Columnist
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Who runs your company? Coming out of the last recession the centre of gravity in most businesses moved towards the CEO/CFO relationship. In a time of austerity and caution most companies became risk averse. Only if the CFO could see a clear financial return on investment did decisions get budgeted. It was a tough time for HR. We’ve always found it hard to demonstrate that we are not just a cost centre. Sometimes we even lost our place in the boardroom, being engulfed in to the operations function or even sitting within the CFOs remit – but things are different now.

Let’s not rush back to normal and have our organisations thank us for our service and ask us to kindly back off. 

HR has been crucial to the survival of companies during the pandemic. Not only have we been the ones to deliver those tough calls – furlough, redundancies, work from home policies and Covid-safe workplaces - but it has become increasingly apparent that taking care of our people, skilling our leaders up with the capabilities needed to lead, motivate and inspire at a distance and prioritising mental health to sustain performance is more important to a company’s success than was ever acknowledged before.

Coming out of the pandemic, I would assume that we want to keep these priorities top of the agenda. In order to do that, here are my top three predictions.

‘People’ at the top table

The centre of gravity will shift from the CEO and CFO to the CTO, HRD and CMO. Technology, people and market insight will form the basis of strategy. This isn’t to say that the CEO and CFO don’t matter. The CEOs role will focus on modeling a culture of trust, openness and empowerment. Their humanity and their willingness to stand for something beyond the bottom line will be what matters.

The CFO remains crucial, but rather than being the driver of strategy they will be there to hold the others to account. CFOs will need to understand that long-term sustainability now trumps short-term returns and plan for the long haul, not the quick win.

HR needs a name change

Just as personnel became absorbed into HR, HR will become absorbed into a greater people function. In the past, business strategies were defined and then consideration was given to how to bring people along on that journey, what the resourcing needs would be and how to create the environment that would deliver the results. Strategy was agreed and then we were told. Like it or not, we had to find a way to deliver.

Now the people strategy IS the business strategy. Being forward thinking in terms of where your industry is going, what skills your human workforce will bring (as opposed to your AI workforce) and the relationship between the people in the business, your customers and the wider community will be critical in working out what direction the business is going. People will be the differentiator, not price or even product.

Changing your name to something that reflects that you now stand for people being the heart of the organisation (rather than resources that serve the organisation) will demonstrate this shift.

New thinking and ideas

While there is a desire to get back to something that feels familiar, the novelty of that will quickly wear off. People have experienced more flexibility, time with their family, more choice about where to work and what to wear while they are doing it. They have experienced the isolation, monotony, difficulties being creative and Zoom fatigue – but there is a third way forward. We don’t yet know what that is but we can anticipate that it won’t look like working from home during a pandemic or working in the office like we did pre-Covid.

The conversation will move on from ‘how many days shall we be in the office?’ to bigger fundamentals such as ‘how do we get the best from our people?’; ‘what is the role of leadership in this new world?’; ‘do people need to be managed?’ and ‘what is the relationship between people, their work, their lives and our company’s purpose or mission?’

We need, as professionals, to turn stop reading theories from the 90s and 00s (or before – much of what we believe to be true about motivation and engagement was written in the mid to late 20th century and is based on industrial age thinking from the Victorian era). Instead, we need to be innovators, myth-busters and campaigners. We need to test out every assumption and be willing to rethink everything we think we know. When we feel resistance to an idea we need to move towards it, not run from it.

This includes rethinking hierarchical organisational models, bonus-based incentives, what we mean by company culture, what qualities we look for in leaders, the relationship between people and technology, the education system and how it prepares people for their working lives, our company’s role in the wider society and our own jobs in HR.  

‘Thank you for your service’

When the soldiers returned from fighting in the Second World War and the women who had kept their nations running were told to return to their homes, most obliged. They were thanked for their service and asked to stand down to make way for a ‘return to normal’. A seed had been sown, however, and within a generation it became the norm for women to have jobs (although clearly disparities continue to exist).

Let’s not rush back to normal and have our organisations thank us for our service and ask us to kindly back off. Let’s not do a slow burn here where it takes another generation of HR leaders to build on the seeds sown during Covid-19. Instead, let’s take our seat next to the CTO and CMO and keep people at the forefront of business strategy.  

Finally, here are some questions to explore at your next HR departmental meeting:

  • What do you stand for? Why do you do what you do?
  • What are some HR and OD theories we talk about but have never really questioned?
  • What do you think we should be called and why?

Interested in this topic? Read Business transformation: there’s more to HR’s role than meets the eye.

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