Leadership Matters

The challenges and opportunities of HR planning in a quickly changing world

By Melissa Campeau

A decade ago, you probably weren’t contemplating the best onboarding app for your new recruits. You likely weren’t having conversations about interpreting employee analytics to manage performance, either. And looking beyond Canadian borders for talent? That was likely the exception, not the rule.

How ready was your organization for each of those changes? Did you, for example, dive into cloud technology when it was first available? See the value of employee analytics when that possibility came to light?

Change is happening at a faster and faster pace. HR professionals who can predict and prepare for what businesses and employees will need next can help ensure a competitive advantage for their organization.

Next changes grow from current evolutions

Predicting future disruptions or opportunities can start with a quick glance backward. Considering recent and current innovations – and how an organization can maximize those or how they might evolve or be used in concert with other developments – can help pinpoint strategic next steps.

Take technology, for example.

“From my perspective, cloud-based technology has had a huge impact, since organizations are now able to manage big data and generate predictive analytics,” said Nan Oldroyd, director of talent management at George Brown College in Toronto.

Not every organization, though, is collecting data or analyzing it effectively – at least not yet. For those companies, gathering and making the most of that invaluable information could be a top priority for the immediate future.

To make sense of all that detail, organizations of the future will also look to HR professionals with data analytics expertise.

“I’m starting to see a demand in the marketplace for that skill set,” said Oldroyd. “It’s not rampant yet, but in the last year or two I’ve been seeing postings for data analytics experts in HR, and that’s quite new.”

Cloud computing has also helped enable a work-from-anywhere movement, says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs and Remote Co. Many organizations, though, turned something of a blind eye to this disruptive trend, at least at the beginning.

“Things like mobile and cloud technology have been around for a while, and employees have long been using them to work more flexibly – what I like to call ‘casual flex’ – taking their work home with them to finish emails or projects at night and on the weekends,” she said.

Sutton Fell says that even though report after report discussed the huge change Millennials were bringing to the workforce – placing a high value on work-life balance and seeing flexible work as a standard way of working, rather than a perk – plenty of organizations didn’t keep pace with those ideas.

“It really comes back to understanding who your employees are.”

“Younger generations, especially Millennials, see flexible work options as standard operating procedure and this means a significant shift in the future of HR,” said Sutton Fell. “In order to recruit and retain the best workers, HR professionals will need to rely more heavily on flexible work options like remote work, flexible scheduling and even part-time professional roles.

“What’s been missing is the HR or business response to these disruptions like the adoption of formalized policies regarding remote and flexible work that better support when, where and how people do their best work,” said Sutton Fell.

She notes that while 80 per cent of companies offer some kind of formal or informal flexible work options, only 3 per cent measure the productivity, performance and engagement of those options to determine their ROI and connect them to overarching business goals and the bottom line. For companies that do their research and learn to leverage mobile and flex workers, there is a huge potential advantage, particularly in terms of recruitment and retention.

“Businesses that want to remain competitive need to raise their heads out of the sand and not only pay attention to these trends, but connect them to their business strategies, organizational goals and workforce management initiatives,” said Sutton Fell.

Oldroyd points to another trend that takes flexible to the next level.

“I feel like we’re moving beyond the ‘workplace’ and even beyond the ‘gig economy’ to more of a ‘work interface,’” said Oldroyd.  “It’s the opportunity to bring collaborative teams together, which could be made up of employees, contractors, subject matter experts and others, in a virtual community-based approach.”

Groups are brought together on a short-term basis to achieve a certain goal or target.

“They come up with a plan around it, measure it, get it implemented and then move on,” said Oldroyd.

For the most part, organizations are just beginning to grapple with the idea of the quick-to-assemble and quick-to-disband collaborative teams, some of who might only connect virtually.

“What we need to think through, with these kind of teams, is how do you clearly define what the targets and goals are, and how do they tie to an organization’s purpose or mission?” said Oldroyd. “How do you not only get the results you’re looking for, but also have that project, that work interface, be meaningful, as well? You have to ask whether you’re engaging people and retaining them effectively for that period in time.”

Analytics, again, can help answer some of these questions. Rather than considering patterns among, for example, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, unique data on individual employees helps organizations go deeper.

“I think the generational analysis has been done to death,” said Oldroyd. “We need to think about demographics in a much more sophisticated way. It’s not just that someone comes from a particular culture, race, gender or generation. It really comes back to understanding who your employees are, and being able to offer some customized options to really engage them.”

Social media, too, is a potentially effective tool for fostering connections and community among transient or temporary work groups. In the past, an organization might have assumed an employee would stay for five or 10 years. With a growing population of freelance and contract workers in the future, organizations will have a shrinking window in which to make an impression.

“With social media, an organization can enhance the work experience in the moment and make it extremely positive for the employee,” said Oldroyd.

That’s an area with growth potential for most businesses. While plenty of businesses have harnessed the potential of social media when it comes to external branding and clients, fewer have mastered social connectedness, internally. A 2016 Forbes article by Patrick Willer noted:

Consumers know all there is to know about products and services on their mobile devices with social opinions from the entire world. Hyper connectivity. But only a fraction of organizations are able to hyper connect their own employees in order to create better products, services and customer experiences. The few that do are changing industries. They disrupt. They are connecting brainpower.

Making the most of social is an opportunity in waiting. Oldroyd says that many organizations have begun to ask questions that will pave the way for better connectedness in the future.

“The changing nature of work and ‘work interface’ has really triggered some thinking in the workplace about how to create those collaborative, engaged communities that allow your employees to fully bring their skills and abilities to work, regardless of the cross-functional areas they’re in,” she said.

Ready, set, future

Typically, technologies and trends don’t arrive without notice, but signs of change may not be right in front of you. Expanding networks – and curiosity – beyond HR, says Oldroyd, will offer a better sneak peek at trends and opportunities.

“Internally, you need to understand your business and organization and really know where it’s headed,” said Oldroyd. “What are the business or organizational opportunities? Who are the consumers and stakeholders and what insights do you have around them? What technology do you already have in place that you could potentially leverage?”

Finding answers to those questions, Oldroyd says, comes through being a true leader with the organization, as well as exposure to different points of view.

“Real insight needs a diverse and varied network, as well, that’s a mix of people from HR and other professions,” she said. “Historically in HR, you might have just looked at trends around your industry or your sector – but now some trends are worldwide.”

All comes back to core HR priorities

Change can come in many forms including globalization, political movements and technological disruptions. What remains constant – and what dictates how an organization reacts to, manages or leverages those changes – is a set of foundational HR priorities.

At its core, HR’s role is to transform culture, says Oldroyd.

“You need to consider how to encourage great productivity from employees but also address their emotional needs at work, so there’s a purpose to what they’re doing; it’s not all results driven,” she said.

In a time of constant change, Oldroyd also points out the importance of developing what she calls “stractical” leaders – people who are open-minded enough to see the potential of creative ideas and also practical and agile enough to implement them, and quickly.

“They have to look at change as exciting and energizing, not something to be avoided,” said Oldroyd. “Change is inevitable, first of all. Once you accept that, you have a tremendous opportunity to get a competitive advantage, by creating a strategy and a plan around a future that doesn’t exist yet.”