Many of you will be enjoying a return to pre-pandemic normality. I am just loving the revival of freedoms that we took for granted two years ago – seeing family and friends, having the option to travel, not having my glasses steam up when I’m wearing a mask. All the usual stuff.

Returning to normal can be wonderful. For HR, it can be a mixed blessing. Yes, we don’t have to deal with constant crises. We can now offer flexible, hybrid working as the norm. We have made virtual hiring, onboarding and L&D happen.

But on the other hand, we are seeing an unwelcome return of too many of the old ways of thinking. For every company offering fantastic hybrid benefits, there are an equal number of managers who want everyone back in where they can see them. From having to trust people during lockdown to deliver outputs without micro-management, there are numerous sighs of relief as managers feel they can go back to micro-managing their staff.

I think it’s important for us in HR to take a step back and reflect – what did we learn during Covid? What did we learn about managers’ capabilities, the ability of our people to change and adapt, and what did we learn about ourselves? If we can consolidate on what we’ve learned, maybe we can avoid the slippery slope back to old ways of thinking and leading?

We learned that people can change really fast

Imagine having an HR project where the end result would be the majority of our employees working in new locations, with new technologies and in new ways. You can just picture the scale of the project plan, the amount of stakeholder engagement, training programmes and communications. And yet it just happened.

What’s the learning here for us? I think it’s about looking at people and change through a new lens. Instead of our mantra being ‘people don’t like change’ – we need to see change as something we do really fast – if the circumstances are right. ‘Right’ meaning that we make it easy for people to use, give them the space to find their own way of doing it, and have leaders role model the same new behaviours.

Personal choice matters

We all experienced the pandemic in different ways. For people like me, who are lucky enough to have the space, working from home felt like a wonderful relief after incessant travelling. I got to spend time with husband and my Mum (who was in our bubble). Yes, it got a bit tedious at times – not seeing friends, (not the spending time with my husband!) – but on the whole 2020 wasn’t too bad. For others, cramped living arrangements, home schooling and isolation made it all extremely challenging. The return to normal has been equally personal. Some can’t wait to get back to the office, whilst others can’t think of anything worse.

The learning for us in HR is that personal choice matters. One size fits all hybrid working policies are always going to be inadequate. The more that we can enable managers and their teams to have grown up conversations about what works for the individual, the team and the company – the more likely it is that we’ll meet the different needs of our people.

Moments that matter

Even the most introverted homebody will acknowledge that some things are better done in person. Whether it’s brainstorming ideas, celebrating as a team or connecting with someone new, there are times when virtual just isn’t as fulfilling.

We learned however, that it’s important to know which are the ‘moments that matter’? Rather than old-school thinking of 3 days in/2 days out – if we can discuss and agree the moments that matter – when we should be face to face – then we can really get the benefits of hybrid.

The processes that weren’t missed

Quite a lot of our HR processes weren’t missed during the pandemic. Suddenly, our annual talent reviews, performance rating exercises and annual engagement surveys seemed unnecessary or too difficult to do. We turned our long training programmes into bite-sized Teams sessions that worked really well and were so much easier to schedule. Virtual hiring or onboarding meant we had to get creative. We changed our overly complicated mentoring schemes into pop-up sessions. Leadership comms became less formal and corporate. Short and sweet pulse surveys gave us much greater insights at the right time. We got rid of the processes we had been loyally defending as ‘best practice’ since the 1980’s and the world didn’t fall apart. In fact our new approaches gave us credibility and showed HR can adapt at pace. The good news is that many of us are not going back.

We can trust our people

Finally, if we only learned one thing from the pandemic, it should be that our people can be trusted. Turns out they didn’t need the myriad of detailed and prescriptive policies to know how to show up, serve customers and do right by their colleagues.

We should be taking this new atmosphere of feeling we can trust our people and use it to recharge our employee experience. It’s time to take away the rigid policies and replace them with light tough principles that start from the premise of ‘we trust you to use your judgement and do the right thing’. If we take this learning of trusting our people, we can create an environment that is not just passive and compliant but agile and ready to thrive when and if the next crisis hits.

When we started Disruptive HR seven years ago, even having the words ‘Disruptive’ and ‘HR’ together in our company name raised eyebrows. Now, our name isn’t so much of a provocation. It’s more a statement of fact! HR is disrupting – sometimes with rapid speed – often very slowly – but it’s happening!  It is so great to see the increased appetite for change. The continued increase in business challenges such as digitisation, plus major global events such as the pandemic, the war in Ukraine or #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have combined to prompt even the most traditional to think ‘Maybe it IS time to do something different in how we lead and engage our people?’

We are seeing bold and ambitious people plans. And we’re seeing business leaders making greater demands of their HR colleagues. But are we ready for this increased appetite? When we look at the team around us who will take on these challenges to do HR differently – are we confident that they have the skills, the mindsets, the experiences and the relationships to make it happen?

If we’re not confident in their change readiness, then it won’t matter how ambitious our plans are, we won’t be able to deliver. So how can we check our team’s change readiness? I think we need to assess it against 5 criteria:

Credibility

Attitude

Skills

Relationships and

Resilience

Let’s break this down a bit.

Credibility

It’s not enough to actually have the skills and abilities to deliver – we need our leaders to believe that we can. Sadly, I still meet plenty of leaders who don’t see their HR business partners as having the wherewithal to deliver significant change. Their perception of us as ‘order takers’ for their people needs remains a problem. Ask yourself whether your team has a voice that’s heard and valued. Are you and your team seen as an essential part of strategic decision making? Do they genuinely want us at the important meetings because of our strategic insights – and not just for the potential employment legalities?

Attitude

One way of checking whether your team has a change ready attitude is to ask yourself, ‘how do my team get their sense of the value they add?’ Do they like providing a service to others, for example? Do they quite enjoy the power of being the HR compliance officer? Do they see their role as being about protecting employees from managers who can’t cut it?’ If you’re answering YES to any or all of these, you might have a problem. Change ready HR teams get their sense of value from creating the conditions where leaders and employees do their best work, not from a traditional caring parent or critical parental relationship.

Skills

Do your HR team really only excel in employee relations and employment policy? Yes? It’s not going to be enough! A change ready HR team needs to have a blend of skills in disciplines such as marketing, agile product design and behavioural science. If not, we risk trying to deliver the same old stuff in the same old ways.

Relationships

How tight is your team? Have they managed to overcome the traditional silos of Centres of Expertise and Business Partnering to work together on shared priorities? Are they comfortable challenging each other? Or do your team meetings comprise a series of ‘show and tells’ from each department, whilst their colleagues sit scrolling on their phones? And how about their relationships outside the team? Do they REALLY know the business and understand how the people agenda drives the commercials? Do they have impactful relationships with key stakeholders and understand how different HR products will land in their area? Do they have a strong range of connections outside of HR and the organisation – to bring outside intelligence in? Change is a team sport, and you’ll need these relationships if you’re going to succeed.

Resilience

And finally, how resilient are they? Embarking on significant change is not for the feint hearted. Will they be able to hold firm when the inevitable setbacks occur? Are they flexible enough to adapt their approaches and ideas if they seem to be facing a block in the road? Do they believe, deep down, that change has to happen – and not just telling what you want to hear? Above all, are they confident? Will they back themselves against the resistors and find agile ways of working round them to achieve the goals you’ve set yourselves. More than anything, you need them to believe in what you’re doing – and themselves as being ready to take on the change.

If you want to check out the change readiness of your HR team, why not check out the HR Team Change Readiness Diagnostic here

Of course, you’ve all been making change happen regularly, particularly in the last two years. But how can we do it differently? How can we make HR change run more smoothly and have an impact that sustains? Now obviously, this is a huge topic, but I’m going to look at four change management essentials that I believe it’s worth thinking about.

First up is how you design the change. I deliberately use the word ‘design’ rather than ‘plan’, because when it comes to change, we need the mindset of product designers. Planning change is quite old-school. You remember the detailed project sheets we used to have? The Gantt charts – with a beginning, a middle and an end – with changes mapped out sequentially – and behavioural change plotted for 9 months later after a period of training programmes.

Of course, change isn’t like that is it? The new approach to change design is all about being led by insights into our end-users or leaders and employees. It’s about designing around employee persona – the clusters of different motivations and fears that exist within your organisation. Change design is about deploying agile design techniques such as MVP, sprint planning, early adopters and co-creation. If you’ve got a detailed two year change management plan, you might need to rip it up and approach it from a change design perspective instead!

Next up for change management essentials is thinking about how you’re are going to persuade people to be open to the change.

No matter how many times say this is important, we tend to focus on the mechanics of change rather than the psychology. I’m not saying we need to get degrees in psychiatry, but HR does need to re-claim our role as the human experts. Persuasion is not about presenting a logical business case and then training people in new skills. Persuasion is about:

  • Understanding people’s resistance to change and working with that
  • Creating an environment of psychological safety for people to try new things
  • Making the changes required seem really small so that they are less off-putting
  • Finding the right influencers who can help you build change momentum – peer to peer

The third change essential is creating behavioural shifts – changing habits, helping new behaviours become the norm – again, a totally neglected area of HR in my opinion. However, I know that many of you are already starting to use techniques like nudging to good effect. But there are others too that work really well – like re-framing – where you help people look at an issue through a different lens. These behavioural change techniques need to be part of every HR professional’s toolkit.

Finally, the fourth essential is marketing the change. Not communicating the change – marketing it, selling it. We have to adopt marketing techniques if we’re going to make it happen and stick. We have to rethink the language we use, the way we brand or name our new products. We can use techniques like permission marketing or content marketing to build and engage our audience. And we need to build critical mass and momentum through working first with the ones who might be up for something different. We cannot force people to change so we are better off ignoring the biggest resistors and focusing on where we can get some traction.

So, in summary, new change management is about using new design techniques, investing time and skill on persuading people to change their behaviour and marketing and selling it effectively.

As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer light-touch, agile and less perfect solutions to the challenges we face.

Messy HR has a number of features that differentiates it from the traditional neater version;

So, what do these messy HR solutions look like in practice? I thought it would be useful to look at one of our most popular ‘neat’ HR processes – talent management and compare it to the newer messier alternative.

The neat approach to talent management The traditional neat approach is all about the annual completion of the 9 Box Grid as part of our annual talent review, seeing this as the complete picture of talent strength.

The leaders I have worked with who seemed to enjoy the Annual Talent Review were always those who got a kick from structure and process rather than the great people leaders. The latter were able to do the exercise fairly quickly, but it didn’t create any real value for them as they already had a clear picture in their mind about their people and some idea about how they were going to develop, manage or reward each of them. The leaders who enjoyed the process of neatly categorising were typically the ones who did little with the results and saw the activity as being completed the moment they placed the last name on the grid. We know that great talent management is all about movement – moving up, around, in, out and yet the 9 Box Grid often fails to generate that movement and becomes more about allocation. I can see that having a snap shot of your senior teams at a point in time might be useful as a wake-up call or a reassurance but not much more and, given the inaccuracy of that snap shot, why bother to do even that?

It’s not unusual for talent reviews in larger organisations to take several months to complete. Not only is this time consuming for questionable results, it just doesn’t mirror the true pace of most organisations. Every Talent Review I’ve ever produced was always out of date by the time it was complete and leaders who want to move quickly to recruit or promote are justified in their irritation at the time it takes to get a perfect picture.

So, we spend crazy amounts of time and effort producing a complicated (but neat!) grid that is inaccurate and doesn’t add value. Not a great use of time at best and at worst, yet another HR activity that fails to add value and damages our credibility. Finally, messier alternatives are emerging with much greater impact.

So what’s the ‘Messy’ Alternative to the Annual Talent Review? Firstly, it’s not annual! Instead we’re seeing much more fluid and dynamic talent processes and interventions that don’t have a rigid and irrelevant timetable. Approaches like Western Union’s approach where they get clusters of leaders together for an hour a month to ‘talk talent’. No documentation to fill in, no 9 box grids – just conversations about their teams. I’ve always found that most leaders like to talk about their people, they just don’t like doing the paperwork. Getting leaders to discuss talent on a regular basis helps them get better at it too.

Secondly, we’re seeing greater customisation to reflect the different needs of the talent themselves. At 3M, the HR team identified a number of different segments based on the employees’ main motivation for working at 3M. Three examples of these clusters include employees who are:

“In it for my life”—those motivated by alternative work arrangements, as in “I have a life.”

“In it to win it”—those motivated by a fast-paced, highly challenging, risk-taking environment.

“In it to experience it”—those motivated by developmental stretch assignments.

The clusters provide managers with the ability to tailor programs to various employee needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to career development.

Thirdly, talent management is much less about focusing on an elite few who have been anointed during the talent management process but instead about creating an environment where employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their own career development. Initiatives such as Nielsen’s ‘Ready to Rotate’ where employees are encouraged to flag when they believe they are ready to do something different is a great example of this change of ownership.

Finally, messier talent management is all about regular conversations between a line manager and their team, not the once a year career discussion at the annual appraisal. Numerous organisations are now embracing this less structured approach and encouraging leaders to have frequent check-ins which include discussions about career development instead.

Messy HR is often going to be harder sell to our Execs than the neater one. Providing proof of leadership capabilities or talent bench strength feels good because it offers the seductive illusion of certainty. Advocating approaches where there are no guarantees, where ‘it depends’, where it takes longer and where it’s harder to measure may meet with greater resistance but it’s honest and in the long run will deliver greater results. I believe the truly impactful HR teams are the ones who are brave enough to promote ‘messy’ in a world that craves ‘neatness’.

We know we’re in trouble when the thinking behind our latest HR initiative is that “if HR doesn’t manage it, THEY won’t do it properly”. The “THEY” in question is, of course, our managers; the people we trust enough to lead the business but not enough to lead our people! You know, I struggle to think of a time when a new strategy or tactic I introduced as an HR Director wasn’t shaped by a desire to compensate for poor leaders. You know how it goes …

…THEY won’t have conversations with their team members? Let’s introduce a system that makes them sit down once a year to do it.

…THEY won’t tackle poor performance? Let’s make them rate their people via a distribution curve that forces them to put 10% at the bottom.

…THEY won’t reward their people fairly? Let’s design a bonus formula that has a number of different measures so they won’t have much room for manoeuvre.

…THEY won’t tell their people what’s happening in the organisation? Let’s produce a script and insist they cascade this through their teams by a certain date.

Whilst our desire to compensate often stems from a positive intent – to protect and help employees or the organisation – the impact, I believe, is corrosive and damaging for three key reasons:

  1. We often make things worse

Instead of achieving our aims of great conversations, fair rewards, effective communication and so on – the processes we make “THEM” carry out often deliver just the opposite. We have produced cumbersome performance systems with complicated ratings and distribution curves that often make it impossible for managers to simply have a great conversation. Instead of rewards that surprise, delight and motivate our people, we have created bonus structures that dissatisfy and confuse. Instead of effective communication, managers end up parroting sterile scripts that they don’t own. Instead of allowing for differentiation based on personal style, the needs of that particular area of the business or the simple common-sense requirement to use discretion, we push one-size-fits all processes that managers often box tick or try and find ways of ignoring.

2. We create a culture of co-dependency

By continuing to compensate for poor managers we create a co-dependency with HR that is unhealthy. Whilst we might enjoy the sense of being needed, by failing to address the doubts about their abilities to lead and manage their people, we remain necessary and fail to help them develop the judgement and skills they need to do it on their own. In a world of pace and ambiguity, where the ability of managers to make the right decisions quickly is paramount, we keep them childlike and limit their potential.

3. It stops HR from doing what it needs to

Compensating for poor managers places HR in a kind of hybrid role of Chief Super-Nanny/Police/Monitor. Not only does this little for our credibility with the business, it also means that we devote hours to measuring who’s done what or doing it for them. If I had diverted just 50% of the time I invested in thinking up new ways to make managers do things into creating the conditions where they would do it themselves, I would have been a much better HR leader.

So how can we begin to change the focus for HR?

Sadly, there are a lot of poor managers, but maybe fewer than we think if we changed our approach? I believe there are four ways in which we can begin to do this.

  1. Don’t design around the lowest common denominator

If our starting point in HR is about how “THEY” won’t or can’t then our focus will remain on making them or doing it for them. An alternative approach is to use “appreciative inquiry” and to look at what’s working well and re-focusing our energies on how it could be even better.

2. Play to their strengths

The traditional leadership competency framework is dated. Instead of producing a list of behaviours that we expect managers to model, it can be helpful to focus on the unique strengths each manager has and how they can lead, engage and develop their people in a way that works for them and feels authentic.

3. Focus on the impact

Instead of driving and measuring inputs (numbers of appraisal forms completed, numbers of people trained etc) we can set expectations about and measure how we want their people to feel and what we want them to experience (ie: we want you to help your people perform at their best, we want you to help your people grow and learn, etc). If we focus on the impact we want them to have as managers but allow them the freedom to deliver it in ways that work for their people, their authentic leadership style, their business context, etc, then we both challenge them to develop and use their particular strengths.

4. Allow judgement

Finally, we must avoid the urge to create more and more rules and instead learn to back-off. Whilst it can be tempting and reassuring to have everything nailed down so there’s no room for error, it also doesn’t allow for managers to use and build their judgement and so we are stuck in this cycle of co-dependency.

The sad truth is that HR cannot really compensate for poor leaders and managers. At best, we paper over the cracks and at worst, we can create conditions where the better managers struggle to do it well. If we spent more time making sure we chose better leaders in the first place and less time compensating we’d do everyone a favour.

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I had a colleague once – a fellow board member – who was sort of my nemesis. Whenever I wanted to introduce any changes to the way we did HR – they were the biggest resistor. Unfortunately, they also wielded a lot of power in the organisation. So, my strategy was always to try and win them over. This involved:

With the benefit of hindsight, I really wished I had gone about this in a different way. Because I have realised that they were never going to change – not because the proposals were wrong – but because they were terrified of anything that might alter the status quo.

There are lots of things I wished I’d done differently as an HR Director, but this stands out above all the others. I dearly wish I had not wasted so much of my time and energy (and of my team) on the biggest resistors.

The HR teams we see who are making fantastic and innovative changes get this instinctively. They don’t worry too much about the ones who don’t want to change – and instead, focus on the curious and the open – the ones who, may not be the greatest leaders in the world, but who get that things probably need to change and are up for exploring something new. They get their ideas going with these guys first – and think about rolling out more widely once they have go this initial group on board.

If HR were product manufacturers – that’s exactly what we’d be doing right? We would find our so-called ‘early adopters’ – and we would launch with them. We’d iron out the initial flaws and bugs with people who are happy to try out the ‘beta’ version. We’d get testimonials about how great the product is. And we would use this to market our new product to others who, by this stage, might want to be included in something that’s getting plenty of positive attention.

We’ve used this strategy with clients who wanted to launch a new HR approach – say, for performance management. Rather than focusing on the biggest resistors and delaying everything until they are happy to go with it. We’ve found pockets of initial interest amongst some managers who are fed up with the old-fashioned way of doing appraisals and who are open to trying something new. We’ve then worked on developing the new design – co-creating it with them – and piloting a couple of new ideas.

We’ve got plenty of feedback, built up testimonials and encouraged the early adopters to influence their peers to give it a go. It also helps if your CEO shows an interest and offers some praise or recognition for the innovation. We find that this combination often results in other leaders wanting to be included in the next phase. Remember – do not be tempted to try and persuade the biggest resistors – even at this stage! The key is to ignore them – and get to a place where they are perhaps more isolated in their negativity. I’ve even tried telling them that they can’t be included because they aren’t ready to work in these new ways – a slightly more radical approach but it can work wonders!

Now one of the challenges we often get is – ‘but what about the poor employees who work for these leaders who refuse to change? Don’t we in HR have a responsibility to look out for them? If we leave out the resistors then their team members will have a much poorer experience?’ And of course this is probably true. But I think we have to ask ourselves whether forcing leaders who don’t want to change to adopt something new is going to result in a positive experience either? We know that organisations have perpetually promoted leaders who haven’t really been interested in people leadership but who have been the best technically or who wanted the increased status. Trying to prop them up with processes that make them do the people stuff – often badly – isn’t making them better at it. I think that focusing on the ones who do want to do it better – and enlisting their help to encourage the neutrals to join in – is a more effective way of improving the experience for our people.

So to sum up:

When you’re thinking about your strategy for making change:

It’s more effective and much less exhausting!

We keep saying that world around us is changing but in many ways we continue to lead, engage and develop our people like we did in the 1980’s – with tired old processes designed to prop up poorer managers and based on ticking boxes to achieve compliance.

If our organisations are going to survive and thrive in this new, disrupted world then we need a fundamentally new way of relating to our people. Disruptive HR would like to introduce you to the EACH approach – employees as adults, consumers and human beings.

What are the skills and mindsets that are needed to be an all round great HR person? Take our free diagnostic to see how you compare and get some practical tips on how to develop.

It will only take you a few minutes.

Click here to take the diagnostic!

For those of you who are thinking about investing in some skill development, why not check out our Programme? Click on the link to find out more, or contact us at hello@disruptivehr.com

We keep looking for the next alternative to the ubiquitous “3-legged-stool” model for HR. We have almost given up trying to find enough outstanding (and affordable) HR Business Partners. We continue to struggle to find and keep CofE professionals who can deliver truly innovative, commercial and flexible approaches that are relevant for today’s world. And those of us who have spent time in outsourced, shared-service hell are beginning to get nostalgic about the days when it was all in-house.

Moreover, the demands of our clients increase daily. The impact of the current crisis has turned so much of our HR world upside down. Most of our clunky, annual processes feel irrelevant. There doesn’t seem to be any C-suite executive who hasn’t read about how other companies are getting rid of appraisals and are questioning what we are doing about it. Those pesky Millennials won’t stop making demands for greater flexibility and wanting everything on their Smartphone. And just when we thought our budget might increase for the first time in a few years, the FD’s begging bowl has reappeared.

More for less. More agility. More innovation. All HR professionals face the same challenges, regardless of sector.

Of course, focusing on the future HR organisation structure is a bit of a “physician heal thyself” scenario. For, as we would urge our clients not to leap to the org chart, so we need to ask some fairly fundamental questions about what we do and how we do it if we are going to actually deliver more productivity and innovation. But, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the HR Team that can meet the demands of a modern world. I’ll focus on 5 key trends in HR design that we’re seeing that will offer greater opportunities for real creativity, increased capacity to deliver and happily, should save money too.

From Business Partner to Account Management

When looking for a new HRBP, I was often tempted to advertise for a Superhero with strong interpersonal skills. “We need a strategic and commercial HR business partner. They must have experience in the full range of HR elements, be a coach, a law enforcer, a spoon-feeder, a tear-drier and the conscience of the business. They must be prepared to come up with lots of new ideas, only to have them ignored, take the blame when things go wrong, and always to have their item put last on any team meeting agenda, after finance, operations, marketing, IT and problems with the toilets. They must be relentlessly cheerful and be prepared to listen to the ravings or woes of anyone who seeks them out. Above all, they must be able to present the latest Group-wide HR initiative that has absolutely no relevance to their business unit, to their MD as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread.” When you look at what we want from them, it’s amazing to me that we can find one, let alone the numbers that most HR structures depend upon.

Estimates vary but it was seen that typically between 20-30% of traditional HR advisers would be unlikely to make the step up to full HR Business Partner. In my experience, it was significantly higher than that and most companies can count on one hand the number of HRBPs that can fulfil all that is required. Given this resource is both scarce and expensive, we are seeing a move to reducing the number of them and moving towards more of an account management role. This person does the strategic and commercial parts of the role, the relationship building, the diagnosis of what’s required, the resource planning and the oversight of the delivery. They then call upon a pool of HR generalists and/or technical experts who can deliver. The key benefits of this approach are a reliance on a fewer number of HR generalists, a genuine strategic/commercial focus from HR and the deployment of non-partisan generalists who can go to the greatest point of need. Clearly, these ‘super-BPs’ are tough to find. If you’d like to grow your own, it might be worth checking out our programme designed to develop the skills the modern-day HRBP needs.

HR Advisory – More than a Transaction

All of us who bear the scars from outsourcing our well-loved and local HR advisers have learned some hard lessons. We have come to realise that seeing HR advisory as a transactional service that can cost less by simply lobbing it over the organisation fence to an outsourced provider who offers ruthlessly efficient processes has some major flaws. Our HR processes are rarely beautifully streamlined at the point of transfer and so we import significant additional costs as the provider tries to navigate all of the “special and different” approaches we have historically accommodated. We ignored the loss of institutional memory as we marched these advisers out of the door. But most critically, we forgot the fact that when a line manager is asking about a particular policy – they are not actually asking about a policy – but how to get round it! The in-house HR adviser knew their line managers and their employees and deployed a big chunk of judgement along with their advice. They would weigh up the maturity of the line manager, the precedents that had already been set, the risks with this particular employee, etc, etc. Our HR Advisory service is a key part of the employee experience, often the first and most frequent touch point for our people. The painful outsourcing experiences of recent years have led some organisations to take this service back in-house. But we are also seeing a new trend – of next generation outsourced providers who are fundamentally different. One example of this is Adviser Plus who have built in an intrinsic understanding of the value and risks of HR advisory into their service – for example, providing a proactive phone call to a manager who is downloading a policy document that can be more high risk if they get it wrong, such as redundancy policy – and seeing if they want to talk anything through. HR advisory will continue to offer significant opportunities for outsourcing – but with a new style of approach that involves empathy, understanding, capability development and the ability to assess risk.

Employee Experience not Centres of Expertise

The approach we take in Disruptive HR is based upon our unique EACH model – Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. We therefore really welcome the next key trend – to cluster Centres of Expertise around a focus on the employee experience – as it supports and reinforces one of these elements – the employee as a consumer. One of the (occasionally legitimate) accusations that is levelled at the CofE teams is that they are too focused on their own discipline and producing the perfect recruitment, talent, development, diversity, performance management, reward (delete as appropriate) solution and fail to connect to the needs of the business. In the same way that many consumer organisations have grouped many of their functions around a Head of Customer Experience, so this is starting to be adopted by HR for their people.

This is more than just a change of job title. By re-focusing on the actual experience that is desired at each stage of the employee life cycle, organisations can create a more joined up and holistic employee proposition that is greater than the sum of its HR parts. Driven by improved and genuine employee insight (not just an annual engagement survey but a blend of qualitative and quantitative analysis), created through effective user-centred design and delivered in ways that are relevant to each segment of their employee “market” – there are huge opportunities to increase cut through and reduce wasted effort.

Building capability not just compliance

This trend comes largely through a fresh response to a disrupted world where the abundance of employment policies and rules often stifle innovation and increase frustration of employees. The role of HR as The Enforcer is not what many of us who went into this profession wanted, but is one we have continued to play. Of course, rules matter. But any of us who have had to draft interminable employment policies recognise that this comes at a cost – to our capacity to focus on building the capabilities of line managers. Disruptive HR is often brought in to provide fresh challenge and ideas for HR teams. Whilst they like the innovation, they equally are concerned about their ability to deliver as their managers “wouldn’t do it”. They may be right but this means we are stuck in this vicious cycle where – we don’t trust managers to manage – we therefore produce rules and processes that make them do it – we spend our time enforcing and monitoring the process to make sure they have – which means we don’t have the time to develop their capability – so we don’t trust them to manage – and so on ….

Moreover, our seeming reluctance to let go of the role of Compliance Officer seriously dents our HR brand. If we spend our time ensuring cost efficiency and operational compliance – then why should we be taken seriously when we start to talk about value creation? I know it is hard to see a way out – I have tried and failed often, but only when we release ourselves from the compliance burden and focus instead on building judgement, insight and space for creativity will we be able to break the cycle. The Netflix HR team’s determination to steer clear of the role of HR police is well documented, but we are starting to see this as a trend in HR and not just within Silicon Valley. Interestingly, it is gaining traction in sectors that are often perceived (wrongly) as less innovative – the public and not-for-profit sectors. The continual cuts in support functions has forced them to consider a more radical alternative than some of their commercial and less cash strapped cousins. I know of examples in the Housing, Education and Local Government where they are having to focus on rolling back HR’s role in compliance – with highly productive results.

Contingent vs Permanent

This final trend has been evident in piecemeal form for many years. We have regularly deployed contractors, temps, and consultants to supplement or enhance our FTE levels. But we have rarely used them as a strategic choice – more as a tactical fill in. The accelerated pace of innovation in the HR space, the new freelance tech platforms, the continued pressure on costs and the need to deploy rapidly to resolve issues or bring about change all lead you to question whether a standing army of HR people is relevant in the future. This trend is about “Smart Contingency” – a belief that you can get a better level of innovation, a better resource flow and increased delivery capability if you include non-permanent resources as a key part of your HR team. This is more than getting in additional bodies to fix a problem or to cover maternity leave, it’s more than buying a consultant to give specialist advice – it is about building an eco-system of a mix of contingent HR capabilities that meet your medium and longer term needs. Contemporary HR teams are building up their abilities to commission work and to contract effectively to get the most from this growing resource.

But you haven’t mentioned digital?!

I do realise that not mentioning digital in an HR blog about the future is likely to get me chucked out of HR club (not for the first time!) but I have done so intentionally. Digital is a channel, a medium and an underlying approach that should permeate everything we do and is not an organisation trend. Of course, we may need to create a specific focus on this in the short term to raise its profile and build our capability. But very shortly, it will be simply the means by which we deliver our services – after all we wouldn’t have an Email team or Face to Face team would we?


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Here’s some HR stuff that you can stop doing that will save you time and money – and create a better people experience.

  1. Look at your current Handbook – is it full of unnecessary policies, negative language, and rules? This traditional approach is eating away at our people’s (and our leaders) ability to use their judgement – and it puts us in the role of HR compliance. Instead, go with a light touch Culture Handbook and replace as many policies as you can with principles that focus on people applying judgement and not designed around a rogue minority. A great example is Hubspot who use just three words to cover their policy on social media, travel, time off, expenses & remote working “Use good Judgement’.
  2. Ditch your probation period.  It’s not just a terrible word and gives the impression that we don’t trust our new people, but it’s taking up lots of our resources with review meetings, confirmation letters, chasing managers etc. Check on how many people don’t actually pass their probation? Bet it’s very few. Instead, encourage your managers to have more regular short check-ins with their new people to help them settle in.  
  3. Question whether you need to make that training mandatory. If you have to chase people to complete it, get some insight into why that is i.e. is it tedious, not adding value to their work etc. Challenge whether it should be mandatory and why you in HR are even owning it?
  4. Kill stupid rules. Ask your people to tell you the HR processes that get in the way of them doing a great job.  Guaranteed these rules will also be draining your HR time.
  5. If you haven’t already, stop doing annual appraisals. If you work out the hours spent preparing for appraisals, managing appraisals, chasing appraisals and doing appraisals, it’s quite a big hit to our HR budget and time.  We already know that it’s an outmoded way of managing performance. Move to frequent check-ins and ditch the paperwork. Check out our Leader Box to give simple tips and conversation starters to managers.
  6. If you are still planning to do an annual engagement survey, then maybe it’s time to question the value you have derived over the last few years? Apart from the Board feeling better because they’ve ticked the box called staff engagement, what has really changed? Instead, move to frequent, light touch pulse surveys. Create your own free survey (e.g. Typeform, Survey Monkey) and ask regular questions on themes e.g. “How could we make remote working better for you?” If you do have a bit of budget invest in one of the great feedback apps like OfficeVibe CultureAmpTINYpulse that focus on real-time feedback.
  7. No budget for building your employment brand?  Ask your people to write a review on Glassdoor about what they think about working for you?  Discuss the reviews at leadership meetings, so that you can celebrate what’s great and how you’re going to work on areas you need to improve.  
  8. Stop sending emails and and set up different employee groups (leaders, new starters etc.) on your current comms channel e.g. FB Workplace, MSTeams, Slack etc. A great way to start conversations and discussions.
  9. If your leadership training budget gets cut, preventing you from bringing in external trainers, well, that might not be a bad thing– after all, you know more about your leaders than anyone so why not do it yourself with all the time – set up informal clinics to provide coaching, set up a community to push useful external resources (try this one!) and send them a weekly whisper email like google with a suggestion of one new thing they can try out with their team.
  10. Stop sitting in on interviews.  Not only is it wasting valuable HR time but you’re making hiring managers more dependent on you and they’ll never develop their recruitment skills.  Run a workshop, share great resources, and then leave them to it.
  11. If you’re still using the 9 Box Grid, you’ll know how much time and effort it takes. Big cumbersome processes that take months to complete are increasingly discredited and being replaced by regular ‘Talking Talent’ conversations about talent movement and roles that need refreshing.  Check out our Box of Meetings which has a helpful template to help get those conversations going.
  12. Ditch the hi-po programme.  Expensive, elite and they don’t deliver value according to research by CEB (73% of high potential programmes show neither business outcomes nor return on investment). 
  13. Stop wasting hours of time creating HR reports with random stats and flawed people data. Instead, go to leaders with a more compelling narrative 1)Are we able to attract the talent we need? 2) Are we creating the conditions where our people can perform to the best of their ability?
  14. If your spending hours doing exit interviews please stop – we need to be talking to our people before they’re dissatisfied! Instead encourage managers to have stay conversations in their normal one-to-one check-ins asking questions like “What makes you stay here” and “What would make you want to leave?”
  15. If we want to role model efficiency in our business, we have to take a look at changes we can make to our own function without compromising on the value we can add.  Get your team together and share the problem.  Give them the safety of knowing that this doesn’t mean restructuring but instead, you want their ideas and suggestions about how they might adapt to focus on what’s important – ‘What processes, activities that are not adding value should we stop doing?’