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.

Rather than relying on an HR policy to help you manage a team who are working flexibly, try asking yourself these questions to make sure you’re getting hybrid working right.

  1. Do I work flexibly – or am I always in the office? What subliminal messages am I giving about where it’s best to work?
  2. Am I being clear about the outputs I want and then giving flexibility about where and when the works gets done? Or am I still managing by overseeing tasks?
  3. Am I being inclusive enough, or are my meetings geared to people in the office/at home? Am I accommodating the different needs and personalities on our team?
  4. Am I having grown-up conversations with my team about hybrid working? Am I being flexible enough, or am I being too accommodating and not pushing back if it causes problems with customers or the rest of the team?
  5. Am I having enough quick check-ins and chats about career development with the people I don’t see very often?
  6. Am I clear on the ‘moments that matter’ for my team? When should we be together face to face? Have I asked them when they feel it’s important?
  7. Am I using a range of tools such as WhatsApp or Slack to keep conversations going outside of meetings?
  8. Do my team members have what they need to be able to work effectively from anywhere?
  9. Am I realising the potential benefits of hybrid to create a more diverse team?
  10. Am I being too inflexible about where my team work because I don’t trust some of them? Could I handle this in a different way, so I don’t punish the many to manage the few?

Right now many leadership teams are trying to work out what their future workplace will be like.

Will it be:

Getting to a decision can be tricky as there usually lots of personal agendas floating about! Based on our experience of helping leaders arrive at some conclusions, we’ve produced the following Do’s and Don’ts. We hope you’ll find them helpful if you are having this type of discussion.

Do’s

  1. Get them to acknowledge their personal preference at the outset. (It will be helpful to know, because they’ll tend to assume everyone wants what they do!)
  2. Avoid applying ‘old-thinking’ such as 2 days in the office and 3 days at home. This will probably end up not pleasing anyone! Instead, try and think about the ideal activities to be done face – ‘moments that matter’ to your sustaining your culture. And allow managers and to work it through with their team members based on what works for them.
  3. Keep your options open. Whatever your decision, you can always agree that you’re going to ‘suck it and see’. There’s no need to box yourself into a corner when things are still uncertain.
  4. What’s right for you and your culture. And think about how you can differentiate rather than following the herd?
  5. Reflect and remind yourselves how productive and agile people have been during lockdown. We’re still hearing some leaders talking about working from home as an indulgence! Maybe show them this short video around creating a ‘better normal’ before you start the discussion.
  6. Challenge sentences that start with assumptions about ‘everyone’ wants, eg: ‘everyone can’t wait to get back’ or ‘everyone wants to carry on working from home’. It’s always going to be less black and white than that.
  7. Think shorter and longer term. Of course, you’ll need to have your immediate response to recovering from the pandemic, but also use this opportunity to think about how you’d like it to be in the future when you might have more flexibility to look at things like office leases and employment contracts.
  8. Have conversations about how your choices can be helped to work, eg: an equally positive experience for remote and office based, keeping collaboration going, supporting managers to have better conversations, changes to meeting practices, etc).

And now for some ‘Don’ts …

Don’t (or try not to) …

  1. Make it overly-complicated, eg: detailed role-based decisions or specifying certain days, etc.
  2. Design around the lowest common denominator (ie: badly behaving employees or managers who are worried about having to make judgments and have conversations they might find difficult).
  3. Assume that the office is just for collaboration. Whilst important, there are people who might just prefer to work there (eg: people who don’t have much space or young kids, etc).
  4. Try and manage it from centre. One size can’t fit all. Allow managers and teams to work it out locally.

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!

As I sit here in London on yet another dark January lockdown afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that eventually there will be a return to the dilemma of where we work. But it also feels good to dream about a time in the (hopefully) not-to-distant future when our choices about where we work can be expanded.

Certainly, the smart businesses are already planning for it. In a recent survey we asked whether you thought you’d be:

So nearly 60% of you are already making plans for a very different set of working arrangements, recognising that the office as a place where we go to do our work is increasingly outdated.

I find these figures exciting. They show that many of you are recognising the huge opportunity this crisis has given us – to completely re-set our thinking about how, where and when we work. This doesn’t just give us the potential to transform our working lives and to continue to reap the individual and business benefits of increased work/life balance or productivity. It has the potential to dramatically expand our talent pools and business innovation, to transform the communities we live in, and help save money and the planet! But – and it’s a big BUT – this potential can only be realised if we change our thinking, not just our work locations.

We weren’t great at WFH pre-crisis

Over recent years, we have done our best to promote the benefits of working from home occasionally. But let’s be honest, we haven’t really been terribly successful. Managers have clung to their need to see their staff to be reassured that they are actually working. Being allowed to work from home continued to be seen as a perk, almost as if you were taking the day off. Our most senior leaders tended to be in the office and so the important stuff, the big decisions, were things that happened there. Whilst the crisis has changed a lot of this, I do wonder whether the beliefs that under-pinned it have actually moved on all that much? I don’t think we should assume that the lack of trust from managers or old-school leadership will have been eliminated by the virus.

We’re applying old-fashioned thinking to future plans

It’s telling that many companies who are promising a change to their future workplace continue to apply old-style thinking. They are telling their people that the new normal will involve working at home say, three days out of five with the remaining two days being back in the office. Whilst this limited choice will go some way of appeasing our desire for increased flexibility, it doesn’t change the thinking behind it. Working from home is still being framed as a bit of an indulgence and everything about this approach screams ‘BUT, THE REAL WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ If we don’t change the thinking, we’ll be back to packed commuter trains and cubicle-working in no time at all.

Now I know that some aspects of work can be diminished when there’s lack of physical contact, collaboration and creativity for example. And I’ll do a future blog on how companies are ensuring that these can still thrive without being office based. But for this one I’d like to look at three trends and changes in mind-set that are gaining momentum and which have the potential to offer a genuine re-set once the crisis ends.

15 Minute Living

Whilst the idea of ‘15 Minute Living’ idea isn’t new, it is certainly getting some traction since the crisis. This model of urban planning is where all our needs, whether they be work, school, gym, shopping, socialising or healthcare, are no more than a 15 minute walk or cycle from our homes. Instead of long commutes to huge offices in city centres, there is growing trend around the idea of ‘localisation’ – vibrant local communities that cater for all our needs. Companies are already responding to this trend with Google planning to create smaller hubs and satellite offices as alternatives to the big HQs. Similarly, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong recently explained his vision of having ‘one floor of office space in ten cities, rather than ten floors of office in space in one city’. This distributed model of offices has the potential to breakdown the soulless HQs that have burgeoned over recent decades. Moreover, because these hub working spaces will be based around where people actually live rather than where certain departments are based, they shouldn’t automatically re-create the mini fiefdoms we tried hard to get rid of in the first place.

WFA – Working from Anywhere

The old ‘work from home or the office?’ debate is thankfully evolving into the concept of ‘Work from Anywhere’ (WFA). Rather than being constrained by an office with all of the costs and hassle that go with it, companies are expanding their options of where work can happen. Whilst we saw co-working space growth before the crisis, the predictions are that this will shoot up from 5% to 30% of the office market over the next 10 years. The search optimisation agency Novos for example, has recently signed a lease with We Membership and give employees their own monthly budget to spend on booking workspace. Not only does this save the company money, but they are now less reliant on the competitive London market for talent, with recent recruits coming from as a far afield as Poland.

In addition, hotel chains hit hard by lockdowns and travel bans are waking up to the idea that they can provide businesses with flexible space options. Accor and Marriott for example, are both offering ‘work from here’ packages – possibly a more attractive option for people struggling with working from home due to lack of space or young children. Travel company Expedia has even been promoting the idea of changing your four walls during lockdown for a holiday location with their Work From Here campaign and there’s a new platform called Jubel that makes it easy to plan so-called ‘workcations’.

Level Playing Fields

Back when I was in corporate life, I used to find it amusing that the location of the Executive Team would act like a magnet for large numbers of staff who would try and move their own desk closer to the seat of power. If we continue to see the office as where the important work happens, all of these exciting new trends will lose traction. And we will gravitate back to the centres of power like some Elizabethan court! The smarter companies have not only re-set expectations of where work can happen, but have supported these changes with efforts to level the playing fields between office work and elsewhere. Here are just a few examples:

The plans we are making now for a post-Covid world offer a genuine opportunity to re-shape our businesses and the lives of our people. If we want to fully realise this opportunity, then we have to re-shape our thinking as well as giving up the lease on our office.

It’s hard to argue that investing in for our employees’ health and wellbeing is anything other than a good thing. Particularly now when the pandemic is creating additional pressures in our already stressful lives. And I’m not going to. Argue I mean. But I do think we should question the corporate approach to health and wellbeing and ask whether the things we’re doing are really helping? Or are they unnecessary investments that delude us into thinking that the health and wellbeing box can be ticked? We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Or whether they are yet another example of the parental relationships we foster in most organisations? Should we be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look at the things we do that create/add to the stress in the first place and try and reduce those?

Health and wellbeing at work is now a massive industry. It currently stands at $53 billion and is set to grow to $97 billion by 2027. That’s a lot of yoga classes and Fitbits.

Most of our health and wellbeing support falls into one of the following:

  1. Giving health education and instructions such as ‘take a break from your screen’, timely pop-ups reminding employees to ‘now drink some water’ – or my personal favourite that I saw recently – advising women to ‘practice your pelvic lifts’ via a poster on the back of the ladies’ loo door!
  2. Protecting employees from stress by putting in place certain restrictions such as the French ‘right to disconnect’ law, banning email sending after certain hours or Volkswagen, who blocked emails after hours.
  3. Gifts and perks such as gym membership, a back massage at your desk, or fresh fruit.
  4. Training for both managers and employees in how to spot signs of mental health problems and
  5. Providing professional help to tackle these issues such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

Our health and wellbeing initiatives tend to be patronising

I’m not suggesting for one minute that these things are bad, nor do they come from anywhere other than positive intent. However, as with many employment initiatives, they can tend towards being patronising and fail to address the real causes of poor health and wellbeing.

Instead of acting like a caring parent, who knows what’s good for our people and gives out remedies, it would be great to see organisations taking a different approach. We should instead be tackling the causes of stress and creating environments where our people feel comfortable about owning their own health and wellbeing, in the knowledge they will be supported.

In my view, any effective approach to health and wellbeing should include:

A determination to move the relationship with our employees to one of trust.

Rather than providing tons of rules on flexible working, adopt the Swiss Re approach where they tell their people, ‘own the way you work’. This tells their people that they are expected to know when, where and how they work best and that their needs will be accommodated. Instead of loads of policies, encourage your people to #DoTheRightThing as they did at Transport For London during the pandemic. When we feel trusted to do the right thing, we feel more energised and engaged.

As adults we know what’s best for our own health and wellbeing too. I definitely eat more chocolate than I should, but is that because I don’t know that it’s bad for me – or because, even though I know the dietary dangers, I choose to do it anyway? What I need from my employer is not necessarily advice or training or incentives to be healthy. What would be helpful is knowing that I am trusted to work in ways and at times that I can balance effectively with the other demands in my life. And that if I need time off or to take my foot off the gas, that I will be supported. Of course, it’s great to be given healthy perks, but I question whether they can transform my health and wellbeing.

Line managers seeking to understand our employees as individuals and accommodating their needs.

Managers holding frequent check-ins, asking the right questions, relentless listening – should be at the heart of any wellbeing plan. Whether it be Entry Interviews or Stay Interviews like they do at Webroot and LinkedIn respectively, to try and understand from the outset, how they can create the best working environment for each individual. Or ensuring that reward and recognition is based on what is valued by that employee like they do at Baptist Healthcare. Or knowing how best to support individual needs like during onboarding like they do at Wipro. The line managers who can adapt their style to accommodate the needs and wants of each of their team members will create a more supportive and fulfilling work environment. When we talk about a duty of care to our employees, that’s about treating them decently, not just looking after them when things have turned to s**t!

Creating a Feeling of Belonging

70 separate studies show that feeling socially accepted is a key factor in helping our new hires be successful. And that sense that you belong, that you are accepted for who you are, that you matter, that your ideas and views are wanted and that you are valued, become even more important as time goes by. So whether it’s putting in place buddy systems like they do at Buffer, giving employees their own intranet page to let colleagues know who they are as a human being, not just their role description and CV, as they do at AirBnB, moving to peer to peer rewards as they do at South West Airlines, creating a sense of belonging should be key to our health and wellbeing plans.

HR as mediator rather than grievance process administrator

If we think about the grievances we’ve had to deal with in HR, or the people who go off sick with stress, we can often relate the origins to the breakdown of personal relationships at work. An individual starts to feel excluded, not valued and the options available to them to try and resolve this are nearly always procedural. In my experience individuals haven’t necessarily wanted to take the nuclear option of a grievance but just wanted things to change. Maybe we should change our focus from the effective implementation of a grievance procedure or an EAP, to early intervention when relationships start to sour? HR as mediator rather than process administrator.

Remove the hassle

Finally, our health and wellbeing plans ought to focus not just on what we do for our people – but what we take away. If we can reduce those daily frustrations, those small irritations and barriers to people just getting their work done, wouldn’t that at least help with people feeling less stressed out? One of the benefits of the current crisis is that it has given us clarity about what actually matters, and we have been able to cut through the red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy that we’ve been inflicting on our people for decades. So, maybe now’s the time to follow Pepsico’s ‘Process Shredder’ or TD Bank’s ‘Kill a Stupid Bank Rule’ example to make our people’s lives a bit easier. Or replace that cumbersome in-company tech with intuitive, easy to use options like WhatsApp or Workplace by Facebook. Or allow employees to buy the tech that works for them with an allowance like they did at Google.

As I mentioned at the start, I don’t want to dismiss the well-intentioned efforts of typical health and wellbeing approaches. But if we focused more on the causes of stress – the lack of trust, the managers who lack empathy, the things that make us feel excluded and the daily hassles and frustrations, maybe we wouldn’t need to spend all of that $53 billion on things that try and fix the problem?

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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We know that it’s a really difficult time for everyone right now and we hope that you are all safe and well – and that you are managing to get through it as well as you can. The Disruptive HR team are all isolating in our various locations around the UK and in Spain and trying to keep in regular contact with our families, (Zoom is our new best friend) and not go too insane with our kids!

Work and HR will still be full on for some of you – whilst others may be worrying about getting through the crisis and still having a business. We have been debating about whether we should just keep quiet for the duration – or whether we might be able to provide something of use – even if it’s just to take your mind off things! We recently ran a virtual session for a client who wanted to start looking ahead at the implications for HR of the crisis – and whilst it may feel too early for some, we have put down some of our thoughts.

What we thought was disrupted, now feels stable and boring!

As you know, at Disruptive HR we focus on how HR can change to meet the needs of a disrupted world. Now, that was the old disrupted world when all we needed to cope with was moves to digital, a faster pace of change, new business models shaking or wiping out traditional industries, the growth of the gig economy, the need for cross-border and cross-function collaboration – when we thought the world was disrupted – and which of course now, seems stable and boring!

We were already living through uncertain times and of course no-one can predict when or how this will end. Maybe the only thing we can know is that nothing is likely to be the same again?

On a practical level:

But we don’t know what or how any of these will pan out exactly.

The changes you had already made will stand you in good stead

The need to radically change HR from the bulky, process-driven function had been gathering momentum for some time, especially in the last three years. We have noticed HR teams making significant changes to the way they operate – and the positive news is that all of these changes are likely to stand them in good stead for facing the new post Covid19 world. For those HR teams who haven’t yet made any progress, now could be your time!

I am going to try and do a couple of things:

This is not going to be anything more than an opportunity to take a different perspective for a short period and of course, it might be that this is too early for you – in which case, park it until it feels right.

The HR trends that will continue

At Disruptive HR we have been banging on about our EACH model for a while now; Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. Our view is that these trends will matter more than ever in a post-Covid-19 world.

Adult to adult is even more important

Our parental approach to our people has always been a major constraint in enabling our people to do their best work. We have typically taken an approach that is over-protective (assuming that our people can’t make sensible judgements, own their own careers and performance and have needed to be spoon-fed), or we have based our rules and our processes around the rogue minority who are going to behave badly and applied over-prescriptive rules to everyone.

We had begun to see companies taking a more adult to adult approach with their leaders and employees – moving away from long lists of prescribed rules and instead putting in place ‘freedom within a framework’ where the starting point is that ‘we trust to you to behave well and trust you to use your judgement’. Or moving to an environment where employees own their own learning, career development, performance, etc, rather than having it done to them.

Covid19 has reinforced the need for this

We are witnessing how people are capable of amazing things when freed from traditional constraints; the creativity, the energy, the things they can achieve with very little, how they can adapt to change really fast. Smart companies are already responding to this and taking more of an adult approach. For example, CEO Dan Price of tech company Gravity is currently choosing to meet virtually with 10 employees at a time across the whole company to get their views on how they can get through losing half their revenue overnight as a result of the Covid-19 crisis without layoffs, rather than consulting just with his senior team and communicating their decision.

Of course, people are also capable of behaving badly in – usually when they are frightened – and we have all seen news reports of the stockpiling, or other acts of selfishness. But the potential for brilliant or appalling behaviour is not determined by grade or seniority. We just have to compare the heroism and selflessness of the shelf stackers and the delivery drivers vs the appalling behaviour of some CEOs such as Mike Ashley of Sports Direct or Tim Martin at Wetherspoons to know that we can’t determine how much we trust our employees on the basis of their grade.

In the future we will no longer be able to afford to keep compensating for people we don’t trust or designing our rules, our processes and our communications around the lowest common denominator. It will no longer be acceptable for a line manager to say that they won’t let people work from home because they don’t trust them enough.  We will spend more time ensuring we hire people we can trust, and we will have to finally tackle the ones we can’t.

Of course, there will be leaders who point to some of the irresponsible behaviour that we’re seeing during the crisis as evidence that they need to continue with command and control. But I think we need to help leaders recognise the difference between people acting out of fear during a crisis, when more clarity may be required, and when judgement is called for because the right course of action cannot be easily dictated. Our leaders will need to be more adept at flexing their style and responses from crisis to ‘normal’ and back again – really quickly and fluidly.

One-size-fits-all cannot ever make sense again

Our one-size-fits all approach to HR, where we have a universal approach that is applied to everyone, was already being challenged and the need to tailor and customise our approaches and products was already beginning to take shape in progressive HR teams.

This will matter more than ever.

We are witnessing the very different needs that our people have through this crisis and the different ways they have responded. In the future we will see employees wanting to make different life choices and have different work priorities. One-size responses from us cannot make sense.

The need to adapt the techniques from consumer marketing and user-centred product design will become even more important as we begin to recover from the crisis.

For example:

Our ‘critical’ HR processes have been replaced with human interactions overnight

We had already seen the gradual dismantling of some of our most irrelevant and ineffective processes and the replacement of them with approaches that tapped into how human beings actually behave, think, feel etc. We’d already seen the slow erosion of performance management reviews and the annual talent review based on a 9 box grid, and the alternatives of frequent and undocumented check-ins and talent discussions being put in their place. The crisis will undoubtedly speed this up.

All of those ‘critical’ HR processes that we said we ‘couldn’t live without’ have disappeared overnight and no-one seems to be screaming for their return. As things begin to return to normal, this is our opportunity to get rid of them for good

When the crisis began, what mattered most was human connections. We started to ask our work colleagues about their families, to care more about people. Overnight our leadership seemed more human. We see them in their homes, with their kids on webcams, struggling with stuff like the rest of us. Those leaders who are showing vulnerability and their human side are going down well right now.

Many leaders are now doing what the great leaders have always done. They are showing compassion, demonstrating empathy, doing the right thing without waiting to be told, keeping it simple and showing a pragmatic optimism – all the while building trust with their people.

When we take stock after the crisis, those leaders who behaved like truly decent human beings will be the ones we thank and celebrate – not the ones who complied with the HR processes.

And what about our own HR teams?

HR was already changing before this happened. We were starting to become more agile, less focused on slow annual processes and more sprint based, less siloed and braver, more prepared to pilot and experiment and less focused on getting things perfect and more around making things happen.

Josh Bersin has done a great short video recently talking about this being an opportunity for an HR re-set and I think he’s absolutely right. We will have dramatically reduced budgets, there will be the confusion and fear created by the chaos, priorities will have to change. We will have an opportunity to make changes very quickly. We have an opportunity now, not to implement a new system but to take a hard look at ourselves and say, how will we change? How will we emerge from this as a different type of team?

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