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The last few years have seen a significant shift in the perception of work; there have been some significant landmark tribunal cases coupled with the overnight change to the landscape of what it means to ‘go to work’ as a result of the global pandemic. This has accelerated and amplified the future of work conversation and this fundamentally changes the role of ‘HR’ going forward.
So let’s start with the term ‘Human Resources’; as we see a significant shift in organisations towards creating cultures in which employees feel a sense of belonging through inclusion and flexible working, one fundamental aspect of this is a shift in mindset, away from the generalisation of needs across the workforce. Seeing employees as one homogenous group (with a few adjustments here and there) is the antithesis of inclusion. Instead, when an employer is inclusive they see each person as an individual, with their own unique voice, perspective and talents.
To support the creation of inclusive, flexible workplaces HR needs to evolve and one of the fundamental changes, I believe, is the evolution of the term ‘Human Resources’. The word resources sounds like the box of pens you have in the stationery cupboard, or the money you have in the bank. People are much more than this and if the people profession is to lead the charge of change we need a change too; in approach, mindset and name.
As we look towards the future of work, there needs to be a shift in culture, mindset and approach from the whole organisation, that can be a big change but it is an important one. In fact, survival and having a competitive advantage may even rest on it for many. The organisations that are able and willing to learn, make change and be agile are likely to be the ones which attract the very best people (and customers).
There are a number of things to consider for any people leaders (whether they be in HR or the wider business) in relation to the Future of Work.
When we consider HR in its current form there is often a fundamental elephant in the room; do the people trust HR? If the future of work involves creating cultures in which people can bring their whole selves to work so that they belong, this spans beyond the people function to every leader in the business. At the heart of this has to be trust, with individuals feeling that it is safe to be open and that they can trust the people function to facilitate this level of inclusion and hold the organisation and all its parts to account for it.
The future of work involves managers taking ownership for the wellbeing, performance and support of their teams. The future role of HR moves towards holding this accountability, developing the skills needed and advocating for the people even if this is in opposition to other voices in the leadership of the organisation. This shifts the people function away from taking a parental framed role into an adult framed facilitation-based approach.
Building on from trust is congruence; for example you might introduce a policy which states that your teams can work flexibly from home and other places. If however the unspoken feeling in the culture is that ‘we don’t do that’ or the manager believes that ‘we work better when we are in the office’ then quite simply people don’t ask, because it isn’t safe to ask or be the voice of difference. The people function play a huge part in ensuring that the culture and practices are congruent with documented working practices. Policies are the least important part of all of this; if you get it right then they start to become irrelevant (there is a place for ‘policies’ but as we move forward I believe these will look much different and be viewed very differently – but that’s another blog for another day).
Compliance ≠ inclusion
There are two ways for people functions to think about their work; either to reach and maintain compliance against legislation or to build inclusion. Now, compliance is important but if the cultural mindset is to be compliant then you will struggle to reach inclusion in an authentic and embedded way. If you only ever focus on ensuring people get what they are legally entitled to in terms of time off, support, money, benefits then you create a scarcity culture built on the assumption that meeting legal goals is enough. If however, you want to create a culture in which people thrive then compliance will not deliver this, you need to be thinking differently which involves ripping up the HR rulebook and going above and beyond to shape the culture in which people feel valued and therefore perform better.
Everyone has the right to request flexible working in UK law …. How about we pivot that and make flexible working the norm. What has been demonstrated over the last year is that working differently can work. I have lost count of the number of leaders who believe that home working won’t work, people will take advantage and work better in the office; what they really are saying is that they don’t trust their people or don’t have the confidence to lead remotely. As we move towards the future of work, the past year has really amplified this point. The risk of course is that we move beyond this and revert back, with a new shiny flexible working policy and the unspoken rule that we don’t work from home except for a couple of token days here and there. It’s important to say here that home working is simply an illustration of this and in fact flexible working is not just about home working.
In truly flexible cultures it is not a policy, process or right to request. It is a way of being, part of the culture. Flexible working means different things to different people but fundamentally it’s about building autonomy for people to be able to deliver what is required of them in a way that works for work/life integration. This only works when the mindset shifts to….
Output thinking v task focus
How do you measure someone’s contribution; still today the majority of UK businesses measure this by when they do their work, the number of holidays they take, sickness levels, start and finish times and other transactional measures. The future of work looks more towards output; the value someone adds and the work they deliver framed against the service that organisation needs to give to its customers. If we give an individual a set of outcomes that they need to work, proportionate to the percentage of time they are engaged to work in the week, then let go of HOW they do this performance and engagement can shift significantly. This sounds easy on paper but it takes a huge shift in mindset and culture which has to be led by the people function. It fundamentally changes the thinking of ‘HR’ and needs the profession to evolve its own thinking.
In summary, as people professionals we are working in exciting times, the world of work is changing, and we can help support and facilitate this change. To do this we need to do some changing of our own and shift some of the foundations of ‘HR’; the role of ‘handbooks’ and ‘policies’, the changing scope of the manager role and how we support that, letting go of the transactions, building cultural agility, advocating for the people at an organisational and individual level. We need to move away from sitting on the side of the business and be the bridge between leadership and strategy and the people who deliver it. A total overhaul and rebrand of title, thinking and approach.