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/ Spring 2019/Issue 94

A crucial role for human resources

How HR leaders can play a vital part in providing a compelling environment for tomorrow’s workforce.

When you think about the future of work, your perspective may be shaped by the avalanche of material on technology that depicts a great battle between machines and humans, and widespread conversations about self-driving cars, drones, and job losses. There is no doubt that how we live our lives and how society is structured are going through multiple transitions. However, the fundamental forces shaping our lives do not simply concern technological innovation; they also concern the lengthening of healthy life and deep social changes in how we live and form relationships. It is the intersections, the subtle and often unexpected combinations of these forces, that are creating a new reality.

Typically, in times of extreme technological and social change, the institutions that frame and protect the lives of people lag behind changing opportunities and problems. Today, there is a clear indication of “institutional lag” as governments, corporations, and educational institutions try to catch up with these profound transitions. Consequently, many of us as employees, citizens, and students feel frustrated that these institutions are not delivering what we need to be able to build long, prosperous, and secure lives. Instead, they appear to be locked into wrong assumptions about longevity and aging, jobs and learning, and relationships and community.

Indeed, according to a 2018 PwC Future of Work Survey of more than 1,200 business and HR leaders from 79 countries, there is a significant mismatch between what people want and their experience of working. Of all the organizational capabilities the survey examined, those that focused on the people experience are the most at risk — that is, they are the factors with the largest gap between what is desired and what is the reality. The survey results revealed that there are real and substantial corporate barriers to people being able to work productively now and to prepare for the future. It is clear that there is a significant need to reinvent people practices and processes for the new reality.

HR Is Part of the Solution

I believe HR leaders can play a crucial role in delivering a good people experience that addresses the five action areas we identified in our research where the gaps are greatest. These elements must be tackled as fast as possible, and HR leaders must become creative about how they build and support vitality and social resilience, how they motivate and enable adaptability and “intrapreneurship,” and how they empower employees through an autonomous working culture. Here are five ideas.

1. Identify “signature processes.” It does not work to simply emulate industry best practices. HR leaders have to find and embrace their company’s “signature processes” that reflect its unique history and values. The adoption of good practices alone will not allow an organization to surpass its competitors. That is because the very nature of good practice, drawn as it is from a common pool of industry knowledge, means it is always susceptible to imitation by competitors. In contrast, signature processes are idiosyncratic, embedded in organizational values, evolved from a company-specific history, and championed by executives, so competitors have difficulty replicating them. For example, despite challenges from online retailers, Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the British retail chain John Lewis Partnership, recently reiterated the organization’s commitment to its core pricing policy of “never knowingly undersold.” He told the BBC that “times like these test the real integrity of that promise,” but he repeated his commitment.

2. Understand variety. People want a work experience that is personal and reflects their own needs and aspirations. That requires HR leaders to have a deep understanding of their employees, so they can create a people experience that is authentic and inclusive. Demographic transformation and new societal norms are creating fundamental variations in the attitudes, expectations, and aspirations of workers, yet most corporations design a one-size-fits-all process that can be run at scale. Responding to employees’ desires for authenticity will require companies to make use of the wealth of data they have to deliver a personalized experience. For example, the HR team at Hitachi uses analytics to personalize conversations concerning career development or training, using insights gained from the data the company collects on its HR platform.

3. Become a “broker of time.” For most employees, time is one of the more valuable resources. It is crucial for HR to become a broker of time. When companies and their employees focus on the short term, time becomes a scarce resource and decisions are made on the basis of trade-offs, of thinking about whether something should be done. When decision makers view the future as abstract, decisions involving saving or learning that could be beneficial in the longer term, for example, are put off. This short-term perspective becomes a real problem when people need to learn new skills and adapt their behaviors.

It is those HR leaders who can rewire for the new reality, recognize the urgency, and meet their people’s diverse needs and aspirations who will create a powerful advantage for their organization.

HR leaders should take an elevated view of time and think in the longer term. This helps people consider both now and later, making the future less abstract and pulling potential opportunities into the present. Becoming a broker of time means viewing time as an asset and thinking about how HR can help its people reap the benefits of effective investment in it. This view will also help HR leaders support their CEO in building a narrative on the future of work. There is no doubt that corporate leaders are often under immense pressure, so the focus on the short term outweighs the long term. But employees want and need a long-term perspective about their work, and it is the role of leaders to build this narrative.

4. Become guardians of “good work.” As companies respond to changing technological and market conditions, many find that the design of jobs inadvertently depletes the elements that make up good work. So it is the role of HR to be guardians of good work. This means trusting people and giving them the freedom to decide the pace at which and order in which they complete their work. Designing flexible job descriptions and involving workers in the direction of the organization help build a vital sense of autonomy and purpose.

5. Bridge rhetoric and reality. The PwC survey findings highlighted a clear gap between the rhetoric of HR and the reality of how programs and initiatives are experienced by employees. Bridging that gap is crucial. To do so, HR leaders must ensure that initiatives aimed at future-proofing the people experience are consistent across the organization. That means uncovering and understanding the unwritten rules of the game. Organizations operate as complex systems of formal written rules and informal practices and behaviors that take place under the radar, such as ad hoc flexibility in work schedules, or the prioritization of presence over performance. Vacation days are a good example: In some companies, employees leave vacation days on the table to show commitment but then burn out. It will be up to HR to understand how to adapt and compensate.

In this time of unprecedented change, it is those HR leaders who can rewire for the new reality, recognize the urgency, and meet their people’s diverse needs and aspirations who will create a powerful advantage for their organizations.

Author profile:

  • Lynda Gratton is a professor of management practice at London Business School, an organizational theorist, and founder of the consultancy Hot Spots Movement. She is the head of the LBS executive education program “Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Organisations” and the author, with Andrew Scott, of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, which was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book of the Year in 2016.
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