HR leaders predict how cultural, social, and technological shifts will impact the way people work in the coming year.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Not too long ago, HR professionals were relegated to the realm of “personnel management”—paper-pushers responsible for administrative tasks and little else. But as organizations have grown and globalized in increasingly challenging environments, so has the role of human resources. Today’s HR departments are deeply rooted in organizational planning and business strategy, more essential to the success of a company than ever before. HR leaders have made their way to the C-suite, guiding strategies that unite the goals of a business under one umbrella: talent. From helping employees navigate their careers to delivering data and analytics about business performance, their contributions are numerous and multi-faceted. And that is only the beginning.
The world continues to evolve, demographic shifts bring pressures to the workforce, and automation changes the very nature of work. As young generations enter the labor market, they bring with them new norms and expectations, forcing businesses to evolve their long-standing policies. As always, HR is caught in the crossfire, pressured to adopt new solutions in an increasingly fast-paced business environment. HR is in a wave of unrelenting change—here are some ways to get ahead of it.
1. Employees demand to be placed at the center of talent strategy. In today’s tight labor market, employees are increasingly recognizing their value and expecting employers to recognize it as well. Greater access to information and the spread of social media has contributed to the rise of a consumer mentality among job seekers, empowering employees to demand exactly the type of position and company that they want. In this new model, job seekers expect to be able to shape their responsibilities and work environments, forcing companies to cut back on one-size-fits-all solutions in favor of greater flexibility and deeper connections.
“As employers struggle to identify ways to stand out in the increasingly competitive labor market, I see a definitive increase in the focus on culture, employee development, and individualized career growth,” says Heather Jordan, vice president of HR at Eliassen Group. “Leaders are starting to understand more and more that jobs are much more than a paycheck and that while a healthy culture used to be a ‘nice-to-have’ it is now a ‘must-have.’”
Employees are no longer content with following the status quo—they want their employers to adapt to the changing times and modes of work. According to Jordan, this means embracing a more individualized approach to HR and creating agile programs that respond and adapt to continuous employee feedback.
“While some aspects of HR must stay standard practice for regulatory reasons, it is important that HR teams position themselves with the capability to quickly adapt to changes in business needs. An HR focus on continuous rather than annual feedback, tight feedback loops with immediate results, continuous improvement exercises, and utilizing real-time data will be key. Identifying data points that can have immediate impact and are sustainable over time will be useful in driving the agile HR approach,” she explains.
Jordan believes that modular performance review platforms that allow for individualized goal setting will become more prevalent as companies seek to improve productivity. And these feedback practices will do more than just keep employees engaged; Mercer’s The Future of HR survey reports that in a culture where communication between managers, employees, and peers is frequent and effective, individual performance improves by 34 percent.
Tomorrow’s employees will also gravitate toward organizations where they feel empowered, impactful, and involved. The new generation wants to be part of a company with a mission that they find personally meaningful, and they want to be able to contribute to that mission while developing their own skills in a positive, diverse, and supportive environment, Jordan says.
According to Mercer, thriving employees are three times more likely to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose. However, only 13 percent of surveyed companies offer an employer value proposition (EVP) differentiated by a purpose-driven mission.
To achieve a fulfilling work environment, Linda Nedelcoff, executive vice president and chief strategy and HR officer at CUNA Mutual Group, says that organizations will need to prioritize diversity and inclusion to foster a workplace where employees feel heard, respected, and included. “As our customer and consumer base becomes more diverse, the best ideas, suggestions, and solutions will come from a workforce that is equally diverse in experiences and perspectives,” she explains. “Even more important is creating a culture that is open, accepting, humble, and courageous and allows diversity to thrive.”
They will also need to offer a modern benefits package and culture that prioritizes health and well-being, delivering benefits like greater flexibility, paternity leave, student loan forgiveness, and time off to engage with the community, says Carmen Allison, senior vice president of HR at Williams-Sonoma Inc. “I’m seeing some creativity with benefits based on listening to associates. Benefits speak to the culture of the company. If a company has good benefits, that makes people want to come to that company and stay there.”
2. Technology will enable a more flexible, collaborative model of work. In recent years, HR has seen the emergence of new technologies and increased reliance on people data and analytics—and this is only expected to grow in the coming year.
According to Nedelcoff, companies that want to remain competitive will need to collect predictive data on their workforce that they can use to understand their employees’ behaviors, experiences, and impact. This effort cannot be isolated—to truly guide the candidate experience, HR leaders will need to implement a holistic, complete data strategy rather than haphazardly gathering piecemeal metrics.
Allison says that the emergence of end-to-end platforms that encompass recruiting, succession planning, learning, employee relations, and more will enable this data collection while delivering a cohesive and modern user experience.
Nedelcoff agrees: “With the evolution of digital technologies and data and analytics, platforms are emerging that are simple and responsive for candidates and the workforce. Being able to offer insights will continue to drive demand for fluid, integrated systems.” These systems will do more than just track employee usage and performance. They will also enhance the employee experience, leveraging artificial intelligence and other cognitive technologies to improve the interface between workers and employers. In particular, chatbots and voice-based tools will gain prominence as they saturate consumer markets, says Jeff Mike, vice president and head of research ideation for Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
“Rather than keeping up with all the latest and greatest technologies in the rapidly moving HR technology ecosystem, we expect to see more organizations building adaptability into their HR technology strategies just like they are starting to do with their organizational design,” Mike adds. “This will be noticeable in the establishment of workplace platforms that manage then interface with and between workers and allow for easy testing and adoption of these new technologies as they become available—all while managing costs.”
3. Job seekers desire authentic, transparent recruitment communication. The expectation of an individualized employee experience will also impact recruitment approaches, enhancing the importance of branding to attract talent. In fact, 75 percent of job seekers consider an employer’s brand before even applying for a job, according to LinkedIn’s Employer Brand Statistics.
“Companies will need to ensure that their messages are clear and connect with candidates,” says Allison. “Before, you could put up a ‘now hiring’ sign, but now, candidates are digging around to find out if you are a good company:
- Are you sustainable?
- Do you have career development?
- What is the culture like?
- Do you have a corporate responsibility program?
- Do you have diversity?
- What is your focus in regard to women in leadership?
These inquiries are challenging us to ensure that recruitment communications and marketing are accurately representing our company externally, whether to customers or potential candidates. The stories that our leaders tell about these topics all have to be aligned.”
Because consumer brand has an impact on the way job seekers perceive an employer, Nedelcoff emphasizes that HR leaders need to ensure consistency between their EVP and consumer-facing marketing strategies. When an organization has a consistent employer and customer culture, it builds authenticity which ultimately creates a more fluid and transparent experience for both new candidates and tenured employees.
But in addition to managing their branding efforts, organizations will need to be mindful of the conversations their employees and customers are having online. Prospective employees are not just interested in a mission statement—they look to the internet for real examples of a company culture—so HR teams need to keep a close eye on the way their employees and customers are talking about their products and brand on social media networks.
“There is this whole social conversation happening about your company that you really can’t control,” Allison says. “Going forward, there will be much more emphasis put on our communications team to ensure that we are engaging with these conversations among our associates and customers. Every minute of every day, everyone has access to communications vehicles, and the communications team will have to help us figure out how to be a more effective part of that conversation.”
According to LinkedIn, organizations that are able to successfully implement an online branding strategy will see a number of bottom-line results:
- Twenty-eight percent reduction in turnover rates.
- Fifty percent reduction in cost-per-hire.
- Fifty percent more qualified candidates.
This will deliver a competitive advantage that is hard to beat.
4. HR teams are becoming more agile and specialized. In this transformative time, it is not enough for HR teams to adopt some best practices and hope for results, Mike says. Instead, he believes that an entirely new paradigm of HR leadership will emerge where leaders empower their teams to drive innovation in the HR function. Nedelcoff says that leaders will learn to lead by example, attending trainings and practicing scenarios to better model agile mindsets and behaviors.
And teams are in for a transformation as well. Mike predicts that HR will increasingly adopt a more collaborative structure that focuses on networks and communities of expertise within and beyond the enterprise. Rather than just making current processes more efficient, HR teams will leverage new technologies to enable entirely new ways of working, mirroring the changes they hope to implement in the rest of the business.
“The function of HR will become much more strategic and consist of specialized individuals who are trained and focused on talent and performance management, employee relations, benefits, talent acquisition, culture, and diversity,” says Jordan. “Having subject matter experts in these divisions allows a higher focus on each of these important areas. It also allows for more agility. When you have a dedicated team responsible for the life cycle of a program or process, it becomes much easier to pivot and remain flexible as business needs evolve.”
These subject matter experts will not work in silos, Mike says—they will collaborate in a flexible, adaptable team environment that tackles business challenges and opportunities rather than quickly outdated compliance- or efficiency-related people processes.
5. Compliance challenges are on the rise. In recent years, transformations in government, society, culture, technology, and the legal landscape have dramatically impacted employers and the workforce. From the #MeToo movement drawing attention to sexual harassment in the workplace to the continued legalization of marijuana across the country, HR leaders have their hands full—and this is only expected to continue in 2020. Here are some of the top compliance challenges that HR will face in the coming year.
- Benefits. Minimum wage laws, salary history bans, lactation laws, paid time off regulations, and a host of other new developments mean that staying on top of the patchwork of benefits-adjacent legislation will be essential.
“Mandatory paid leave policies continue to evolve differently by state and locality,” says Jordan. “This will become a challenge for HR to adequately track and maintain compliance, especially for multi-state employers. Salary history bans prohibiting inquiry into past compensation and compensation equality are also hot trends that continue to grow. It will be important for HR to determine best practices around these areas and determine when it is appropriate to implement company-wide standard policies that meet the requirements of the most stringent regulatory requirements to ensure compliance.”
- Privacy. Data privacy compliance laws are also becoming a hot topic, with HR leaders under pressure to make sure they handle ever-increasing amounts of employee data thoughtfully and intentionally. Allison says that the question of how much data should be shared, what data is confidential, and who should have access to data will become paramount.
“We will have to find the guardrails around data,” she explains. “When you start to merge information in one place, that can be risky when there are data breaches. There is a heightened sense of security and awareness. In the future, data will be really accessible through lots of devices. HR needs to have conversations about what data they share, what they have access to, and how to use the information they have. Trends, diversity data, associate information—that data tells interesting stories, but who gets to hear those stories internally? HR will have to come to the table and enable those conversations to happen.”
- Immigration. As immigration laws crack down in the U.S. and abroad, HR leaders will also have to consider how their policies will need to shift to contend with the increased difficulty of recruiting and relocating international talent.
Allison shares some key questions that will be top of mind for HR leaders facing talent shortages: “How will our policies shift to allow us to recruit talent from anywhere? With AI and data analytics at the forefront, where are we getting the tech talent that we need? Do immigration policies need to be revised through lobbying and having a voice in Washington? If loosening immigration is not an option, how can we go to where the talent is?”