Over the years, critical events have defined and re-defined the Human Resources profession’s contribution to business success. In the early 1930s and 40s during the Great Depression, massive agitation by labour and skill shortages led to the creation of Personnel and Industrial Relations Departments to manage civil strikes and industrial actions. Around 1950 through to the 1970s, there was a general shift toward business innovation – and so did HR. The profession embraced the idea of innovative HR practices such as: Talent Acquisition, Learning and Development, Compensation and Benefits, Performance Management and so on.
In the 1980s through to the 2000s, the thought-leaders started to push for a more strategic representation of HR in business management. The likes of Professor David Ulrich – a distinguished professor of business administration at the Ross Business School, University of Michigan – authored several books and articles on strategic HR models that threw more light on the need to give HR leaders a seat at the table, and for them to contribute meaningfully to shaping business strategy and determining key performance metrics for the organisation.
While significant feats have been achieved since the likes of Professor Ulrich and leading management consulting firm Mckinsey & Co wrote on the War for Talent in 1997, the ever-evolving nature of the world of work and the volatility of global markets and macroeconomic happenings have presented the HR profession with the unique challenge of having to continually adapt to deliver sustained value.
We find that HR leaders the world over have had quite a tumultuous time dealing with the pandemic and its after-effects. While there is a gradual pathway to recovery, one of the top-level decisions that HR leaders have had to make is whether to return to the office fully or implement a hybrid system of partial remote and partial in-person working models. I would like to present four key areas that HR leaders can focus on to maximise value to people and the organisation.
- Stiffen employee engagement:
By this, I mean a drift from the usual employee engagement initiatives that companies map out occasionally – like Happy Hour in attempting to create balance at the workplace, to one-on-one conversations about the struggles people are experiencing in both their personal and professional lives. There has never been a time in the workplace when professional coaching was required like now. HR leaders must invest in building the capability of line managers to provide coaching to their team members, so as to deepen trust and drive continuous performance.
It has been proven that coaching is an indispensable tool for improving and realigning behavioural flaws that draw back high performance. The reason is that, through coaching, the leader is able to understand at an up-close level the employee’s world; develops the rare and essential skill of empathy; and allows for trust to flow laterally across sides. Also, the leader is able to draw on insights shared by the team member to expertly diagnose what the drawbacks against performance are; and to formulate strategies for closing the gap. Additionally, through the lens of coaching, the leader is able to improve an employee’s engagement level – which has a direct impact on their level of productivity.
Opinion surveys conducted by research and consulting organisations show that over the last year and a half, disengagement levels among employees have risen; and indeed, many employees have contemplated quitting their jobs to pay closer attention to family and close relations. If companies are to keep their high-flyers, then it requires a company-wide commitment to get a little closer to their team members, see things through their lens, empathise with the many challenges they have to deal with both at work and at home, and provide a sustained support system for overcoming these challenges.
- Take some risks:
Moments of extreme uncertainty and volatility, over the years, have also presented companies and individuals with enormous and boundary-less opportunity to expand and drive growth. It is often a time to set new market growth targets, sales volume targets, develop new business lines, chart new territories and take the organisation and its people to a whole new level never experienced before.
- Stay ethical:
People are more susceptible to ethical compromises and to faltering on the moral highway in times of difficulty and crisis. It is important that HR leaders deepen the need for employees to avoid cutting corners and be true to the company’s values and ethics policy. And if there is not one, it is a good time for HR to write an ethics policy and communicate same en masse to all employees. The temptation to be unethical in these extraordinary times, obviously, has long-term implications for the reputational value of the organisation.
In today’s digitally-driven community, the ethical actions of workers are constantly under surveillance. Once you break the moral code, the social media fraternity will not spare your brand. The worst part is that it has an almost immediate negative impact on your commercial and financial gains.
- Align work to purpose and culture:
By 2035, Africa will have the largest workforce in the world – largely Millennials between the ages of eighteen (18) and twenty-five (25). This projection holds obvious implications for any organisation’s workplace culture. That culture has to be etched in an atmosphere of purpose (something that transcends commercial intent to making a lasting impact in people’s lives); innovation (an openness to new ideas and methods of working and doing things); entrepreneurship (breaking down tasks into projects and asking them to lead these projects so as to deliver sound financial returns while also exploring stock options and non-transferrable shares as reward options for new ventures that they work on and bring to market so there is a sense of ownership); inclusiveness (this may seem like a buzzword, but actually it is everything Millennials want and have been asking for: that their views are respected and that their difference be tolerated and harnessed for the greater good).
A good starting point for many organisations is to reimagine their mission: why do they exist? This conversation ought to be had within the context of how the organisation is changing the world, bettering lives and communities and making a real, lasting impact on our planet. It must be devoid of heavy commercial language and must extend to a global audience. A good example is Microsoft’s: it reads “Empowering every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more”. Or even my own company’s (L’AINE Services), which reads: “To improve upon every life and organisation we come across, with innovative solutions”.
With this redefinition of our why, we drift employee attention from merely selling HR solutions – such as recruitment, training or organisational development interventions – to the fact that every day they come to work and work on any task or project (whether it is recruiting for a client or delivering a training service or restructuring an organisation’s business), they are improving a life or an organisation somewhere. This sense of purpose drives a new approach to work, which is one of discipline, empathy, collaboration and passion.
It is my heart-felt opinion that it is absolutely necessary for HR leaders to conjoin purpose and culture in driving high employee commitment to work and performance, in the coming decades.
The writer is the Chief Executive, L’AINE Services Ltd.