Over the last week or so I’ve been thinking about HR (or People) teams and their role in creating smarter hybrid working.
The pandemic accelerated existing trends – digitisation, customer behaviour and new ways of working. While the first two continue, ways of working are being pulled back towards old approaches – highlighted by Microsoft’s research around productivity paranoia.
Why is this happening? Some is leadership biases, some is down to mistrust and history, but some is a failure from HR. I’ve been in many HR events with HR leaders who’ve made no real progress on creating better ways of working. Just last week I heard an HRD explain that to be fair to all employees, no-one was allowed to work in a hybrid way. I was horrified, but I’d heard others take similar positions. Making people have equally bad working environments doesn’t seem aligned CIPD code of Ethics and Conduct, which expects People Professionals to have “a positive and active impact on working lives”.
HR teams who are investing in better ways of working are reaping the benefits for their people and their organisations, but the majority seem stuck in x-days-in-the-office. In the rest of this post I’m going to share some of the barriers for HR, and what could be done about them.
What’s stopping us, and what can we do?
1. Stop, Collaborate and Listen…
HR can be addicted to action. We fix problems, handle crises, deal with issues. Those issues keep on coming, accentuated by the pandemic and its aftermath – e.g. suppressed turnover led to great resignation; pent-up dissatisfaction led to quiet quitting; slow wage and career progress feeds IR issues and cost of living crisis.
What to do about it? I’d encourage HR Leadership Teams to take stock on how the world has changed and is changing. Take a day or two offsite to really think broadly. Keep the agenda light – don’t try to squeeze future of work into a 45-minute item between pay grading and lunch! Read around the themes and issues, and explore some of the big questions – How is our workforce changing? What do people want? Who gets what they want and who doesn’t? What is the role of HR? Flush out the barriers you’re seeing and hearing – e.g. two-tier workforce, lack of connection, distrust of homeworking – and see how you can rethink them. Don’t try to solve, just agree your philosophy and the problems to solve.
I know it is tough to slow down enough to even consider this. If it would help, I can give you a Christmas reading list for your team, just drop me a message. I’ll also happily help you shape what an offsite could look like.
2. From split accountability to creating an owner
I’m guessing you didn’t have someone accountable for optimising Monday to Friday, nine to five in the office? There’s probably no obvious owner for optimising work. HR structures tend to be split up along functional lines, with each HRLT member and team owning a slice of the strategy. There’s no-one owning cross-cutting themes.
Agree one HRLT member to take the lead. They need to corral people and create momentum. Select them based on curiosity, skills for creative problem solving and engaging others. Be clear they are first among equals on this – their team-mates need to stay involved. Get other HRLT members to support them with bright, enthusiastic people so that the whole team has a stake.
3. From safety in numbers to following the science
HR loves a benchmark, and loves a survey – reward, role size, engagement, diversity, learning and even functional maturity. Not very helpful in innovating – benchmarks and surveys encourage people to stay in the herd. Colleague surveys are great for testing ideas, but not great for generating them – there’s a great quote from Henry Ford that says if he’d given people what they wanted, he’d have designed a faster horse!
If you’ve got a little team together, get them to research thoroughly. In shaping A Life More Virgin for Virgin Money (still the most progressive approach to hybrid I’ve seen) the team and I conducted research from psychological safety to nutrition and from meeting practices to the perfect nap. We listened to colleagues and business leaders at VM and beyond. We engaged with business schools, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and palaeontologists*. We tried to synthesise this together to shape what could be done. It can be overwhelming to get moving, so again – please reach out if you’d like me to share more.
(*ok, we didn’t talk to any palaeontologists).
4. From expertise and experience to thinking like a disruptor
HR creates deep, narrow experts. They build years of experience in the same area, and solve problems based on their expertise – e.g. policy professionals start with employment law, learning professionals start with behaviour. They build new solutions based on this experience and based on evolving historic practice.
In contrast, disruption is looking for things that the specialists miss. It’s often about breaking things down into smaller units to look for opportunity. AirBnB is a great example – instead of looking at hotels, they looked at guests. People need a room and a bed, so anywhere that can provide that can be guest accommodation.
If we apply this to work, then it opens different questions. In a 24/7 world, why is the working week Monday to Friday 9-5? Why do we deal in days? Why meet in the office? Why 9 to 5? Encourage your team to look very differently at the opportunities of work, and be clear on the desired outcomes – e.g. healthy, motivated people, working together to deliver outstanding performance.
5. From “do everything” to make one thing awesome
HR as a function is unusual. It’s often quite small but covers everything from business processes (payroll) through law and regulations (policy), financial matters (reward), technology (people systems) and strategy. HR plans can be really diffuse, leaving the function spread too thinly to make step change.
There’s probably nothing in the HR plan that could have the same scale of impact as shaping new ways of working. Getting that right drives more productivity, more engagement, more inclusion and belonging, more attraction and more retention.
Narrow your plan for next year right down. Make new ways of working the number one goal for the team. Determine he role for each part of the team and get their best people on it. Pause other projects or do the minimum to keep them ticking over. It could be tough – if you’ve got a siloed function, deep experts and a classic performance approach then people will fear under-delivering, maybe see their value as eroded, or not have the skills for innovation. Make it ok to try and mess things up and use it as an opportunity to build skill.
6. From grand reveals to agile delivery
Quite often we treat HR products like we’re building ships – we want a grand launch, and see the thing sail off. However, things are too ambiguous and flexible for that. The future is uncertain, and people don’t adopt HR practices because we want them to – like any product there’s an adoption curve.
Adopt a test-and-learn approach for new ways of working. In launching a Life More Virgin we had five phases, testing and learning in every part of the business. We were eight months in before a formal launch and policies. Even then, we knew there was more work such as onboarding, measurement, management, culture. Breaking the project down creates wins, generates proof points and the opportunity to learn and refine.
Eyes on the Prize
It’s tough out there. It’s so easy for HR teams to feel really embattled. Really going after ways of working and smarter hybrid is a massive benefit for the team, and delivers right across the HR agenda:
- 1. Attract more candidates, by not excluding people.
- 2. Retaining talent, as work can flex around their life.
- 3. Better engagement, as people have a voice and choice.
- 4. More inclusion and belonging, as the proposition is adaptable to individual needs.
- 5. Better line-management through clearer practices.
- 6. Improved productivity, by focusing on where, when and how work is delivered.
- 7. Improved wellbeing, reduced burnout, by working smarter.
- 8. Stronger employer and corporate brand, with reputation as a good employer.
It’s a good prize to go for, and it is a prize that needs HR to step forward. Business leaders and colleagues expect HR to create new ways of working and solve problems. That’s only going to happen with the right investment of time and energy. As ever, I’d love to hear how you’re wrestling with this. Some of my solutions here are dependent on HR leadership, but there are other routes, so reach out if you’re interested. And of course, if I can help you and your team think about some of these challenges, or help you get kick-started I’d be delighted to – please reach out.