· 5 min read · Features

Does 2022 present an opportunity for HR to go back to basics?

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In a time characterised by uncertainty, it’s hard to see what’s ahead. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, however, as Dominic Bernard reports.

Throughout time, telling the future has been the exclusive business of bone-jugglers, tarot-turners and clairvoyants. But when it comes to business – who can we rely on when it comes to figuring out what might happen next? 

In a time of algorithms, big data, and HR Magazine Lunchtime Debates, people professionals for one are closer than ever to foreseeing what the future holds.  

In December 2021, we convened an expert panel and set to work discussing the key challenges for HR that will shape the months and years to come.


What to watch out for in 2022:

Great Resignation vs staff shortages: HR tackles the UK's talent paradox

How HR can help hit the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

What benefits do your employees really care about?


 

Employee engagement

Jon Maddison, managing director at HR software company Achievers, said that many companies will find employee engagement high on their agenda this year.

“I think employee engagement is a critical challenge for every business at the moment, and it’s clearly become a much bigger challenge for organisations during the pandemic,” he said.

Companies are now becoming aware of the huge price tag attached to poor engagement, he added, thanks to its powerful impact on so many performance factors.

“People, ordinarily, will jump to think about employee productivity. There are other things, like mistakes – there are stats that show that disengaged employees make 60% more mistakes.

“That obviously has a material cost for a business.”

Even before the pandemic, he added, Gallup statistics were suggesting that 64% of employees were unengaged with their work.

“Wherever you look, there are lots of statistics which show that employee engagement is really important to driving business outcomes. And we’re not in a good place in many organisations.”

Some organisations, however, have been focusing on engagement for a few years now.

Amina Folarin, global chief people and inclusion officer at Oliver Agency and The Inside Ideas Group, found that almost two years into the pandemic, even a highly engaged workforce may find itself running out of steam.

For 2022, she said the focus will be on building employee resilience.

“We’ve been in this pandemic for 18 months, actually, as humans, our surge capacity is depleted,” Folarin said.

Increasingly, she said, her people are unable to cope with short-term problems that previously would not have fazed them.

She said: “These are things that two years ago wouldn’t have been problematic.

“Maybe it’s poor communication between a line manager and a director, or between peers, but we’re seeing many more instances where people are finding that quite challenging.”

Many of the webinar’s viewers seemed to agree. Over half (55%) said they were concerned about HR burnout in the coming year, and 38% said they were ‘a little’ worried about it.

 

Boots on the ground

As concerning as this may be in some sectors the firefighting of the pandemic is far from over.

Jo Pick, people director at logistics company Wincanton Operations, said that because of the upheaval in the organisation of the nation’s supply chain, her team’s focus has to go straight to resourcing.

“I mean, there have been massive changes in consumer habits,” she said, and laughed – “I’ve ordered three things from Amazon today.”

She added: “Our biggest challenge for the coming year, maybe even further than that, is really just resourcing: getting the right people in the right place, with the right level of capability.

“It’s kind of back to HR basics, because everything that we do in HR, every step that we take, whether it be about engagement, or wellbeing, or onboarding, it all helps to attract and recruit and retain people.”

If anyone had a crystal ball, she added, she’d be happy to have a quick chat over teams.

 

Economic disruption

The disruption that we’ve seen, however, is far from over.

Robert Bolton, head of people & change at KPMG’s global centre of excellence, foresees a rapid series of changes on the horizon, and, he said, HR leaders should prepare themselves for it.

“In 2020, the World Economic Forum spoke about a ‘double disruption’. By that, they meant the challenge of automation, and more broadly, sophisticated digital technologies, plus hybrid working and the impact of Covid-19.”

He added: “I don’t want to sound cataclysmic, but it’s not going to be a double disruption. It’s triple, quadruple – dare I say it – quintuple disruption.”

Rising disengagement, the Great Resignation, failure to address rising and significant inequality, and the growing requirement for employers to show purpose and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials — all, he said, will contribute to a significant shift in the world of work.

He added: “And I think for HR, what that means is the biggest challenge is: how do you predict what your workforce needs to be?

“Because it isn’t the one you’ve got.”

 

Self-care

With so many issues to face, and battles to fight, however, how can HR look after its own?

For Folarin, burnout, while not as acute a worry as it has been for the past year, still weighs heavy on the mind.

“I think the role of HR over the last 18 months has been really underestimated – just how much has landed at our door that people would just assume that we were equipped for.”

It has fallen on HR to lead their people through the pandemic, she said, to take care of employees’ mental health, through growing incidences of domestic violence, grief and loss, all while navigating changing legislation - and sometimes, downsizing.

“I think we need to give ourselves a little bit of a break and say that it’s okay not to be ‘always on.’

“It’s really important that HR affords itself the same advice that it would give to the business, so that we can go into 2022 and beyond highly motivated, highly skilled, and able to lead.”

 

Hybrid leadership

One concern that many in HR are facing at the moment, however, is how to lead a hybrid workforce. How can a company be united, when it splits its time between home and the office?

According to Bolton, the answer lies with managers – many of whom will currently be looking out over empty offices, wondering how they can possibly tell if their employees are really working.

Employees, he said: “All disappeared to the four winds. And now, certainly, I’ve seen a whole bunch of clients concerned about things like productivity, collaboration, etc.”

While it’s right to be concerned about these things, he added, the trick is turning the insights these metrics give us into action. And that’s where the human beings come in.

“That’s where the leadership comes in, and whatever the new role of managers is.”

 

An opportunity 

This may seem a daunting set of issues for any team to face, but in their own way, the crises of the past two years have given HR a real chance to prove the worth of its ideas.

The c-suite has at last taken notice of the importance of its people – but how can HR capitalise on this newfound significance?

“Go ask for more budget, and go ask for it quick!” laughed Pick.

She added: “That’s very flippant of me – [people need] not just to ask for a budget, but also to ask for the changes in culture that help to underpin a change in understanding on things like diversity and inclusion, or wellbeing.”

That, she said, would start to drive the business benefits that can come with a real change in culture to match the wider cultural change we’ve seen over the past few years.

“Is there ever a business-as-usual point of view?

“No. But, as long as you keep improving, and keep driving that change for your employees and your colleagues, then I think that’s the best thing that we can ask of all our HR colleagues.”

 

Click here watch the full HR Lunchtime Debate on demand.

View all HR webinars here.

 

This piece appears in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.