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Six ways to maximise HR’s return on investment in a downturn

With the economic climate shifting business’s priorities, HR budgets are usually first on the chopping block. But there are still ways HR teams can maximise budgets to make the most of what they’ve got. Nosa Omoigui reports

As the UK sinks into recession, organisations’ thinking has switched from long-term develpment to short-term survival – and HR is paying the price.

We asked a panel of experts how the sector can make the most of its resources during another HR Lunchtime Debate, sponsored by Lattice. Here are their six top tips.


1. Go back to basics

Michelle Reid, people and operations director at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, said reevaluating projects and showing what they bring to the table can be a way to keep HR budgets at the forefront of company thinking.

She said: “One of the biggest tricks for HR professionals - whether it’s L&D or reward-related – is to go back to the beginning and remember why you pitched for that project in the first place. The project will have a purpose and it will be there to unlock something that is expected on the bottom line.

“Equally, there’s also value in looking at what you have done already that you can maybe regurgitate so that you can be seen to be doing your bit for the budget. If you come forward and show that you can be a bit more flexible with the budget, you can evaluate why you needed that project initially and then have that conversation in a commercial context.”

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Misconceptions about the low value of HR projects lead companies to cut budgets in the first place, Reid added.

She continued: “For the entirety of the time that I’ve worked in HR, budgets are always up for debate. We should also be very mindful that it’s not just HR or L&D budgets, but every budget across every organisation comes under scrutiny.

Unfortunately, typically what happens from an HR and L&D perspective is that they look like the easy ones to cut, because we don’t necessarily all equate what we’re doing to day-to-day life.”


2. Challenge traditional budget concepts

There may be value in re-assessing how companies draw up their budgets altogether.

HR Most Influential 2022 thinker Paul Taylor-Pitt, founder and creative change consultant at Metamorphosish, said companies could consider creating their budget in a way that works better for everyone.

He said: “One of the things I think we can bring to the conversation as a way of reframing is, if this traditional way of setting budgets isn’t fit for the future, let’s reinvent it.

“Let’s think about how we can do it in a more relational way rather than a competitive, zerosum, I-win-you-lose format. For me, there’s something about the collaborative nature of all of those top teams and all of those systems that sometimes we fall into these habits and patterns – maybe now and again we just need to disrupt them.”

While many departments look to ring fence their budget to make sure their money doesn’t get spent elsewhere, Taylor-Pitt said such a mindset might be constraining HR departments.

He added: “The idea of ring fencing offers protection, but does it also keep us fenced in? Is there a different way of us thinking about how we still protect ourselves, but also maybe in a way that gives us a bit more freedom to move.”


3. Leverage high performers

A company’s employees are key to making sure any HR projects are successful.

Seth Kramer, head of EMEA at Lattice, said top performers are a good guarantee of long-term success and HR departments can’t afford to lose them. He said: “If your top performers are not in an environment where they can thrive, they’re likely to leave because they still have the skill sets that other businesses will find attractive.

“First you need to be able to recognise them, but if you can tap into them and realise why they’re successful, that could be an area to use your limited budget to support them and hopefully create more.”


4. Throw out the people strategy

Another way to guarantee a return is to get employees invested in HR initiatives from the off . One innovative way of doing this Reid shared is to allow employees to shape the people strategy rather than leaving it to the HR team.

She said: “Not having a people strategy enables me to be more agile but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone as you need to decide what is best in your own organisational context. My plan wrote itself because I took the time to talk to my people and just championed their ideas and solutions.

“That’s what I would recommend as a concept and if that means writing it in a strategy because that’s how the influence can be won then go ahead. I am lucky that I can influence in other ways thanks to the team and C-suite I work with.”


5. Match people goals with business goals

HR can benefit from appealing to the aspirations of senior leaders. Kramer said matching people-focused goals with that of the business will make senior leadership take notice.

He said: “What companies really need to do is think through how they can align the key business outcomes with people outcomes.

“Not all senior leadership folks will see that connection immediately, but oftentimes, if you are thoughtful and walk them through the major business outcomes that you’re looking to achieve, sometimes a more cost-effective way for those people teams to operate emerges.”

Kramer gave an example of how this might look in practice.

He added: “For example, there might be some businesses who are more focused on efficiency or productivity as a key business outcome.

“From there you can look at what different levers there are to increase productivity, such as levelling up the existing workforce – which is obviously a lot cheaper than it would be to go hire new people.

“Once you’re able to align the people outcomes with those business outcomes, it becomes a lot easier to decide what is and isn’t aligned with the business, and then decide what makes a nice business outcome and what’s mission critical.”


6. Keep calm

Even with all the planning in the world, an emergency – such as a pandemic or an unprecedented cost of living crisis – can force even the best laid plans to one side. Reid said calmness is key in such scenarios.

She said: “You can either panic and go down rabbit holes, or you can be the calming force that enables that logical thinking.

“Don’t panic, acknowledge the emotion, let some of the venting and panic come out to then enable those logical conversations to take place.”

Taylor-Pitt added that an agile HR function is best equipped to deal with unforseen circumstances.

He added: “There’s always process and there’s always task, but it’s about nding the balance, which we can control.

“There’s something to be said for keeping an eye on the conditions we’re working in and then respond to that. If we set ourselves up to be this or that, inevitably we will get it wrong at some point.”


The full feature above first appeared in the November/December 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk. Click here to view the webinar.