What HR needs to take back control

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, HR was thrust front and centre of all business functions, and now it’s key that departments steady the ship and regain control, writes Nosa Omoigui

Since the start of the pandemic, HR has been pulled in every direction in order to stop the working world from collapsing in on itself. More than two years on, the industry is still trying to regain its grip on business functions.

What tools and techniques can HR use to take back control? This was the question we put to experts during our HR Lunchtime Debate in partnership with Eightfold.


The panel

  • Marcus Downing, partner, organisational and workforce transformation team, Mercer
  • Adrian Boruz, senior global product manager, Vodafone
  • Jo Regan-Iles, chief people officer, Ventrica


Do you think HR professionals are at risk of being overwhelmed and in burnout? 

JRI: “Since the start of the pandemic, I and my HR colleagues have found it to be a really, really busy time. Along with many other roles in organisations, HR has been very busy and will continue to be busy.

“I do think HR could potentially be one of those occupations that’s going to find it even more difficult in the next few months. It’s down to HR leaders to perhaps look at automation and streamlining processes so that they don’t become overburdened.”

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AB: “It seems like we never have a dip, but o en have spikes and go from being busy to being super busy, and then back down to busy again. There’s always something going on.

“We’re (Vodafone) in a privileged position because we’ve transformed our business model and become more digital as a company. It’s busy in a good sense but there’s a need for us as individuals in HR but across the business as a whole to prioritise, make sure we manage expectations well and define the value we’re creating and what we should be focusing on.

“It’s an ongoing conversation; it should be discussed with business leaders but also involve us as individuals to understand ourselves better using our HR tools – we use them on everyone else in the business but maybe we could stand to use them on ourselves a bit more.”


When do we stop having the conversation about HR needing to prove their worth? 

MD: “The pandemic has elevated HR from something which provided background operational support to something front of house that actually adds really important initiatives into the business.

“The challenge now with a potential recession coming is, do we actually package what we do in a way that helps us solve business issues? For example, how is it helping us retain and attract the best? For me it’s about storytelling, productivity and positioning everything we do in business terms, rather than just HR plumbing.

“HR, more than ever right now, has the place at the table to get the business to raise their thinking around that in a smart energetic way, in an environment where everyone’s overworked and lacking in energy.”

JRI: “Part of me sometimes thinks it was a real shame what we’ve been through over the past couple of years. HR should always have been seen as adding value to a business, be it with people, with tech or with processes.

“Sadly, I think sometimes it depends on the CEO or the COO with regards to the value they see in HR, and the bene ts they feel HR can bring to the table. It’s to do with the HR leader, how he or she works, has their team, and how HR is all around providing the data to business as to what it’s actually delivering.”

AB: “Back in 2009 when the government published its report on engagement and productivity, for me that was when any conversation about HR adding value stopped.

“The nature of what HR does is looking at behavioural science; we are thinking about how we change things, how we make things better within our own practices and systems and how we scale up. We will always try and reinvent and take up any new challenge. When it comes to our insecurities, we are our own worst enemy.”


Which areas of the HR function can we automate without it losing the human touch? Are we at risk of losing that personality in the personalisation of our processes from relying too much on tech? 

JRI: “A big thing we’re working on is recruitment. There’s some good data and some good systems around recruitment, but for me personally that human interaction and personal touch on recruitment is a big driver for us that we want to keep going.

“People have so much choice these days of where they can work, and there are so many factors influencing their decision. That personal touch when it comes to recruitment is something that I want to really retain.”

AB: “What we should never replace is the interaction between candidates or internal employees and the manager. It’s one interaction that carries multiple important elements for both parties – maybe conversations about coaching, performance, or maybe feedback.

“Anything to do with your manager, mentors, coaches or recruiters, we have to protect."

“If we want to intervene with technology in that space, we should help people to find the information better to get where they need to be, so they can spend more time in meaningful conversation and less time searching for information.

“Anything to do with your manager, mentors, coaches or recruiters, we have to protect. Our job in HR is to enable conversations which guide people towards a small change, identify their strengths and make the most of it.”

MD: “The trap that organisations get themselves into is they see a new piece of technology that perhaps all the other organisations are investing in, they go and get it, and everyone expects results immediately.

“You don’t start with the tech, what you start with is the work. What is the work that needs to be done now and in the future? And what skills are required to do it? Look at the work, then look at the technology and see how it replaces or augments human performance.”


What is the best way for HR to begin streamlining its processes right now? 

JRI: “If I could streamline anything, it would be around automating a lot of the transactional things. This would allow the manager and their colleague or employee to spend more value-add time having conversations about important topics like career development or how they’re feeling.

“When it comes to performance management, and appraisals, even still in 2022 that to me isn’t really an added-value function – it’s sometimes more of a tick box.”

MD: “Facilitate the top team, facilitate your business leaders. Ask them what they think is adding value and what they think is dead weight. Either they’re wrong and you need to manage their expectations on what’s going on, or they’re giving you parts of the business that you can tackle and immediately show your value as an individual and as a function.

“Get conversations going and get change happening really fast in targeted areas. Show what the ROI is of what you do really quickly by exactly how you want to change it. Make the change happen and lo and behold, you’re demonstrating value as a function.”

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.