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Where is our evolving HR function headed next?

(Image credit: Image Credit: RawPixel / Pexels)

Working practices are changing. According to a Covid-19 survey by Finder.com, remote working has increased employee efficiency, with almost two-thirds of employers reporting increased productivity when working from home compared to in-office and 83 per cent of employees feel they do not need an office to be productive. But, as we have come to realize throughout the pandemic, there is so much more to work than efficiency. The challenge of innovating and collaborating without a physical workspace has remained a top priority for businesses in recent months.

There’s no doubt that technology has played an important role in facilitating the day-to-day running of many businesses as they’ve shifted to work-from-home policies. Within this context, HR’s traditional role has changed, and people teams are now increasingly relied upon to both support business continuity in the short term and consider long-term changes to the world of work. So, what is the role of HR in building and facilitating the workplace of the future?

HR becoming an innovation driver

Driving collaboration and innovation is an area where business leaders look to HR. As people specialists, our function is expected to ensure that all business units are aligned and continuing with ‘business as usual’. Not only is this important when it comes to day-to-day tasks, such as virtual meetings, but also when looking at bigger picture challenges, such as how the workforce will continue to function as lockdown restrictions continue to change.

It’s only now we’re unable to have those impromptu water cooler and kitchen conversations that we’ve realized how vital they were to encouraging creativity. However, as these methods to support innovation are not possible, HR has had to come up with alternative options. Businesses have had to invest in new technologies to support collaborative communication such as Microsoft Teams and Yammer, which can be used for both professional and personal development.

Our employees are encouraged to use these tools for regular communication with their teams, as well as to attend non-work-related activities, such as virtual exercise classes and origami and doodling sessions. By dedicating some time out of their day focused on creativity, they are more likely to return to work feeling refreshed. This gives them the space they need to ‘switch off’, which often leads to an increase in collaborative ideas and inspiration.

The future of HR technology

There is often a fear factor involved when talking about using technology across the HR function, but the pandemic has shown that technology will become even more embedded in the workplace. Businesses are seeing a focus on collecting data to help better inform decision making. Data insights enable them to understand what the current resource pool looks like and analyze employee engagement across the business, for example whether there are any issues with onboarding or any spikes in attrition. By using data to provide a holistic view of the organization, leaders can better understand what is working well across the business – and where they need to make changes.

It is up to HR professionals to become evangelists for data and analytics as business enablers across the organization, not just ‘people’ tools. This can be done by showcasing the improvements the technology makes using clear metrics such as reduced attrition rates, increased collaboration, and improved employee engagement. Essentially, business leaders need to understand how data will help them to do their jobs more effectively, and it is up to the HR function to communicate this.

Digital collaboration tools can also aid virtual delivery training which will support both the onboarding and reskilling processes. As it becomes increasingly apparent that everyone will be returning to the office at different times, HR needs to make sure it has the systems and processes in place to support both new talent and existing employees, and make them feel welcome and energized to work as soon as they walk through the virtual door.

Not the end of the physical workspace

Nevertheless, removing the face-to-face, human contact element from the workplace does pose challenges. For example, when colleagues register their attendance for a training course, some may think that their attendance isn’t as important as face-to-face training or can drop out halfway through because it’ll be repeated or recorded. Therefore, this doesn’t mean we should say goodbye to the office forever, because it remains a venue for socializing and enabling certain tasks that work best in person. We will see offices evolve into hubs that act as agile workspaces where colleagues can meet face to face to catch-up and work together.

There are many nuances associated with face-to-face delivery that you can’t replicate virtually. Even the side chats with colleagues sat next to you or during lunchbreaks can help build rapport and lead to new ideas. Without the in-person dynamics, how can we help colleagues improve their interpersonal skills?

Just as technology cannot replace the physical workplace, it cannot replace the humans that use it. The HR function has a responsibility to allay fears around AI and robots taking jobs by teaching employees how to work alongside emerging technologies and communicating the benefits of doing so. Employees need to understand the value of technology in allowing them to move away from transactional activities and instead focus on value-added, strategic priorities, such as succession and talent planning, recruitment strategies, and diversity and inclusion initiatives.

HR’s role is evolving into a two-fold function. Not only will it be expected to use technology to create efficiencies in the way it operates, it will also become the point of contact for employees to understand how technology is set to transform the sector they work in.

Julie Chell, Chief People Officer, Civica