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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Thursday 09 May 2013
Five critical challenges keeping HR awake at night

Five critical challenges keeping HR awake at night

Recently, some critics have claimed that HR professionals lack business nous and are slow to adapt their policies and practices in line with changes in the world of work. In fact if you’re an HR person, you could be forgiven for feeling a bit under siege at the moment. 

The last few months have seen a whole raft of surveys suggesting that HR is not regarded as influential, is not seen by senior managers as adding value and is failing to respond to changing business needs. 

There’s a debate to be had about how fair some of the flak really is. There are of course many HR professionals out there breaking boundaries and pioneering new and exciting ways of working. But what are the key issues that should be top of HR’s agenda right now? 

Here’s our guide to five of the critical challenges that should be keeping HR awake at night: 

1. Giving customers what they need

Many HR departments are still being criticised for being too inward focused and not listening enough to what their customer base expects of them. Approaches that have been successful in the past are no longer fit for purpose in today’s business context. Advances in technology continue to create new ways of doing business, HR needs to be on the front foot more to anticipate what is needed. Some customers think strategically, some think tactically – both need to be satisfied. Being bolder about coming to the business with solutions rather than problems will help secure a seat at the table when strategic initiatives are being discussed. HR deserves to be considered as a key ingredient of business strategy rather than being brought into the equation too late as an after-thought. 

2. Managing a multi-generational workforce 

How best to manage talent remains a critical challenge for organisations in today’s increasingly global and fast-moving world? Recent research has shown that one of the key challenges for HR will be to find ways to manage the conflicting needs of the different age groups now populating the workplace. A recent Ashridge report, for example, shows that there is a real disconnect between managers and their Generation Y employees (Culture Shock: Generation Y and their managers around the world). Both parties are looking at the world of work through different lenses are struggling to work together effectively as a result. Striking the right balance and helping the generations work together in harmony will be key. Businesses need to find ways to appeal to the young talent that will ensure their future – while at the same time maximising the skills of more mature employees who are likely to work longer than their predecessors and whose experience and contribution is invaluable. 

3. Putting the ‘human’ back into human resources 

It’s no co-incidence that organisations that treat their employees well and with dignity win all the employer awards and find it easier to attract and retain their best people. And yet, the newspapers are still full of examples of bad practice. A compassionate approach to leadership can help build positive relationships in the workplace and can have a real impact on employee engagement. Managers are often not comfortable, however, with showing empathy or dealing with displays of emotion and are unsure how to go about making connections with employees on a deeper, more personal level when the situation demands. HR needs to examine itself and identify how much it has contributed over the last few decades to maintaining a healthy balance between serving the business through more effective and efficient practices whilst ensuring employees are supported, fulfilled at work and equipped to do a good job. Long term organisational adaptability and survival demands both. 

4. Making employee engagement transformational 

Not surprisingly, during the recession, most attempts at engaging with the workforce have been short term and transactional in nature. The time has come, however, to make employee engagement more transformational to power the organisation into the longer term. Hot off the press, Ashridge research is highlighting the role of the CEO as well as a number of other essential factors that need to be in play for such a transformation to take place. Employees need to be seen as essential to creating solutions, not just people who need to be convinced to go along with the latest changes decided from on high. They need to believe in the organisation and what it espouses to be important. They need to see consistent behaviour in line with corporate values. In the first instance, that takes good leaders with the right attitude throughout the extended leadership team. 

5. Stress and resilience 

We are all working in increasingly pressurised environments and all the signs suggest employees are beginning to crack under the strain. For the past two years, stress has been cited as the top reason for workplace absence. Of course not all stress is bad – and people’s ability to cope with pressure and adversity varies widely. The challenge for organisations, however, is to create working environments that reduce stress – and to find ways to help employees improve their resilience and overall well-being. HR needs to take the lead in encouraging leadership styles and working patterns that don’t take their toll on employees’ health and give people time to recharge their batteries. There is much recent research about the way people expend their mental energy which HR can use to inform its strategies – and of course HR needs to make sure it is being a good role model itself.

Gerry Miles leads the Ashridge Strategic Human Resource Management development programme and consults in the areas of talent management and leadership development

Ashridge’s Strategic Human Resource Management programme helps senior HR professionals focus on the right priorities, to get better results for their organisation and for themselves. Now booking for June and November 2013. Find out more.