While the world of work continues to change, many senior HR professionals remain undecided about how best to adapt, says Emily Rose McRae.
The shift to new ways of working, such as hybrid and remote work, has been given further momentum fuelled by social, political and technological change, which together have created an unprecedented level of upheaval.
The debate about the best way forward is typified by two contrasting approaches: Explorers – committed innovators who want to embrace new workplace structures and technologies.
Restorers – cautious traditionalists who believe companies should be leveraging tried and tested ways of working. What is clear is that whichever approach is adopted, HR and business leaders need to match their methodologies to the new realities of work. To achieve the best outcomes there are three principal factors to consider.
Adapting to emerging technologies
New technology is generally positioned as a business enabler, but the current rate and scope of change is also delivering uncertainty. This is especially true of artificial intelligence (AI) and the spread of generative AI, including ChatGPT. It is undoubtedly a powerful tool that is growing in significance, but the eye-catching headlines about its potential also have the power to distract the unwary.
AI-based systems will undoubtedly have a role to play, especially in the creation of chatbots and workplace processes that can be automated, but there is a real risk that ‘explorers’ could become caught up in the excitement around new technologies and implement tech for tech’s sake. This can deliver the reverse of the intended effect – an unnecessary layer of complexity and a confused workforce, resulting in a poor ROI.
In contrast, ‘restorers’ risk overlooking some of the most transformative benefits of recent technological breakthroughs, including their ability to reduce costs, increase flexibility for employees and improve collaboration across teams and geographies. Neither outcome is desirable, so to avoid them, business leaders must understand why they are deploying technologies and where they align with their business objectives.
According to a recent Gartner report, many senior executives are already on the right track. The research shows that driving better business outcomes (44%), growth in headcount and skills (26%) and cost optimisation (17%) are among the top priorities for HR leaders for their tech transformation. Making these goals a reality will require a proportionate investment in reporting, recruitment, and core HR technologies, with an allocation focused on innovation to spur skills development and boost internal mobility.
Supporting employees through change
Change can be transformational; it is also largely unavoidable for forward-looking businesses. However, change can also be destabilising, especially for employees. Moreover, recent economic and political disturbances have impacted business optimism, so it’s no surprise that staff confidence has been shaken and it has resulted in change fatigue for many.
This is a real problem and one that can have a devastating impact on productivity and performance. HR leaders and senior executives, alike, are concerned that employees aren’t giving their best work or are struggling to sustain their efforts, or both. This creates concerns about the overall performance of an organisation and the long-term effectiveness of employees, as well as worries about their wellbeing.
Gartner’s research found that more than half of employees say the potential for layoffs had prompted them to search for a new job, potentially damaging business continuity, while just 41% believed they were delivering their optimal performance. There was also a concern that return-to-office mandates were damaging productivity and performance due to more attrition and fatigue. Senior executives should consider proactive rest as this is shown to lead to better performance.
HR’s role in uniting businesses
Properly designed and run HR functions have a fundamental role to play in helping ensure a business-wide acceptance of new company initiatives. For this to happen consistently and seamlessly, leaders may need help in becoming more ‘intentional’ about what they are trying to achieve for the organisation and to better communicate those objectives to employees. HR and business leaders should work together to ensure this type of approach is being realised across their organisations.
Of note, employers who help their staff connect across their companies are five times more likely to build high-performing teams and 12 times more likely to feel connected to their colleagues. The obvious benefits are increased productivity and a greater chance of retaining an effective, experienced workforce. However, it is important to not solely rely on measurement as a metric for success; long-term achievements are a product of engagement and action.
Choosing the right path
There’s no single solution when it comes to aligning a business with the changing world of work; both HR innovators and traditionalists deliver value. However, one thing is clear: employees are firmly on the side of exploration. Gartner research revealed that 30 percent of UK employees prefer to have total autonomy over their in-office days while, unsurprisingly, only 5percent prefer to have their organisation plan their days in the office.
As a result, senior executives need to develop an approach that takes this into account while also choosing a path that works best for their organisation. While individual leaders may reach quite different conclusions, all of them should develop a good understanding of the available technology options and assess how they could be best implemented, while also ensuring employees are brought along on the journey. The role HR plays in uniting their organisation – for both innovators and restorers – sits at the heart of a smooth and coherent change.
Emily Rose McRae is a Senior Director Analyst at Gartner.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.