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Memo to HR in the Vaccine Economy - be innovative, build trust and bear in mind we're all knackered!

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan April 12, 2021
The Vaccine Economy is opening up and the workplace doors along with it. What challenges await HR professionals in the next new world of work? HR guru Josh Bersin has some thoughts.


As the Vaccine Economy begins to take shape, organizations are turning their attention more and more to the safe re-opening of office buildings and generally contemplating what the 'Future of Work' will look like. In this next COVID-driven challenge, HR people have a vital societal as well as corporate role to play, argues Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder at Bersin by Deloitte: 

The thing to remember is, work is a place to fulfill your personal mission, your purpose in life. It is a refuge from uncertainty and ambiguity and fear at home sometimes. Sometimes people go to work and they want to go to work to get away from something that's going on at home. That's what's happened this year. A lot of people have found the pandemic overwhelming, they've had family issues at home, and their work has been a refuge. I think if we [as HR] just realize that we have a very important role in society -to give people a safe place to fulfill their goals and that's really what work is all about - if we do that well, great people come in and join our companies.

Discussion of the job-centric impact of the COVID crisis has tended to be dominated by the shift to remote working and whether this will be a long-term move. But there are equally critical issues that have emerged, not least an increased awareness of the importance of wellbeing, particularly around the topic of mental health. While some people have thrived working from home, others have struggled with isolation, with some potentially having lasting problems to address

Bersin notes that wellbeing is an longstanding topic, one that used to be classed as a benefit feature you could get as an employee from a good prospective employer. That’s all changed, he says, thanks first to digital work and the growth of automation, and latterly the pandemic. It’s now a core business strategy - or it should be: 

If people aren't healthy and well and well-rested and focused and they don't feel committed to the company and they don't have family issues at home that are keeping them getting their work done, we can't get any work done around here. So now wellbeing is really a board-level, CEO-level issue and it's really change management behavior. It's certainly affected HR in a big way and really [become] a whole big center of the whole employee experience now.

Trust me! I'm from HR

Related to this is the question of trust. As diginomica has noted, the successful safe return to workplaces will be dictated by employee trust that their employers have taken appropriate health and safety measures - and data suggests that's not necessarily a level of confidence that can be guaranteed! - but there’s a wider trust question to be considered around the overall future nature of the working relationship, suggests Bersin: 

Trust comes out as one of the most highly-correlated factors in employee engagement and retention, so this is something you have to do. It is really creating a sense of psychological safety, that it's okay to raise issues, it's okay to tell your boss that you're not feeling well or something's a problem. That can be done in a couple of ways. One is leaders need to model that kind of behavior, being open about their issues; the second is storytelling, giving examples of people in the company that have changed jobs, gone through difficult situations and done great things. 

There’s actually a third spoke here, he adds: 

The third is for HR to give people the language to have these conversations, explain to them what psychological safety is all about, so they understand it, because sometimes business people just power ahead. They don't realize they've created this environment where nobody wants to bring anything up.

Up the workers!

Another factor that HR professionals need to come to terms with is the reality that the past 12 months will have given a lot of people a lot of time to think about their lives and the component elements of it, not least work. While in some sectors. many will just be glad still to be in a job, others may well decide that the Vaccine Economy and the ‘fresh start’ that the vaccines offer is a cue for a change of direction. 

Stand by for a war on talent, predicts Bersin - and this time it’s going to be fierce: 

The job market's getting very hot. The unemployment rate's gonna go very low, there's massive re-skilling and new technology in every job, and the birth rate is down, so the number of workers is not increasing. So, in the developed economies there actually is going to be a shortage of people. What it means for us as employers and as HR people, is we need to be very strategic about our employment brand and our work experience, so that people really do love working here and they tell their friends. 

There’s a knock-on effect on recruitment and talent management strategies here, he adds:

We need to search for people based on capabilities and experiences, not specific job fit, because sometimes the job you have doesn't exist anywhere else, so you're not going to find somebody who's done that job before. As we learned during the pandemic, people learn and change very quickly, if you give them the right opportunity. 

For employers, that means creating really great internal talent mobility and internal development process, he advises`:

The chances are with a lot of the jobs you're looking for on the outside, there are people inside the company that are very capable of doing those jobs. But maybe they don't know they exist or they're in an adjacent job and they're not aware that they could be qualified to do this new one. Those are all going to be critical areas - just basically cleaning up the whole talent acquisition process, because it's going to be a really tough labor market for hiring.

Accept it HR, he says, the workers are in charge: 

They get to decide where they want to go. They can go online and find a job anywhere in the world and do that virtually. If they want to come work for you or if they're already working for you, they can go do that. We need to reflect the fact that in virtually every job, if we don't create a magnetic attraction for people to come to us through actual work practices as well as reputational marketing, it's going to be really hard to hire. I think [people] have learned that great companies that make a lot of money are great places to work and [there's] this feedback cycle - that great people want to work there and so they get a better candidate pool and then the company grows. It's pretty much a virtuous cycle - if we run the company well internally, we will hire great people and these individuals, all of whom are out there, are going to come work for us.

What this calls for for for the HR profession to become an innovation center, Bersin advocates, and help organizations to be themselves, rather than try to emulate others: 

I used to go out to companies all the time and they would say to me, 'Will you just tell me how GE does this, I want to copy them'. I don't hear that can't just copy what somebody else did. You have to invent in HR what's going to work for your company, your culture, your industry, the part of the economy that you're in. That means design thinking; that means iterative development; it means using data to design HR solutions that get better over time; and that means looking at what other companies are doing and learning from them, but not copying it all the time. You're really coming up with your own creative ideas and this role of HR as creators and as consultants is really where we are in the domain and the profession. It's an exciting time to be in HR.

My take

As we emerge from lockdowns and peer cautiously ahead to what comes next, for many people the days of commuting, grabbing a lunchtime sandwich with co-workers, trying to book a meeting room to sit down and talk to real people face-to-face etc etc may seem a distant memory. Meanwhile the question of how the presumed hybrid working model - part remote, part in office - will take shape in practical, non-emergency terms remains to be determined and we’re not going to get an answer on that for some time yet. 

For the short term, one thing that strikes me as critical to bear in mind as ‘return to workplace’ strategies are put in place is really basic - we’re all knackered! Working from home may have been more successful than most organizations could dared to have hoped for, but the past year has been one with a constant backdrop of low-level stress that has taken its toll on most of us. 

So I welcome a recommendation from Bersin that all HR professionals would do well to bear in mind: 

I think the big thing for the next six to nine months is to give people a little flexibility to get their lives back. People are going to want to take a little time off, they're going to want to go on a vacation, they're going to want to take a break. We've all been through a year of a lot. So, [if you are] reflecting on the fact that there's a regeneration going on in everybody's life right now, probably through the end of this year, and being OK with that, you're going to come out of 2021 with a fantastic year. Then, I think we'll have a great year going forward.

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