HR is essential in shaping the future workplace

Monday, 24 August 2020

Sarah McCann-Bartlett FAICD CEO photo
Sarah McCann-Bartlett FAICD CEO
Australian HR Institute

    Forty-four per cent of AICD members expect their organisations to reduce their workforce over the next six months, according to recent research. This represents a lot of jobs, a lot of organisations and a lot of tough decisions. Are boards prepared for this? Do they know how to evaluate management’s restructuring proposals, and the essential skills their organisations will need to thrive in an environment of continuing uncertainty? These workforce questions must be discussed with the organisation’s HR leaders.

    In order to prepare for the workforce changes ahead, boards need to hear from their people department. Ideally this should come in the form of a workforce audit.

    Given the intricacies, the board should consider talking through the audit with the organisation’s HR leadership. Boards wouldn’t undergo a sizable digital change without hearing from the CTO. Similarly, they shouldn’t action a sizable workforce change without discussing it directly with their CHRO.

    While a workplace audit contains a variety of elements, there are some elements that are particularly important.

    Future skills

    Research from McKinsey shows that even as 90 per cent of executives know that COVID-19 will fundamentally change the way they do business over the next 5 years, they are forgoing innovation in favour of short-term thinking.

    If an organisation begins a restructure with the goal of simply surviving the next one or two years, chances are they’ll survive exactly that long. Circumstances demand that everyone dream bigger. And while boards can’t know what their company will be doing 10 years from now – there is too much uncertainty and technology is advancing too quickly – they can take a considered view on the skills their people will need.

    Boards want their HR team to identify the people in their organisation who are, or who can build, the core capabilities of future success. These include adaptability, curiosity, imagination and resilience.

    And we mustn’t forget digital skills. Hearing the term many tend to think of hard, technical skills, such as software engineering. But in fact, most people are already in possession of some digital skills. There is barely a profession that can get by without them, and this trend will only accelerate.

    As automation takes over more of our routine tasks and as AI gets ever better at complementing our more creative work, we need everyone to be comfortable with this symbiosis. The people that organisations will need on staff are the innovators, the early adopters and the digitally comfortable. And this shouldn’t only be a restructuring decision. Training and role-modelling desired behaviours is also essential.

    Some years ago, a UK insurance company asked its 16,000 employees if their job could be automated. Those who answered “yes” were retrained for a different role. This sort of mindset is what’s needed. Not leaving people behind, bringing them forward with you.

    I compared the CTO and CHRO earlier. This was intentional. These should be collaborative roles. They should be asking one another questions such as, “What technology does the company need to excel?” and “What do its people need in order to excel with that technology?”

    It’s a truism that if organisations are being forced to make changes, they had better make sure they are changes that will serve them well in the long term. Better aligning your technology with your people is a change from which almost every organisation would benefit.

    Diversity and inclusion

    Every audit of a workforce by this point should be providing a diversity and inclusion lens. People want their workforces to reflect the customers they serve. This is also a wellbeing issue – everyone should be able to be their authentic selves at work.

    The Black Lives Matter movement around the globe is the latest in a series of signs that the importance of diversity and inclusion is non-negotiable. In fact, it’s only becoming more important. That being said, each organisation’s context is different and there is no need for any organisation to be intimidated. Today’s small steps can become tomorrow’s cultural transformation.


    The shared struggle of this pandemic has meant wellbeing is at the forefront of leaders’ minds. Hopefully this will continue. A greater focus on wellbeing leads to better individual and organisational outcomes.

    A workplace audit should be telling organisations not just whether their people are productive and engaged, it should be providing more holistic information. Is anxiety prevalent, what are the drivers of retention and what is the workforce’s current appetite for transformation?

    The changes people have gone through in the first half of the year have put everyone under stress. Given results of the AICD research, the second half of the year could be equally stressful. Knowing how your employees are feeling, what resources they have available to help them and how your company is tailoring its approach to wellbeing is crucial.

    If cuts are made, the employees who remain are vulnerable to survivor syndrome. Just when organisations need them at their best, they could be feeling their worst. Restructuring strategies should be anticipating such outcomes and have plans to manage them.

    These three areas are only some of the considerations the board should be looking to HR for answers. Reading an HR leader’s analysis and asking them questions will give boards a more complete picture of how the organisation can excel in the coming uncertainty.

    HR leaders are ready for these conversations. They’ve spent this pandemic overhauling flexible work arrangements, managing complicated stand down orders and navigating companies through all sorts of difficult and necessary changes. HR has taken more than one step up in the last few months. They should stay there.

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