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HR in the Working-from-Home World. What Needs to Change?

Flower power. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Tie-dye. OK, what do those 1960s references have to do with human resources (HR)? Well, that was the era when many of our HR assumptions, policies, procedures, and best practices were created.

And they’ve been followed ever since with the idea of going with what’s proven — the ground that has already been tilled. Interestingly, most human resources practices are more about the resources and less about human concerns. Many of us in HR have fallen in line, focusing on proving ourselves as a “business partner” and downgrading our expertise in the human operating systems that occur inside companies. We’ve been so eager to impress the CEOs and the line-of-business folks with our business acumen that we have not exercised our human acumen, which is what we bring to the table and what’s really important, especially in today’s world.

The pandemic has changed the world of work, moving it to the home and forcing it to deal with distance. And HR must change as well. It’s time to set aside the traditional, industrial-age way of conducting human resources: assuming the most important contribution of HR is the business focus. Today’s reality? The most important contribution of HR is the human focus.
  


The timing's perfect

Business life and home life have been brought together due the coronavirus (COVID-19), creating new challenges for employees. Gone is the uniformed way of working in the office and, with it, many of the traditional criteria to judge employee performance. At home, employees can choose how and where they work and even, in some cases, when they work. For many employees, that’s a plus.

But gone is the intellectual stimulation and direct interaction of being among peers that’s offered with an “in-person” office environment. Working remotely can foster a sense of being isolated, removed from the pulse of the business and its implicit incentives.


Home life often intrudes

Being a parent can add to the complexity of working from home. Parents must deal with their personal and business issues at the same time. For decades, employers have said, “Don’t bring family concerns in here. It’s not relevant to my business.” Now, we know that it is relevant to the success of the business. It’s no longer easy to separate the two by, at a minimum, physical distance.

In Zoom meetings, we get glimpses into employees’ lives, the pressures, distractions, and daily tasks that must be handled: A dog jumping up in an employee’s lap, a child yelling “Mom!” in the background, or dinner cooking on the stove. We are brought face-to-face with the human experience and see it integrated with the professional experience.


Being the reasonable environment

As employees deal with home life while working, so must employers. For HR professionals, the question becomes, “How can we make certain employees will continue to thrive, feel connected, and engaged?” In other words: How do we support them in this environment?

After all, achieving those goals can benefit employee and employer — with the potential for ongoing rewarding careers and working relationships, as well as a successful, flexible business moving forward. Many people predict that working from home, even part of the time, on an ongoing basis will be a more productive situation.

When people feel productive and contributory, they also feel engaged. In fact, in a recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report, 71% of senior-level executives from around the world ranked employee engagement as a top factor for success. How that engagement occurs in the future will take a human focus.

Let’s return to the question, “How do we support employees in this environment?” As I see it, the answer is not ignoring the pressures, distractions, and daily tasks, but working with employees to help them cope. We need to be more involved in proactive human care. In those situations, we must provide the reasonable environment. We have to be humane and make accommodations for the employees and their family. As HR professionals, we’ve always said we’ll be sympathetic to parents, but I don’t think we’ve ever embraced that idea as much as it’s required today.

So, what’s holding us back from providing that care?


Meeting our own challenges to make things work

Once again, the old model — continuing to follow the traditional policies, procedures, best practices, and perception regarding the role of human resources, where we treat everyone in the same environment the same — is no longer a sure ticket to satisfied employees and business success.

Working from home has thrown that model out the window. The situation requires more human involvement and care. And we will not go back to normal. Whatever the future normal is, it is assuredly more custom-configured to the employee. More human.

What about changing the day-to-day business of operating human resources? Yes, I’m referring to the mundane transactional operations that can keep us from spending more time being human and helping humans. 

Intelligent automation can address that challenge, allowing us to exercise our human acumen. Never have I heard an HR person say, “Oh, if only I didn’t have to do this executive development. Then, I could get back to data entry and analysis.” Automation can free us from the repetitive, mundane, and give us access to our “if only” lists – if only I had the time. And I say, “Look at the things I get to do because I’m no longer inhibited by all that stuff we thought we had to do.” Automation helps us put the human part of our profession to work.

It’s time to rethink HR.

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