Sarah McCann-Bartlett on the role of HR professionals in the future of work
Sarah McCann-Bartlett is the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI). She joined AHRI in February 2020 and has a background in membership and trade bodies across a variety of sectors in Australia, the UK and the USA.
AHRI is the national association representing human resource and people management professionals. In her role leading this key organisation, Sarah engages with HR professionals across sectors and is immersed in research and contemporary developments within the HR profession.
She’s very well placed to reflect on key concerns that we all need to consider as we return to the workplace after a prolonged period of working from home: how have our workplaces changed, what is the future of work and where do HR professionals fit in? We caught up with Sarah to hear her insights.
Thank you for speaking with us today Sarah. In 2020, you spoke about your personal view of the positives of working at home. Like many others, you are now emerging from an extended period of lockdown. How was 2021 for you? Has your sentiment about working from home changed?
Well personally it has been pretty good, I’m still married and my three dogs are very happy from their regular walks.
What really struck me during that time was the lack of choice, the lack of variability and the inability to choose what tasks and modes of working go together best. I think that everybody really felt that absence of social connection.
I also think it showed that our past flexible working policies actually weren’t very flexible after all. In retrospect, we created unnecessary and artificial boundaries and constraints in our flexible working policies.
If you remember at the start of the pandemic, there were so many perceived barriers to the initial shift. We were really worried; would we be able to use the technology properly? A lot of leaders were also worried about trust. I think a lot of that has fallen away, particularly when we think about the productivity that we gained during the pandemic. That’s been linked to improved management skills, this new way of working forced managers to step up, with a lot of coaching from HR. I do think that most workplaces managed to overcome those constraints and delivered positive business and customer outcomes.
Many workplaces that transitioned to working from home during the height of the pandemic are now looking to return staff to the office longer term. What is the best way to approach this in your view?
We do know that the majority of employers have said that they’re going to provide greater flexibility for their employees in the future. AHRI completed a survey that showed 80% of HR leaders said their organisation was going to allow more employees to work remotely to some degree because of the experience of COVID.
We’re looking largely at a hybrid workplace for most employees. But every workplace is different and we’re finding that there is no one-size-fits-all. Every employee is also different, so we need to ask; how do you account for that individual difference while still delivering effectively for the team and the organisation?
We’re seeing a real range of work patterns come into play. A lot of organisations are taking a straightforward approach and asking employees to come into the workplace for a specific number of days per week, perhaps including a designated day where everyone will be in at the same time.
At the other end of the continuum, some organisations are allowing employees to work from wherever they like, as long as they come into any office in any location a number of times a week or month.
I’m also seeing organisations building up an operational cadence based on team requirements across functional teams. This means that each team is deciding which days they’re going to be in the office, what their pattern of face-to-face interactions will be. That then builds up, one team at a time, into what the whole organisation’s working from home pattern looks like. This requires quite a bit of consultation and planning; I should know because this is the approach we’re taking at AHRI!
Many workplaces had a bit of a practice run in bringing staff back at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. A lot didn’t have a firm plan, so there was a bit of a drift into the future of work for a lot of organisations. What those organisations then found was that they ended up with an approach that didn’t suit the organisation, didn’t suit employees and didn’t suit customers. So I do recommend that workplaces and employers actually have a strategy for the return to the workplace. And of course that they do that in consultation with employees.
Of course, there may be staff who are reluctant to return to the physical workplace after this time working from home. How would you approach this?
There was a great McKinsey article a while ago that talked about employee anxiety about return to the workplace and their future work patterns. The research found that it was the not knowing that caused employees stress, not the actual pattern of work. It was the unknown. So communication is key, just as it is for a lot of workplace issues.
For reluctant employees, I’d go to individual conversations. We need to understand what the underlying issue for each employee really means.
For some it might be the journey on public transport; perhaps a later start and a later finish time might make them feel more confident being on public transport, because it’s less crowded. Others might be concerned about their children having to come home to an empty house again. A phased return might help there. Some employees might have vulnerable relatives they’re worried about. A discussion about the workplace COVID-safe plan and the controls that have been put in place could provide them with some reassurance. It’s about the individual solution coupled with really good communication.
Working from home has obviously been a focus in workplaces recently, however what else do you think HR professionals need to be aware of in the current environment?
One of the things we need to be aware of right now is that our workplaces have changed so much in such a short period of time; we should be looking at our culture, values and behaviours. It’s time to review or reset those, and then spend time talking about how they apply in the new workplace environment to create a strong underpinning for how we work in the future.
I also think that we’ve seen a significant widening of the social contract between employers and employees. The expectations that employees have of their employers have greatly expanded. Things like flexibility, consideration of their individual needs and circumstances, broader access to employee assistance support, support for victims of domestic violence and even a need for the organisation to have a broader social purpose.
These are things that employees now expect. An employer might see those things as employee benefits, but to an employee they’re actually becoming a hygiene factor, a core expectation. If they don’t receive it, they feel that they’re not getting a fundamental right in the unwritten employment agreement.
What do you think will be the greatest challenge for HR when it comes to navigating the future of work?
One of the things we are having to come to grips with is constant change and the speed of change. A lot of futurists are saying that we will need to work at an even faster pace. There are mixed views on this; some are saying that this level of speed is unsustainable. Others are saying actually you do need to put skills, structures and technologies in place in order to maintain that speed. What comes with that debate is certainly still a need to upgrade skills and capabilities across the organisation.
AHRI ran a survey last year called ‘Skills for a post-pandemic future’ and what HR practitioners told us was that the skills required for the future are actually lacking in many workplaces. The skills that they’re talking about are the skills that got organisations though the crisis. They’re what we used to call ‘soft-skills’, what I now call ‘essential skills’; change management, leadership, agility, flexibility, communication and of course resilience.
I think a really big challenge for HR is actually looking beyond the people side of their organisation and anticipating what’s going to change in the external environment, how that will impact the organisation’s response and the people strategy.
HR’s role expanded during the pandemic and we’ve seen a lot of HR leaders and teams taking on additional roles and responsibilities. For example, in a number of organisations I’ve seen the risk portfolio move into HR. We’re also going to see a much closer partnership between the IT team and the HR team because we’re balancing people and digital resources much more finely and that requires a strong partnership.
Do you have any advice for how HR professionals can get themselves ready for the future?
Building on what I’ve just said, I think my biggest piece of advice is to be incredibly curious about your organisation, your business, your customer and the external drivers of those things. Read, watch and listen widely, and take charge of your own professional development journey, looking both inside and outside the profession and your organisation for that development.
Finally, after a difficult year mostly in lockdown, do you have some more enjoyable plans for the summer?
It sounds slightly counter intuitive, but I’m actually going to stay home for two weeks. I feel that the last twenty months have been so busy that I need to rest, refresh and do absolutely nothing. I’m going to do lots of leisurely dog walking at the beach. I’m going to lie by the pool and I’m going to read all the books that I didn’t read over the last twenty months when I didn’t commute.