From business partner to business maker: reinventing HR in 2021

4 minute read

Top HR professionals are going beyond functional excellence and instead shifting mindset from business partner to business maker, according to a survey of 1,700 of the best organisations across the world by certification company Top Employers Institute

Sian Harrington

3 minute watch: Phil Sproston of Top Employers on how recruiters should become talent curators and the consumerisation of HR

Marketing, IT and internal communications. These are the new areas of expertise for HR teams wanting to successfully support their organisations to cope with health, economic and social change and to navigate today’s world of work.

According to data from 1,700 organisations in 120 regions, HR professionals at employers recognised for their excellent people practice are increasingly taking on some of the responsibilities of other job functions. For example, playing a bigger role in IT because employees require, and desire, technology to do their work. Or in employee communications to build empowerment, trust and engagement, using marketing-style metrics to measure the impact.

Top Employers Institute, which analysed data from its HR Best Practices Survey for its HR Trends Report 2021, says HR is now fundamentally integral to the success of the business strategy.

“In the past, if HR fell over you could still hit your business strategy. Now if the HR strategy falls over you almost certainly won't achieve your business goals,” says Phil Sproston, region manager Northern Europe for the Top Employers Institute.

For this reason, he adds, HR professionals need to ensure they have the mindset of business maker, not business partner. Top Employers, he says, demonstrate a “genuine, progressive, collaborative attitude”, removing barriers that get in the way of success and focusing on aligning employees to the overall strategy.

This is all the more important in 2021 as organisations take stock of lessons learned from their approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and move from improvisation to longer-term policy changes. While the pandemic provides an opportunity to redesign the new world of work in a way that brings closer alignment between business goals and healthy people practices, there is still some way to go before it is clear what has worked well and what global standards organisations should implement. For example, analysis of the data does not reflect a growth in formal, global remote working policies and while Top Employers have on the whole coped well with the change to remote working, a significant minority have struggled to adjust.

“The big focus for the next 12 months is how to formalise the change. Many organisations want to ensure they don't slip back into the way the world used to be, but equally they need to more actively think of solutions for how you keep employee engagement, that team dynamic and that human interaction,” says Sproston.

“Some of our participants are talking about offices becoming hubs or clubhouses where you go once a month and have your team meetings, so the discussion now is how do we make sure that this works for everybody.”

HR as change maker

It’s therefore no surprise that change management is one of the highest strategic priorities for the year ahead. But, while the vast majority of Top Employers are confident in their organisations’ change management capabilities, the data shows that HR professionals’ ability to measure progress after executing the primary steps within a change process appears to be lagging. Only 52% of Top Employers say they monitor the follow-up impact of change to ensure adoption.

“HR is absolutely on that journey to embed change but without the mindset of analysing the end outcomes, rather than just the process,” explains Sproston. “They've dealt with change in the same way as process – if you do the process well, you tick the box of change. Whereas of course, change is about that bigger piece of ensuring employees understand it, are engaged and that the end result actually delivers what you started out to achieve. It’s a never-ending process – the minute you finish that first change cycle, you're already onto the next one. That's a big challenge for HR because it has so many other focuses.”

One big area of change is in employee skillset and the report talks about the “dire need” for organisations to communicate proactively with their employees, explaining the future skills envisaged to equip business for the future. It is vital that employees understand what change means for them personally, to be able to steer their own development in the right direction. Although Top Employers generally aim to communicate honestly about future workforce plans, 26% do not offer opportunities for employees to provide early feedback on the plans. “We see this as a risk,” says the Institute. “Unless employees feel a sense of ownership regarding these major transformations, they will see change as something they are unable to control, feeling change is something they must endure instead of feeling they are an active part of the change.”

Purpose purveyor

This plays into purpose, a core component of being a Top Employer. Nearly nine in 10 survey participants want to reflect employees desire to do good in the world while 93% train their employees on ‘how to live’ company values (up 4% from last year) and 88% evaluate performance against organisational values as part of performance review.

“If there’s one thing that stands out this year it’s purpose,” says Sproston. “Top Employers tend to be better than average at living their values but it's more than just about even living values. Now it's about a very clear purpose, this is absolutely crucial. When employees consider an employer, it's not just about self-fulfillment or a career, it's about feeling that the organisation they're working for adds something to the world and to society and that therefore they do too.”

The HR Trends Report 2021 presents the latest in HR strategies and people practices from leading organisations around the globe. The insights obtained for this report are extracted and analysed from the annual Top Employers Institute HR Best Practices Survey, which covers leading employers from all over the world, most of them being large multinational enterprises operating across a wide range of industries.

Published 10 February 2021
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