The workplace was supposed to be back to normal by now. Instead, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues, putting new pressures on HR executives who were already pushed to the limit accommodating employees’ often extraordinary needs and keeping businesses running. Employees are still anxious, scared and frustrated. Now they’re also becoming increasingly burned out and restless as the public health crisis wears on.
Meanwhile, the Great Resignation is in full swing, leaving HR professionals striving to keep current employees happy and engaged so they stay with the company, while also seeking new workers in one of the tightest labor markets in years.
HR Magazine interviewed numerous workplace experts about the traits and talents that will be especially important for HR professionals to exhibit in the immediate future. Of course, these attributes have always been important, but current circumstances have made them must-haves.
It’s vital to listen carefully to people’s feelings. If their positions aren’t clearly understood, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to address their concerns in meaningful ways. Empathy is also critical to communicating with employees. Understanding how information may be received can help craft a fuller, more sensitive message.
“What we need to help people realize is that we’re in the same storm in different boats,” says Brian Kropp, chief of research for the HR practice at Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy. “You really need to make sure you understand the situations that everyone else is facing.”
Kropp says people can become more empathetic by engaging in active listening. This involves paying attention to body language, if possible, as well as summarizing what you understood someone to be saying and communicating it back to the speaker.
These last two years have been hard on everyone, with many experiencing devasting events such as the loss of a loved one from COVID-19. On top of that, many people are sad, anxious and nervous about being back in the workplace amid reverberations from the virus and its variants. Understandably, workers may not always be their best and most professional selves.
At the same time, a new generation of employees is entering the workplace—a generation that grew up attached to screens and may not appreciate office codes of conduct. For example, it’s common to see people texting while also carrying on conversations. In meetings, however, one shouldn’t pipe up until a colleague is finished talking. (Even more basic: Texting during meetings is rude and disrespectful.)
HR professionals aren’t babysitters or proxies for Miss Manners or Emily Post; still, they help maintain the company culture, which has been tested mightily by months of remote work, stress and burnout.
Work has become so much more casual that some have forgotten—or never learned—basic business etiquette, says Benjamin Pring, vice president and managing director of the Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant, a Teaneck, N.J.-based consulting firm. “It should be part of the company curriculum,” he says.
Reminding employees of the importance of maintaining certain levels of professionalism is important and requires lots of tact and superior communication skills. Those traits will go a long way toward creating the desired environment without alienating workers who are still adjusting to returning to a physical workplace.
The battle for talent is acute right now, and a whole new level of resourcefulness is required for recruiting people to fill open positions.
“It isn’t just about posting a job and interviewing people,” says Josh Bersin, a longtime HR industry analyst and founder of his eponymous HR academy in Oakland, Calif. “You need to be so much more strategic.”
The good news is that remote work opens the door to a new pool of candidates who don’t need to live near the corporate headquarters or even in the same state or country. Experts suggest investigating which international universities specialize in teaching the expertise you seek and developing relationships with their placement offices, as well as establishing links with international search firms that can scope out talent.
The net doesn’t necessarily need to be cast globally, however. Many HR professionals are expanding their search for college grads to include those from schools they may have previously overlooked, such as smaller state schools, community colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities. A wider search range can also help employers meet diversity goals.
There are other ways to expand the applicant pool. Look beyond the responsibilities of the open position to see what skills are necessary, then consider rewriting the job description so it doesn’t focus only on specific experience and completing certain tasks but also talks about core competencies.
Also keep in mind that sometimes the best place to look for desired skills is within your current workforce. For example, an insurance company that needs to hire salespeople may want to consider mining its claims department for potential candidates, says Bryan Hancock, a partner and global head of talent at McKinsey & Co. Claims adjusters already have an extensive knowledge of the company’s products.
“Start within the organization,” Hancock says. “Think of underlying skills.”
Consider reading The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, or at least seeing one of the movies based on it, Pring suggests. Many of the tech wizards that companies covet are obsessed with it, he explains, so having a frame of reference might be helpful. At the very least, have people on the HR team who are in touch with the tech culture. Showing that your company understands their world will go a long way toward making them feel welcome.
“You need to send signals that you understand the tribe,” Pring says.
Learn to use TikTok. Younger people already view it as a source of information on employment and resumes, and its workplace relevance may well be growing. In July, the social media platform launched a pilot program that allowed some job seekers to send video applications to select companies. TikTok hasn’t decided whether to continue the program, although Nick Tran, global head of marketing, says the company looks forward to seeing more career content on its platform.
Data is everywhere. Vendors can measure employees’ satisfaction with their bosses, their feelings about benefits plans and whether they think free breakfast is an important perk. But what do you do with all of these statistics and measurements? What do they really tell you? How do you use them in a way that helps move the organization in a positive direction and not just as filler for a report that will be forgotten the minute after it’s published?
HR professionals don’t need to become MIT-level mathematicians, though having some basic knowledge of data analytics will be helpful.
Classes are available to help people learn statistical analysis and how to set up spreadsheets or use various apps to make data easier to read and interpret. A better understanding of how the tools function will allow HR professionals to speak with vendors about the type of information they seek and what to measure to find it.
“You need to apply data, tech and analytics to the HR realm,” says John Bremen, managing director of human capital and benefits at Willis Towers Watson, a London-based consulting firm. “Those digital tools are important.”
Integrity “isn’t a skill as much as a mindset and awareness,” Kropp says. It involves considering the appropriate way to use data to judge employees at a time when information about them is plentiful. Many companies have installed devices on employees’ computers that can detect when they’re online. Zoom calls are recorded and can be mined to see whose camera was on and who participated, or who scowled or smirked when a colleague spoke.
“What are the ethical uses of all this data?” Kropp asks. “Should it be in a performance review?”
The answer is neither simple nor universal. What one company may decide is appropriate could be crossing the line for another.
Kropp says a good way to gauge if someone’s ethics match those of the company is to ask the person to respond to certain scenarios. For example, ask the individual to defend the vaccine mandate as well as refute its legitimacy. The answers will provide insight into the person’s thought processes and values.
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) research shows that HR executives place a high value on ethical practice, putting it on par with communication skills in terms of the top competencies needed for the profession. “[Ethical practice] is very important at all career levels, but its importance is maximized at the executive level,” says Mark Smith, SHRM’s director of HR thought leadership research.
Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.
Illustrations by John Mavroudis.