Roadmaps for Challenging Times: Preparing for Bumps

We in HR often throw words around, some- times a bit carelessly. Consider “strategy.” We likely all agree that a strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a long-term major or overall aim. And a “roadmap” outlines how we are going to attack that strategy: the order that relevant steps need to be done to address and achieve that end.

Consider the vendor community for a minute: your solutions provider will often share what is on its “roadmap” – meaning things you could ask for that they cannot currently provide but with luck will provide in the future. Like an HR department’s roadmap, competing issues and changing priorities determine what gets delivered. But unlike an HR department, the strategy of a vendor is apparent: sell a product or a service for profit. Their charter is far easier to address, and, in fact, to measure than that of the HR team.

Strategy Matters

Strategy is more complex for HR professionals because of the dual role HR assumes in the organization, responsible for compliantly acquiring, maintaining, upskilling and “officing” the entire workforce, while at the same time managing an efficiently and economically run department that addresses the strategic— (that word again)—needs of the corporation. Managing its own shop is solely one initiative; corporate goals must be apparent for an HR team to do its job – as strategy will vary dependent on those goals. For example, if the overall organization is expanding into a new geography, acquiring, or merging with another company; adding a new product or service line; downsizing or being acquired will all affect the strategy and hence the roadmap for the HR organization.

If HR professionals are not cognizant of planned corporate actions, the team risks being jerked around from one pressing issue du jour to another, without the ability to weigh and prioritize the activities that need to be accomplished, hence are often ill-prepared for tomorrow’s hot issue. On the other hand, failure to look “big picture” often curtails the effectiveness of HR professionals. Procuring a new talent acquisition system or changing benefits providers, creating a wellness initiative, or starting an internal university for employee training are not strategies — they are the means through which a specific strategy – acquisition and retention of a qualified workforce — can be addressed. They may well be the items on a roadmap to address strategy, but without tying activities such as these back to greater organizational goals, plans could backfire.

Look at it this way: the goal of a corporate or not-for-profit organization is rarely to provide an HR department. Rather, it is to support such a department in maintaining the goals that de- fine the corporate strategy in the provision of its products or services to its external constituents and customers.

Strategy development requires a knowledge
of the business the HR team is in, the future of that industry, and the placement of the company within that industry; and it requires an under- standing of the corporate direction and the role of the HR department within that direction. Also useful is consideration of some old but still valuable ways of looking at strategy development for the department itself.

Several decades ago, authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma described strategies they labeled operational excellence, customer intimacy and product leadership in their 1997 book, The Discipline of Market Leaders.1 With the implication that one cannot be excellent in everything, their proposition was intended to create focus on the issue that would have the greatest business payoff for the organization. First, let’s dispense with product leadership (as these authors defined it): HR is not the responsible team for producing the driverless truck, the next mega- vaccine, or the newest superfood. Provision of leading solutions for its clientele is another matter — but hold that thought.

Operational excellence or even “operational-good-enough” may be pressured by the CFO, especially at budget time. But while every HR department is budget-savvy, and rarely foolhardy in its expenditures, the goal of HR is not to be a model of fiduciary responsibility to the deficit of its responsibility for maintaining the workforce. Where operational leanness may be the goal of manufacturing, operational agility is far more critical for HR professionals.

When Treacy and Wiersma talk about customer intimacy, they mean the external customers and consumers of the company’s good and services. They championed knowing the corporation’s customers, their industries, their biggest businesses issues, their buying habits, and the like. And again, while success in that arena is important to HR, it is not within its charter. The fact is that customers for HR are twofold: members of the HR department itself and the wider employee base, including temporary workers, contractors, “giggers,” seasonal workers, hourly and salaried workers alike.

Here is where we can adapt these principles: Product leadership for HR can be the provision of the most optimal software to make the often-complex data management and workforce analytics tasks more accurate, useful to executives, and timely − also related to achieving operational excellence, when done efficiently. And understanding the varied makeup of the workforce and its motivations is key to internal customer intimacy.

This Is Old News: You Were Forewarned

For the past two or three years, HR professionals have been hammered with the need to improve the user experience at work. Vendors successfully executed on roadmaps creating more easily learned and used software, better integrated applications for more seamless conduct of work, and friendlier graphical interfaces. “Improving the end-user experience” has emerged as one of the top buying criteria in major software acquisitions.

Considering this emphasis on EX (Employee Experience), HR teams’ activity falls into several camps:

• Head in the sand: we are fine, and if per- chance we are not, we cannot do anything about it.

• Issue is recognized and earmarked as functional requirement on all HR-related software procurements.

• Issue is recognized and earmarked as functional requirement on all corporate software procurements.

• HR and IT teams consciously addressed what changes in existing solutions can be made.

• New talent management or HR solutions have been recently added that improved the employee experience.

Only you know which camp your organization is in today.

Improving the employee experience at work is a roadmap item aimed at the strategy noted at the beginning of this article: compliantly getting, upskilling, and maintaining a workforce sufficient to meet the overall corporate or organizational goals. It sounded like HR was doing the right thing: concerned about the work experiences of their employees—but what happened?

The Great Work Reset

You have seen it everywhere: help wanted signs, notices to be patient as the establishment was short-staffed, long lines in check-outs because workers are in short supply. And consider the effect of the pandemic on health- care workers. According to JAMA, by March 2021, males in healthcare had mostly recovered from their job loss, but not women, particularly those working in nursing and residential care facilities. Even among health care workers who kept their jobs, 31 percent have said they have considered leaving and 19 percent have said they have thought about leaving the health care field completely. Many have cited burnout and poor pay relative to working conditions as the primary reasons for considering leaving their jobs or the entire health care field.2

The number of U.S. workers who quit their jobs reached a new high in November 2021, when 4.5 million people resigned.3 In fact, 2021 was termed “the year of the quits.4” Authors Kapian and Kiersz note:

“The millions of workers quitting shows how the post-vaccine economy is still being reshaped by workers, and suggests that the old way of working — from wages to flexibility to benefits — has to change for people to stay in their roles.”5

And in a recent webcast, Josh Bersin reported that in 2022, one out of every eight jobs will be open. A recent article in The New York Times cited quitting as contagious — that is, once one or more employees announced their departure, more from the same group were more likely to follow — perhaps the latest version of “fear of missing out.”6

So was all that attention on the employee experience too little, too late?

A Little Yes, a Little No

Any start is better than none. Pre-pandemic, many HR professionals had already begun look- ing into enhancing the work experience of employees, many had looked at more life-enhancing benefits, such as wellness programs, and a goodly (but insufficient number) had begun a serious look at upgrading on-the-job employee education, re-education, and upskilling. However, these steps failed to address the reality for many in overworked or underpaid jobs, or toxic work environments. Often pulled back and forth during the pandemic itself between working and furloughs or working twice as hard at home while managing children and remote schooling, employees felt unappreciated and often burned out. While the onus on HR and talent acquisition specialists is now greater than ever, both to hire anew and retain, how will the needs for that improved employee experience be addressed?

Creating a Roadmap for Bumpy Terrain

The past two years have thrown HR professionals into unprecedented territory. 2022 will unlikely prove different. The new not-so-normal requires a fresh look at work and the workplace. Corporate strategies may be in flux (moving off- shore plants closer to home to fight supply chain issues, for example). All of which will impact the charter of HR. Considerations for roadmap planning include:

  • Employee experience is not just improved by more intuitive software or pretty interfaces, but processes and procedures that increase their efficiency. That sounds simple, but employees are far more aware of wasted time at work than HR may ever realize. Too many endless meetings and too many Zooms may be one issue but there remains a plethora of unintegrated applications that require data re-entry, and unreliable software throughout the organization that “blows up” or hangs, losing work already entered, and may be ex- acerbated with remote workers if IT support is lacking.
  • Accommodations for remote work are here to stay. In fact, many companies reported their highest productivity rates ever while employees were working remotely during the pandemic. Ensuring that applications relied on at work support mobile access, chatbot- enabled support for FAQs, and ability for quick responses speed decision-making.

    • Many companies are looking at the provision of post-secondary tuition as an incentive to acquire employees, an attractive benefit considering the rising costs of college education. Some are beefing up the idea of corporate universities, once popular in the 80’s, to create a skill pipeline for current positions but also a mechanism to address future needs more expeditiously.

    • Flexible scheduling, once an “out there” concept, is du rigor today. Not just for parents and other caregivers but all employees now face sudden quarantine when confronting exposure in schools or the workplace. How to continue to balance workload between those suddenly homebound and the gaps left by quitters will prove a consuming challenge for HR professionals in the year ahead.

    • Beyond flexibility, HR professionals must again conduct strategic workforce planning exercises: remembering what those “what if?” questions those exercises entail? Consider:

    ̊ What if the workforce is diminished by
    5 percent or 10 percent simultaneously? Do we have plans to redeploy resources to cover the conduct of business? Companies often trap people into the job description they were hired into; many employees have far broader skills than are ever utilized. Do you know who could cover a critical area were an absence of the current staff to occur? Does your shift-scheduling software accommodate rapid redeployment if necessary?

    ̊ What if the military reserves in your organization were called up to support federal initiatives? Can you cover their absences?

    ̊ What if a division of your firm experiences a “quitter-contagion,” is your talent acquisition crew equipped to restaff a whole team at once?

    ̊ What if our production lines were adversely impacted by supply chain delays — do we have alternatives to furloughs and layoffs to retain skilled employees?

    ̊ What if a new Brand X variant of the virus radically changes the numbers in our work- force, the willingness to work, or the buying behaviors of our customer base?

    ̊ What if our current employee base requires new or different benefits or at-work accommodations to combat the lasting effects of long-term Covid?

    ̊ What if the erratic schooling some experienced during the pandemic creates a lack of even basic skills in the future employee pool? What can we do to address that fear now?

    • Recognition has increased on the need for satisfactory child daycare, an issue that drove many parents from the workplace during the pandemic, and sick-child care or well-but- quarantined childcare. While some employers have provided pre-school childcare, it remains far too rare. At the other end of the spectrum, Oracle supports a STEM secondary school on its premises, providing innovative educational opportunities to its students.

    Bumps and More Bumps

    Given the recent past, it is fair to say that there are still many yet-unknown bumps ahead. But with two years of facing and addressing new situations, HR has learned much that can be applied to the year ahead. You have accommodated remote work; keep at it — but let’s make it better. You have lost staff − especially women − through attrition; what programs can you set in place to woo them back on their own terms? You have dealt with on-again, off-again rules and regulations, but what policies can you implement to keep your workforce safe and productive? The key concepts for your roadmap generation are flexibility and agility — but you can do it.

    Keep calm and carry on.


    End Notes

    1 https://www.amazon.ca/Discipline-Market-Leaders-Customers-Dominate/dp/0201407191
    2 “How COVID-19 changes the economics of health care.” By D. Cutler. JAMA Health Forum. 2021;2(9):e213309. doi:10.1001/ jamahealthforum.2021.3309
    3 “Record 4.5 million Workers Quit in November: ADP reports soaring job growth in December.” By Roy Maurer, shrm.org, January 4, 2022.
    4 “2021 was the year of the quit: For 7 months, millions of workers have been leaving” Juliana Kaplan and Andy Kiersz Business Insider. Dec 8, 2021.
    5 Ibid.
    6 “You Quit. I Quit. We All Quit. And It’s Not a Coincidence. Why the decision to leave a job can become contagious.” By Emma Goldberg. New York Times. Published Jan. 21, 2022; Updated Jan. 23, 2022.

Katherine Jones, Ph.D

Dr. Katherine Jones, veteran high-tech market analyst. She is an independent thought leader in all areas of human capital management and the technologies that support it. She has been an analyst at Aberdeen Group, Bersin by Deloitte, and Mercer following a career that includes marketing in high-tech companies such as NetSuite and academic administration in higher education. Her master’s and doctorate degrees are from Cornell University. She can be reached at Katherine_ICS@msn.com.

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