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The Evolution of HR
With the pandemic and technology having a major impact on day-to-day business operations, human resources has adopted a strategic, people-centric approach.

by Matt Cosentino

As valuable as a human resources department can be to businesses of all sizes, it’s a position that has long been underappreciated. While its major responsibilities—company handbooks, payroll, benefits packages—are, of course, critical components to the structure of an organization, these professionals have often been overlooked or not included in important decision-making.

Until now, that is.

The role of HR was already in a state of evolution before COVID arrived on the scene, bringing a new host of challenges to the industry and leading to further change. Now in year three of the pandemic, as companies continue to struggle with finding and retaining quality employees, increased demand for remote working and high levels of stress among their staff, HR has been redefined to handle different priorities.

“The role of HR has changed and the importance of human resources has kind of been showcased,” says Morris Yankell, founder and principal of HRComputes, which assists a wide variety of clients in human resources solutions. “The issues that HR is seeing—labor shortages, increased turnover and high levels of stress—are more prevalent and getting more attention now than ever before. … I think those issues have been around, but now they’re certainly getting way more publicity and I think that basically has made them that much more important to management.

“I was recently in a presentation by a group of chief financial officers and I was astounded to hear that what they wanted to talk about were these kinds of issues, because usually you don’t get a CFO talking about people issues, and these things are truly people issues. Because they’re being talked about more, the importance and the impact of human resources has risen.”

As a result, HR professionals are being utilized more by management to help determine crucial strategies for the company moving forward.

“HR has wanted to have a seat at the C-suite table,” Yankell says. “What HR brings to that table are these kinds of questions and these kinds of insights.”

Like Yankell, who has more than 30 years of experience in HR, Frank Plum has perhaps never seen the industry turned on its head quite like this throughout his career. The president of Workplace HCM, which combines technological advancements and customized solutions to create a seamless payroll and workplace management component for clients, notes that remote working, compliance issues, social media regulation and rising inflation have all had a serious impact.

“Every day I turn around and there’s something new going on,” Plum says. “It is really putting HR on their toes.”

On top of the traditional functions of HR, keeping employees happy, engaged and productive has emerged as a significant role. Plum points out that employees going through a divorce or dealing with personal loss commonly bring those problems into the workplace, and the pandemic has only added another layer of stress.

“HR has a very tactical job, meaning we hire people, we onboard people, we enroll them in their benefits, we orient them, we go through the paperwork they need to fit into the organization, we manage their benefits, their time off, answer any questions they have, and we go through separation,” he says. “That’s the tactical way of doing HR, but HR is now becoming more strategic on how to bring people in with a mindset of giving them wellness. There’s the health aspect of going to a gym, but it’s also a mental wellness and teaching them more about how to deal with different situations, how to process potential trauma and manage it in the workplace.”

Plum adds that there has been a shift toward putting the “human” back in human resources. “That’s what Workplace does for a living and we’re seeing ourselves transform. Before we were just being asked questions on handbooks and things like that. Now it’s questions on how to retain employees. I had a [client] call me the other day who had an employee leave for more money, but he offered to match it and the person still left. That’s culture. He didn’t feel there was opportunity for growth and he didn’t feel valued. Those are the things that need to be taught along with all the other stuff.”

Yankell is a big proponent of using technology to better deal with traditional tasks of HR, allowing employees to change personal information or monitor benefits packages themselves online, or assisting with the onboarding of a new hire so the HR professional isn’t spending an entire day on paperwork. Technology can also be a benefit in the hiring process with the use of applicant tracking systems, for example. 

“Generally, in this environment you have to do more with less people, because everybody is being squeezed,” Yankell says. “The way you do more with less people is you’ve got to utilize the tools that you have. When I see these issues or challenges, I see an opportunity for HR to embrace the technology that 80 or 95% of the time they already have and utilize it in order to give them the ability to help with some of the things they’re contending with.”

Yankell also urges clients to embrace outside-the-box thinking when dealing with employee issues. Wellness programs are terrific, he says, but go beyond that by checking in regularly with staff and having consistent dialogue. He shares a recent story about several senior-level employees who were thinking about leaving their organization before meeting with management and explaining their need for a collaborative workspace and hybrid schedules with work-from-home capability.

“In this case, having that conversation and thinking outside the box [proved successful],” Yankell says. “Just offering those people another 10% in salary probably would not have kept them, but digging below that and understanding what the issue was, was a way to help them.”

Moving those kinds of conversations forward will be an important part of HR as the role continues to progress, but that will be just one of the many responsibilities this very key job entails. As Plum sees it, human resources is a vital part of any business, and those that don’t have a dedicated department would be wise to outsource HR as they might do with IT or marketing. 

It’s important, he adds, to rely on a team that specializes in HR beyond just using payroll software.

“If your company values HR, that’s awesome,” Plum says. “But there are a lot of companies out there that don’t have any HR professional, not one. And they all say the same thing: ‘We’re too small for HR.’ I beg to differ. There is no company too small for HR. 

“If your business is planning on selling, you need HR. If your business is just starting out, you need HR. If you have five employees who are all family members, you need HR. … And HR is not just about protecting the business at all times. It can be the bridge to make sure the owners, the CEOs and the presidents are doing what they have to do.”