HR must put people at the heart of the future of work

As Voltaire observed, work keeps us from the three great evils of boredom, vice and need. And work which we enjoy, develops us and has a purpose, can be engaging and a positive force for good. But it’s clearly not always the positive force it should be and this impacts many economic as well as social outcomes.

We can see many areas of change in the world of work. New organisational models and ways of working are emerging, and the workforce itself is changing in its diversity and expectations.

Despite political and economic uncertainty, we are in times of high employment and many organisations report skills shortages. Skills needs will change as automation and artificial intelligence advance, but already there is greater focus on the human skills that are becoming more and more important, such as creativity, collaboration, adaptability, judgement and empathy.

What is HR for? 

Human resources exists to understand and support the people side of business. From finding and attracting the people organisations need, to developing, rewarding, engaging and improving how they are performing. The pace of change around us means we have to create agile businesses where we can access new sources of talent, and effectively upskill and reskill our workforces.

These have been the traditional areas of focus for the people profession, but the future will need to encompass a broader role in shaping the jobs, organisational structures, operating models and cultures that are sustainable and adaptive. The future of work is shaping the future of the people profession and its vital role in enabling and sustaining work, workforces and workplaces that are a positive force for good, for individuals, organisations, economies and society.

Getting the best out of people clearly takes a lot more than just working harder. How people are managed, supported and trained are all critical to improving performance, as is the nature of the work itself. Many surveys show there is much to be done in improving how people feel about work and how this connects to the challenges of productivity and driving innovation.

HR’s job is to ensure people are at the heart of work 

Areas such as personal wellbeing are central to good work. People also want to feel included at work whatever their background, to have a voice and have influence over how they work, to use and develop their skills and talents, and have fair pay and conditions. All these are dimensions of the quality of the work and roles people perform that enable productivity, engagement, creativity and innovation.

HR should be at the forefront of improving the ways we manage, develop and support people, and in how we shape jobs and organisations to deliver sustainable and responsible outcomes. We need to move beyond the historical management philosophies of control, with too many rules and inflexible processes, and beyond the siloes of the past, to work closely with other key functions in shaping the future of our organisations.

Like every business function, HR should become more evidence based, using good data and understanding science and research to shape practices, and understand real outcomes not just inputs. HR also has to invest more in itself, to utilise emerging technologies to become more efficient and effective, and to build new capabilities in areas such as analytics as well as strengthening areas like job and organisational design. HR should champion better work and working lives, and together we all need to make sure that people are at the heart of the future of work.