Feb 1, 2023
Feb 6, 2023
People Network

Interview with Catherine Wilson, Solicitor and founder of McBrownie Limited

In June 2021, the global HR consultants, McKinsey & co, published a report based on research with HR leaders called “Back to Human”. This report recognised several common themes including the feeling that HR had spent too long on the “cost efficiency treadmill” and that HR leaders and their team were suffering “process fatigue”. The majority of respondees in the McKinsey study identified to the need to get “back to human”. At our event on 3 November 2022, we spent time with attendees, discussing what getting back to human might mean for local HR leaders.

The McKinsey report identified 4 key areas of focus for HR namely:

  • The need to engage more directly and deeply with employees;
  • Permission to bring the whole person to work;
  • HR should pave the way to the new possible within the workplace;
  • HR should act as Human Capitalists.

The need to engage more directly and deeply with employees

Turning to each of these areas in turn – deeper engagement with employees seems sensible, particularly in the context of the greater distance between employees and the physical business with many more employees working wholly or partially at home. This coupled with far greater reliance on automated processes, self-service can reduce any semblance of the wider team and embed the attitude of “them and us”. It remains true that HR will have no impact if we do not know our people.

I am not suggesting that we will see the demise of the office intranet, however, there remains a need for key processes to remain and, if necessary, revert back to face-to-face. Disciplinaries and grievances via Zoom and Teams had their place but are a poor alternative to personal interaction. Redundancy notification via text and pre-filmed “hostage” style video have received widespread criticism and are a poor substitute. Direct engagement with staff is always preferable to email tag. There are increasing numbers of employees who view this type of request to discuss workplace issues face-to-face, or at least by phone, as almost akin to bullying. This assertion must be politely but firmly resisted. A request from a line manager to engage in a weekly telephone call to discuss ill health and related wellbeing is not bullying, and moreover is a perfectly reasonable request from an employer to employee.

Another area where employers often “get it wrong” in terms of engagement can be in relation to “on boarding”, but also specifically in relation to initial contractual negotiations. The offer letter is often the first formal written contact. The clue is in the name, the offer is open for acceptance but why would an employee accept an offer containing 37 pages of why not to join a business? Another contentious area relates to probation. Why impose probation if no one in your particular organisation ever fails probation? When did it become an alternative to communication? Rules regarding qualifying service for statutory rights are well understood and largely provide protection against a recruitment mistake. In a similar vein, and here I blame myself as an employment law specialist, why do we have lots of policies and procedures, if we don’t ever read them and generally no one, including the managers know they exist?

Permission to bring the whole person to work

Turning to the second theme, Rishi Sunak received much positive media coverage when he celebrated Diwali by lighting candles outside his then home, 10 Downing Street, in 2022. This is a high profile, and welcome, example of bringing your own person to work. This type of authenticity has a wider significance for more humble workplaces. Research implies that this type of openness and, particularly support for employees who may need more targeted support, actually improves wellbeing amongst the wider workplace as it creates widely shared feelings of inclusion and cohesion. In-house programmes on diversity and inclusion may be met with some scepticism in certain quarters, however over the long term, they do encourage strong positive responses from employees, and have the helpful by-product of creating a strong employer brand. A welcome development in these challenging times for recruitment and the race for talent.

A word of warning. The employer’s best endeavours in this area are not risk free. There is always the risk that any initiative may be misinterpreted by certain groups. A particularly sensitive area currently is the topic of transgender rights and the holding of gender critical views. It is now clear that holding gender critical views can be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 under the heading of religion and belief (see Employment Appeal decision in Maya Forstater v CGD 2022). The fact that an employee’s particular views are protected does not mean open season within the workplace to cause distress and deliberately ignore opposing views. In creating an authentic workplace, employers need to balance competing views and make sure that their policies and supporting training reflect differing opinions. The watch words are tolerance and respect. A noble aim, but often easier said than achieved. Promotion of any views, be they religion or otherwise, can cause division and self-evidently need thoughtful handling.

HR should act as Human Capitalists

The third area identified in the report is the role of HR leaders as Human Capitalists. Human capital is a concept used by social scientists to designate personal attributes considered useful in the production process. It includes employee knowledge, skills, know how, good health and education. It will be apparent that these are all areas where HR should provide leadership. Interestingly, talent and retention policies across the whole workplace are particularly key issues at the moment. This may be wider than first thought as many HR leaders reported that up to 70% intended to make greater use of consultants and temporary workers in the near to mid-term. The ongoing challenges of strict immigration practices in the UK seems likely to lead to greater use of overseas workers and the use of third parties acting as “Employer of Record” for such overseas employees without the inconvenience of a formal overseas legal presence.

HR should pave the way to the new possible within the workplace

And finally, HR leaders have been exhorted to pave the way to the new possible. Again, the new possible in this context includes promoting agile working and flexibility at all levels in the business. The traditional model of the conventional 9 to 5 in the office seems increasingly dated in many workplaces. Employers are being encouraged to embrace more flexible working arrangements. These vary from hybrid working, fully remote working, and the much vaunted trend towards 4 days working for 5 days paid. Pre-Covid these would have seen radical proposals. Two and a half years on, they seem far more commonplace, however, even this ignores the fact that flexible working and particularly compressed weeks with a lunch time finish on Fridays, have been widespread in South Yorkshire for many years. Other developments such as “quiet quitting” did not emerge in 2022. “Doing the minimum” has been a challenge to businesses for several years. The challenge facing HR leaders is the need to balance long standing practices with the new reality and demands of both a traditional workforce and an increasingly vocal number of individuals wanting more flexible regime. One thing is clear – one size definitely does not suit or fit all.

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