Back in 2005, Fast Company published an article titled, “Why We Hate HR,” in which the authors argued that the Human Resources department had the greatest potential to drive business performance, but was the one that “most consistently under-delivers.” 

What a difference a decade makes. Today, all eyes are on HR to take a more prominent seat at the executive table. Organizations are finally recognizing that employees are the lifeblood of their business — and that those workers need services and support to make their jobs easier.

The Year of the Employee

The war for talent has become a knock-down, drag-out fight. According to a recent Deloitte report, “The balance of power in the employer-employee relationship has shifted — making today’s employees more like customers or partners than subordinates.” 

One reason for this shift is that many employees are looking for more meaningful work. HR will be integral in helping companies find ways to give back to their people, communities and the world. Of course a paycheck is still important, but a sense of purpose and belonging is getting higher on most people’s lists. They want to contribute, and if they don't get that opportunity, they’ll go elsewhere — even if it means a pay cut. 

And today’s connected workforce can spot insincerity a mile away. Companies can no longer fake it when it comes to caring about their workers. If you don’t offer transparency and authenticity, employees will simply choose to work somewhere else — someplace they feel valued, trusted and supported

The Department That 'Can’t Get No Respect'

Even while CEOs uniformly cite human capital as the biggest challenge facing their organizations, they consistently rank HR near the bottom when it comes to the importance of departmental functions. That’s partly due to what Wharton School professor of management, Peter Cappelli, refers to as the personnel pendulum. “How top executives feel about HR pretty reliably reflects what’s going on in the US economy,” he said in a recent article in Harvard Business Review.

In the tightening labor market, fewer executives will be treating HR like the Rodney Dangerfield of the organization.

An HR Transformation

Of course, it isn’t only CEOs that CHRO must win over — it’s employees. And if HR’s relationship with executives has been sour, it’s been downright rotten with the very people it’s been tasked with helping navigate the employment journey. While achieving that respect after decades as the corporate tetherball may seem like an insurmountable challenge, there is evidence that HR is ready to transform. 

What's in a Name? 

In recognition of its evolving role, several forward-thinking organizations have cast aside human resources itself — in name, anyway. For many, the term conjures up an era when employees were mere chattel to be discarded when a business had exhausted their potential. Companies including Cisco and Airbnb have replaced the CHRO title with the designations “Chief People Officer” and “Chief Human Experience Officer” instead. 

Look for this trend to accelerate until the phrase “human resources” becomes as archaic as “fax machine,” “yellow pages” and “floppy disk.”

The Human Side of Technology

While digital technologies have already taken over many of HR’s more mundane tasks including scheduling, payroll and benefits, new solutions are helping perform some of the department’s more “human” functions as well, such as:

  • The Experience Hub: As HR shifts from being a service-oriented utility to providing experience-oriented support, it’s crucial to have an online place where all company employees can connect, collaborate and work together, while organically engaging with executives, learning from experts, and promoting the right culture. This kind of interactive intranet sends employees the message they are supported no matter where they are, anytime they need answers 
  • Measure What You Treasure: New lightweight tools for surveys and polls like CultureAmp and TemboSocial give HR professionals more ways to quickly check the pulse of their organization and identify where they need to make adjustments to the employee experience in order to improve engagement
  • People-Centric Hiring: Solutions like Roundpegg help companies evolve their hiring philosophy and find candidates who are a great fit for a certain team, manager and organization’s culture and values. In addition, applications like Jobvite and Glassdoor make the hiring process more social, and extend a talent team beyond HR to the entire employee base
  • Contextual Quests: New gamification technologies boost engagement, while providing structured ways to motivate employees to take desired actions. Missions make pre- and post-onboarding easier for new hires, while also adding value during other parts of the employee lifecycle. For example, quests can be useful for learning and development, new process adoption, encouraging brand advocates and team building
  • Social Feedback: Social collaboration capabilities foster ongoing dialogue, coaching, rewards and recognition. With modern HR technologies, providing feedback to employees can be more spontaneous and naturally embedded into the ways people work together each day

Double Down on Culture

In many companies, HR is refocusing its efforts to engage and empower employees. Talent acquisition, onboarding and ongoing training are the new hiring/firing, employee handbooks and performance reviews of the digital workplace — a workplace that, in the age of mobile, can exist anywhere. Whether employees are down the street at the corner coffeehouse or in an EMEA headquarters across the world, the new People and Culture Department is repositioning itself to be an enabler rather than an obstacle to employee success.

Of course a shiny new moniker, the latest technology and renewed focus are only the first steps. After all, only 22 percent of respondents in the Deloitte survey agreed that HR is “adapting to the changing needs of their workforce.” 

People professionals must align their activities to the company’s key business initiatives and corporate priorities. In fact, HR’s functions will become a top KPI for businesses in the coming year. That means CHROs (or CPOs or CHEOs) will need all the support and tools they can get in order to adapt. But adapt they must. In today’s white-hot labor market, an organization’s very existence depends on it.