HR: The unsung hero in the age of uncertainty

Here, Chano Fernandez, EVP global field operations of Workday, explains how HR teams can support their organisations in uncertain times.

Charles Dickens’ famous quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” perfectly describes the current state of global affairs. The world has made life-changing advances in everything from technology to agriculture, yet the recent changes in political and economic climates, thanks to Brexit and President Trump for example, have created an air of instability and uncertainty that is felt by consumers and business alike.

Volatility is often seen as an opportunity to boost revenue by investors, but in general, uncertainty is an organisation’s kryptonite. This level of instability has introduced unparalleled business disruption, one that organisations are struggling to navigate.

According to a recent report from IHS Markit, confidence in business growth is at its lowest in seven years. UK firms expect to see only 35 per cent growth over the next 12 months, a sharp drop from just six months ago when confidence was sitting at 52 per cent. Business leaders surveyed linked this sentiment to Brexit-related anxiety, domestic political uncertainty and squeezed consumer budgets.

These sentiments are echoed in The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) “HR Outlook for 2017” report, which found that economic shifts, including globalisation, and the UK’s impending exit from the EU are the two areas that will most negatively impact business objectives. The bright spot in all of this uncertainty, however, lies in HR. The majority (59 per cent) of senior UK HR professionals believe they are in a position to have a positive influence and safeguard their organisation against challenges created by these changes.

The turbulent times ahead will see company culture, employee retention and business confidence, be of even greater importance, with HR playing a critical role in guiding the organisation forward.

Strengthening culture and talent in the face of adversity

An organisation’s greatest asset is its people. And it’s never been more apparent than in today’s competitive environment – not just as a business, but in the quest for talent. More than 70 per cent of HR professionals believe that competition for well-qualified talent will be much harder over the next three years. As a result, business leaders are turning to their HR teams to provide insight beyond their traditional responsibilities and be a steady hand in otherwise shaky times. As the role of an HR lead evolves, there are a number of ways that professionals can initiate change and become the trusted advisor that C-level executives need.

Be relentless in driving the HR agenda: Not every executive team member understands the value or believes HR should play a critical role. From the CIPD report, many HR professionals said they experience push-back or inaction from others, even those in senior roles, to adapt their people approach in response to the key trends that are driving change. This was also evident when it came to fostering the employee voice. Senior management was found to not be listening to, prioritising or valuing the employee voice, which stifles productivity, employee engagement and hinders staff retention. With the talent pool getting shallower every year, it’s important to use every avenue available to ensure current employees needs are being prioritised – as no one else will.

Embrace change: Accepting the fact that change will be the only constant for the next few years, will put HR teams in a much better position to respond without panic. With stricter labour laws and EU Freedom of movement under threat, talent management will be of even greater importance. And recognising that the demands on HR will evolve past fostering talent.

When HR professionals were questioned about their priorities for developing leadership behaviours over the coming years, respondents highlighted performance management (46 per cent), people management (45 per cent), developing staff (44 per cent), and engagement/motivation (40 per cent), as their focus areas. These will take precedence as they develop, upskill, and reskill all employees’ leadership behaviours and skills over the coming years.

Capitalise on the right technology: Some form of HR technology can be found in nearly every business today, however they don’t always provide the business critical insights needed. Data analytics is one of the best assets for a HR leader as it helps them better understand the effect of policies, programmes, and employee engagement. But more importantly, it can help outline the costs of recruiting new staff, tracking absences or presentism, especially for the cost-conscious senior executive. This evidence-based decision-making will greatly improve buy-in from the management team, but also provide useful back-up when challenged.

But don’t hold it all too close to your chest. Insights have to be shared outside of the HR team to other associated functions within the business as it can cause strain between departments. The professionals involved in the CIPD report claimed that cultural hurdles were one of the biggest obstacles to wide-spread adoption of technology. For example, over half of risk and compliance professionals and more than a third of finance managers reported that they had no access to reports and dashboards in use by the HR team.

Build a future-proof succession plan: Look at the internal talent first before seeking new recruits externally. It holds less risk and maintains consistency in uncertain times. That means working closely with department directors to take a much closer look at individual employees, map out their career progression and invest in the necessary training, so those employees have the best possible chance of thriving as tomorrow’s leaders. Plus, when its time to seek external candidates, having a potential progression plan mapped out will ensure people are hired for the long-term and not just to fill a gap.

It is easy to think the macro changes happening today are beyond the reach of HR professionals. However, people teams that can think deeply about the global shifts and how they affect their organisation will have a genuine impact by not only improving business performance but also putting HR on the map as a trusted resource for the C-suite.

Chano Fernandez is executive vice president global field operations for Workday

Owen Gough

Fred Morissette

Owen Gough is a reporter for He has a background in small business marketing strategies and is responsible for writing content on subjects ranging from small business finance to technology...

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