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Shared Services – outdated resource or pivotal protagonist in the new work landscape?

Neil McLeese, Director - BeyondHR Managing

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on how firms operate across the world. Longstanding traditions which were synonymous with the office environment were eradicated almost overnight, creating a brand-new workplace landscape in its wake. As employers adapt to this new normal, it brings a new debate to the forefront of conversations across the nation: what is the future of shared services in HR, and does it have the capabilities to play a pivotal role in today’s modern work landscape or is it simply an outdated resource that is unfit for purpose?

Covid-19 struck hard and fast and, in its wake, has redefined normality for workplaces across the world.  The ‘stay at home’ message enforced by government meant that many firms had to move entire offices to remote working – a trend that had struggled to gain traction pre Covid-19.

As offices across the country shut up shop, the mass fear amongst the shared service industry was palpable as they feared the move from the traditional office-based model posed a real threat to its longstanding operating model – one that focused on bringing people together.

Those firms who had invested in the digitalisation of their operations were undoubtedly best placed to perform well in the transition to working from home in an industry which was not designed for full-time remote working.

However, Covid-19 has not caused a temporary disruption of workplace operations but instead has fuelled a seismic shift that will alter the workplace environment indefinitely.

The aftermath of Covid-19 has created a brand-new work landscape and one which puts employees at the forefront. The scales that for so long were firmly weighted on the side of the employer have tipped over onto the side of the employee as the great resignation continues into 2022, putting greater onus on HR departments to come up with new, innovative ways to attract and retain staff. These unprecedented challenges have certainly accelerated the digital transformation of HR departments around the globe, enabling them to benefit from real-time, intelligence-led data in the ongoing quest for talent.

Firms across the country have already adopted a permanent hybrid style of working but for many, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Enter the four-day work week debate. Although this concept has hung around in the wings for a long time, it would appear it is finally getting its big debut as companies across the country begin to consider the concept to attract the top talent. Perhaps this is evidence of the workplace of the future – a force that is adaptable, diverse, and although it may still be acutely aware of the uncertainty around business performance, it is no longer tied down by the heavy chains of tradition and is instead looking towards the future with newfound optimism.

It has undeniably been a turbulent two years for HR departments across the nation. Firstly, they were forced to navigate the murky waters of Brexit, driven by labour shortages, new legislation, and access to resources. This was followed, almost instantly, by the Covid-19 pandemic which presented unprecedented challenges to business operations.
The role of HR has turned on its axis, playing an even more pivotal role in driving strategic business operations. HR providers are leading the charge on bridging the gap between various functions of the business, creating a more cohesive and efficient workplace.

In the face of unprecedented change, the role of HR has been redefined. No longer are they simply a source of ongoing support across the business. Acting as the link between the various functions of the business, HR has become a visible resource that is responsive, readily available, efficient, and fundamental in delivering strategic, analytical value.

This newfound direction has given greater scope to the potential for shared services to take some of the stress out of everyday tasks, enabling HR departments to focus on the more imminent challenges ahead.

The shared services model has been a business staple for over 25 years, driven by a cost-effective, one-size-fits-all model. However, the recent evolvement of this landscape has long silenced the initial jitters that reverberated around an industry poorly equipped for the transition to remote working, resulting in a beneficial industry that is well-equipped to become a vital component in every HR department’s toolkit. The have long been silence

Access to insights afforded by new technology gives HR departments the ability to drive value through the business whilst measuring its impact tangibly. Data about its own performance will enable HR departments to react quickly, aligning its services to the needs of the business. Never has the environment been better for HR to cement its position as a value-adding function.

As digital technology continues to evolve, it will enable new ways of working within shared services, enabling firms access to a constant flow of intelligent-led, insightful data. However, it is paramount that firms have clear policies in place in how they intend to use this information, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining talent as well as predicting future skill shortages/requirements.

As firms become better equipped at utilising this data, it will likely play an even bigger role in matching a business with a particular skillset – becoming a critical component in business success, particularly in an industry which demands a rapid response to changing customer needs.

However, to attract the top talent, firms need to be accountable, and this includes being completely transparent with employees – clearly defining inclusivity, diversity, and equality strategies and implementing these across the workplace. AI will have a massive role in enabling firms to deliver this through online workshops, information hubs, and online development programmes.

Technology is also critical to keeping teams connected, organisations need to agree which channels they use for different types of communication, even the more informal platforms, where teams can chat like they would in the office.

For many companies, offering remote support has become a permanent solution however HR departments will need to develop more specific long-term solutions, such as scheduling regular meetings, providing mental health training and resources, promoting a healthy work-life balance, encouraging regular exercise, embedding employee wellbeing into meetings and catch-ups, and when possible, plan in-person meetings/events.

Traditionally perceived as an administrative position, the digital transformation of shared services hints at the possibility that it could evolve into a centre that drives change within the business, operating centrally to drive business performance.

Shared services centres have the ability to become an invaluable information source, extracting data that will inform strategic decision making. This extraction and manipulation of data could see the creation of new careers within the HR industry, ones that combine the traditional requirements of HR with analytical and IT skills.

However, a successful shared service relies on a carefully curated balance of digitalisation and human intervention. Innovative technologies should only be adopted to solve problems faster, gain insights and streamline business operations, if they do not completely remove the inimitable value of a personalised service – including the ability to speak to a real person who can help solve any issues. Both humans and automated systems need to ensure they operate with the same values under the same culture.

The traditional workspace landscape has long needed a shakeup with Covid-19 accelerating changes that were undoubtedly inevitable. In the face of a new era of business operations, there is no denying the leading part shared services can play in achieving strategic goals, but only when integrated effectively into a centralised system. Only then will shared services have the ability provide businesses with crucial support based on data analytics and automation.

The result? A more diverse, inclusive workforce operating under an efficient and streamlined model that is directed by a robust set of values that will ensure business longevity.

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