As experts in people, work and change, HR professionals have a critical role to play not only in understanding the trends affecting work, but in actively shaping the future. Ruth Stuart, Head of Strategy Development, CIPD, discusses the contribution HR can make to better work and working lives, particularly against a backdrop of fast-moving disruptive businesses.
The world of work is changing
It may be an oft repeated phrase, but unexpected events like the UK’s vote for Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as US president have demonstrated that change really is the only constant. We’re living in unprecedented times, so while it may seem foolhardy to try and predict the future of work, it’s also clear that a number of forces are shaping work, the workforce and the workplace.
New technology is springing up at such a pace that start-up workforces can double and even quadruple overnight. However, the speed at which these businesses grow can mean they don’t have time to mature in an orderly, considered and sustainable way. Essential building blocks, such as effective people management, are sometimes missing, and, more often than not, bad practice creeps in. All in all, CIPD research has identified eight key areas of change, with major shifts in the way we use technology being one of them.
Social and ethical responsibility: the imperative to protect the communities in which businesses operate is likely to become more prominent as natural resources become scarcer.
Quality of education: educational standards are improving worldwide, stimulated by governments seeking to boost their competitive position in the global marketplace.
Workforce diversity and demographic change: the workforce is gradually changing, because of trends such as longer working lives and migration.
Diversity of employment relationships: there is growing demand for a better work-life balance, where work suits people’s individual circumstances. People are also moving away from having a ‘job for life’ towards having a ‘life of jobs’.
Utilisation of technology: continued waves of technological change will shape the economy and the very nature of work – whether for better or worse is to be determined.
Globalisation: economies are becoming increasingly interdependent, while workforces become increasingly mobile.
Employee choices: people increasingly want to take control of their careers and the way they work, seeking greater mobility, flexibility and variety in their jobs. However, there is growing inequality between those who can shape their own destiny and those who cannot.
Industrial change: the last few decades have seen the growth of professional services industries, at the expense of the shrinking manufacturing sector.
What do we stand for?
These forces, and in particular increased automation, flexible working and the growth of the ‘gig’ economy, mean we must think more radically about how work gets done – and HR needs to be at the forefront of that conversation.
We need to understand these forces and trends, but we also need to be clear about what kind of future we want to shape, and how we make decisions when there is no precedent. If the extraordinary stories of tech start-up growth teach us one thing as a profession, it’s that nothing is predictable and we need to be ready to deal with transformational change. As the world of work continues to evolve we need to be really clear about what we stand for – to know what our principles are.
And that means shifting the focus from just the technology and the disruption it creates towards the impact of rapid growth on the people behind it as well. In the rush to be industry disruptors, basic recognition of the fact that people matter can be lost. We can and should disrupt an industry, but we must not lose sight of the basic understanding that people matter.
A principles-based approach
Principles are a set of fundamental beliefs that can help us make good decisions when there are no obvious right answers. Principles-based standards of professional behaviour have been enshrined in professions like medicine for centuries; they’ve also been adopted as a prominent feature in many of the ‘newer’ professions in recent years, perhaps in the wake of high-profile corporate scandals that have shaken public trust.
Working with business leaders, HR professionals, educators and community groups, the CIPD has developed principles for the profession that underpin better work and working lives. They represent the fundamental beliefs and values of the people profession; what we stand for, our aims and our identity.
The principles are focused on three key areas. Firstly Work Matters, the idea that work can and should be a force for good, for organisations, workers and wider society. Secondly People Matter, recognising that people are fundamental to businesses and organisations, but are also worthy of care and investment in their own right. And thirdly that Professionalism Matters, that we are all ambassadors for the HR profession, and must act with integrity and champion better work and working lives in all we do. Putting these principles into practice will require a high degree of personal integrity and unique expertise in people, work and change.
Shaping the future of the people profession
Being clear on our principles is critical, but it’s holding true to them that really matters. A CIPD survey of 10,000 business leaders, HR practitioners and line managers found that one third had to compromise their principles to meet business needs. Principles incorporate ethical reasoning into business decision-making above and beyond legal norms; they require decision-makers to think about how different decisions might impact different stakeholders. As such, principles exist at a higher level than practice, requiring us to exercise professional judgement, and allowing for the different situations we might encounter.
It’s therefore critical that we also develop our knowledge, behaviours and situational judgement, to help us make principles-based judgements. The CIPD is developing a new Professional Standards Framework that will pull the many elements of professionalism together into a single cohesive structure; setting out the gold standard for HR. It will help us understand the knowledge, skills and behaviour we need to put our principles into practice, making work and working lives better for individuals, for organisations and for wider society.
Be the change you want to see
One of my favourite quotes about principles is this one: “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation… If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?” (Jayne Eyre, Charlotte Bronte). No matter the context – whether a small business with tight margins or a global tech start-up quadrupling in size every two months – we need to find ways of balancing human needs with business outcomes; if only for the basic reason that you cannot separate people and business into two neat bubbles that don’t impact one another. Businesses and how they are run affect so much more than the bottom line; whether workers’ well-being or the communities they’re part of. Conversely, bad people practice affects so much more than the people who work there; it can and has led to corporate scandals that have stained reputations, broken public trust and resulted in financial consequences as well.
We believe our principles will help us build a better and more human future of work. But ultimately, the world of work will be shaped by the decisions that each of us make. As HR Directors, you are role models for your teams and the organisations in which you work. And it is the decisions you make that will make all the difference.
Ruth Stuart will be chairing the CIPD HR Business Partner Conference on 28 March in London where you can hear more from successful HRBPs and HR leaders on leading and influencing as an effective HR Business Partner.
Or, find out more about the CIPD’s Profession for the Future programme of work, and get involved.