Q&A: Reinventing HR: A Journey from Tradition to Innovation

Learnings for HR


Question: Could you share how you first entered this field, what motivated your career choice, and how you've managed to sustain your presence and success within it?

I stumbled into human resources during my final year at university after landing a part-time role in the Compensation & Benefits department there. I initially took the job to pass the time as I had finished competing as a gymnast and had a light course load, but quickly discovered my passion for it. Over time, my career evolved through distinct phases: foundational learning, exploration in different HR areas, a rebellious phase challenging traditional HR practices, and now a "pay it forward" phase involving writing, consulting, speaking, and sharing knowledge. The key to my longevity in this field has been embracing change and continuously evolving in my roles and contributions.

Question: You studied in Pittsburgh, and you're now based in England. How and when did that move happen?

During my time at GAP in San Francisco, I came across an intriguing job opening in London that offered a chance to broaden my HR skills and take on international responsibilities. Despite initial scepticism from my then-boss, I decided to pursue the opportunity with unwavering determination. With my husband's encouragement, we made the bold decision to relocate to London. Fortunately, a visionary leader recognized my potential and took a leap of faith by entrusting me with the role, which ultimately transformed both my career trajectory and personal life. It's a reminder of how influential a supportive leader can be, shaping not just careers but also impacting lives in profound ways.

Question: At this point, have you observed a shift in employee engagement, particularly when conversing with younger HR leaders who are new to the workforce? How do you perceive their approach to engaging with people within their organisations?

I think there's a nuanced answer to this question. While some organisations still follow traditional practices from decades ago, there's also a growing trend of HR professionals seeking change and innovation. However, resistance from business partners can hinder progress. Yet, there are inspiring examples of companies breaking norms and embracing new approaches, which I often highlight in my books through real-life stories. For instance, I wrote a blog about a company that reinvented their employee handbook into a creative and concise format by putting it on a sweatshirt. It's clear that some companies are getting it right, while others continue to struggle with employee engagement, as reflected in Gallup data. Adapting to these shifts in the workplace is a continual challenge, but it's also an opportunity for growth and transformation.

Question: Could you elaborate on the direct impact of employee involvement on organisational success?

Certainly! Employee involvement is crucial for understanding their needs and fostering a sense of ownership within the organisation. For instance, when I was tasked with reviewing our employee benefit programs at a previous company, I didn't rush into redesigning them based on assumptions. Instead, I conducted extensive focus groups and voting sessions to gather direct input from employees.

The outcome was surprising yet impactful; we implemented benefits that I wouldn't have considered on my own. This experience reinforced my belief that, without listening to employees, we can't truly meet their needs or make informed decisions.

Moreover, involving employees in decision-making processes not only leads to better outcomes but also creates a sense of commitment and pride. It's similar to how involving my kids in cooking made them more enthusiastic about trying new foods. Similarly, when employees feel included and valued, they are more likely to support organisational changes and decisions, even when they involve significant shifts like removing a beloved benefit program.

In essence, employee involvement isn't just about boosting engagement numbers; it's about creating a culture of collaboration, understanding, and mutual respect that drives organisational success in tangible and intangible ways.

Question: Could you share specific examples of benefits that employees suggested during your review process but that you hadn't initially considered?

When I was considering adding a new well-being benefit, I initially gravitated towards common offerings like gym memberships or online wellness programs, as many companies were doing this at the time. However, my approach shifted significantly after engaging with employees directly.

I found that the standard offerings weren't meeting the wide range of needs and preferences that employees had for their well-being. This insight led me to rethink my strategy and consider a more personalised approach. Instead of prescribing specific well-being solutions, I decided to empower employees by providing them with a well-being allowance.

This allowance gave employees the freedom to choose how they wanted to prioritise their well-being, whether it was investing in fitness activities, mental health resources, hobbies, or other areas that mattered to them. While implementing this allowance was more complex than simply offering predefined benefits, such as gym memberships, it ultimately resulted in a more inclusive and impactful well-being program.

Moreover, my decision to trust employees with this allowance was driven by a desire to demonstrate confidence in their judgement and autonomy. I wanted to show that I valued their input and believed in their ability to make informed decisions about their own well-being.

This shift in approach reflects a broader trend in HR towards empowering employees and involving them in decision-making processes. It's about recognizing employees as capable adults and partners in shaping their own work experiences, rather than treating them as passive recipients of benefits or policies dictated from above. This shift towards employee empowerment and trust has been instrumental in fostering a more positive and engaged workforce.

Question: Could you describe the evolution of your approach towards employee care and responsibility from initially perceiving yourself as a maternal figure to adopting a more relaxed and facilitative stance where employees are trusted to know what's best for themselves?

My evolution in HR has been about transitioning from a maternal caregiver mindset, which was very common when I first began in HR, to one of trust and empowerment. Initially, I saw my role as nurturing and protecting employees, much like caring for young children. However, as employees matured into fully-formed adults, I saw the importance of trusting their decision-making abilities.

This shift extends to leadership as well—I believe in empowering employees and respecting their capabilities. It's about showing care in a more trusting and respectful manner. This philosophy is reflected in advocating for flexibility in HR programs, such as benefits and learning initiatives. While this approach may take more time initially, it leads to more effective and tailored solutions in the long run because I truly understand what employees want and need.

I've observed this evolution in companies that embrace empowerment and trust, although I acknowledge that some organisations still cling to a paternalistic mindset when making decisions for employees.

The essence of HR lies in being brave enough to strike a balance between these roles. It means having the courage to tell the truth, even when it's uncomfortable, and guiding employees toward growth and improvement. For instance, if an employee is struggling with a work-related issue, HR may need to delve into the root causes, discuss potential areas for personal development, and encourage accountability.

Ultimately, the goal is not to prioritise being popular or seen as a friend but to ensure that the company operates smoothly while prioritising the well-being and development of its employees. It's about being a trusted advisor, mentor, and advocate for both the workforce and the organisation's success.

Question: What strategies are effective for engaging employees in today's dynamic work environment, considering factors such as remote work arrangements, hybrid structures, and other evolving trends?

Engaging employees in today's dynamic work environment requires a personalised approach since everyone finds engagement differently. For some, it's about social interactions and team activities, while others thrive on collaborative projects or being asked for input.

During the pandemic, I explored how companies maintained engagement by aligning activities with their values and listening to employee preferences. Successful approaches varied widely; for instance, one company empowered volunteers to lead unique activities based on employee interests, like a cleaning competition that unexpectedly became a hit.

This highlights the importance of thinking creatively and tailoring engagement efforts to suit diverse preferences. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, consider various methods and approaches that will meet their individual needs. Ultimately, effective engagement strategies stem from understanding and responding to what resonates with each individual or team, acknowledging that mass engagement initiatives may not suit every person's needs.

Question: Given the entry of Gen Z into the workforce and their transition into office work for the first time, along with other generations returning to the office, have you observed any distinctive changes or examples of how engagement methods have evolved with this newer generation?

When considering the engagement of different generations, I see it in two main aspects. Firstly, their stage in life plays a role; for instance, younger individuals often prioritize learning, socialising, and recognition, much like I did at their age. Secondly, there are distinct expectations shaped by the world they've grown up in.

For example, Gen Z is accustomed to a more transparent world and may prefer shorter, more interactive learning formats over traditional, lengthy classes. Understanding these generational nuances helps HR professionals tailor engagement strategies to meet diverse expectations.

Question: How has your perception of transparency in the workplace evolved over your career?

Regarding transparency, I've seen significant shifts. Earlier in my career, HR practices weren't always as open as they should be. Younger generations now demand transparency, challenging us to be upfront about salary ranges and company happenings, which is vital in today's transparent world. This shift is reshaping HR practices, making them more adaptable and open to new ideas.

Startups often find it easier to embrace transparency from the beginning. In my book "Build It," I discuss how a US company called Buffer openly shares all employee salaries online. Achieving transparency in larger companies with thousands of employees can be more challenging, but it's not impossible. It requires incremental steps. For example, at a previous company, our first step towards transparency involved explaining to employees how salaries, promotions, and merit increases were determined. It's about starting somewhere and gradually working towards a more transparent culture.

Question: Could you elaborate on the concept of dividing employee engagement into distinct building blocks or elements of a "bridge," as you refer to them?

Certainly! The engagement bridge model mentioned in "Build It: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement" provides a structured approach to understanding and enhancing employee engagement. Let's delve deeper into each element of this model:

  1. Purpose, Mission & Values: Employees need to believe in the company's mission, values, and purpose to feel engaged. Aligning personal values with these fosters a sense of connection and commitment.

  2. Communication: Open, transparent, and effective communication is vital. Employees should understand the 'why' behind your decisions, understand the details and how it impacts them so that you foster and environment and culture where they trust your decision and your leadership.

  3. Leadership & Management: Effective leadership and management practices are key drivers of engagement. The inspire trust, provide direction, offer support, and empower their teams.

  4. Job Design: Designing roles that are challenging, meaningful, and aligned with employees' skills and interests contributes to engagement. Tailoring job responsibilities to individuals' strengths and passions increases job satisfaction.

  5. Learning and Development: Providing opportunities for growth, learning, and skill development is essential for employee engagement. Learning experiences can include training programs, mentorship, and career advancement opportunities.

  6. Recognition: Acknowledging and appreciating employees' contributions boosts morale and motivation. Recognition can be formal or informal and should be timely and genuine.

  7. Pay & Benefits: Providing fair and meaningful pay & benefits to employees is foundational to employee engagement. They need to be aligned with your culture and values, meet their needs and drive company performance.

  8. Well-being: Ensuring employees' physical, mental, financial and social well-being is crucial and meets their unique and individual needs.

  9. Workplace: The physical and virtual work environment play a significant role in engagement. Factors like office design, technology infrastructure, and remote work policies impact how employees feel about their work environment.

Understanding these elements and their interplay is crucial for HR professionals, especially when catering to the expectations of younger generations entering the workforce. By leveraging these elements effectively, HR professionals can create strategies and initiatives that resonate with employees, drive engagement, and contribute to overall organisational success.

Question: How can HR managers effectively gather employee feedback in midsize to large organisations? Additionally, for HR professionals looking to drive organisational change and implement new programs, what persuasive metrics or strategies can they use to garner support from senior leadership and successfully advocate for their initiatives?

HR managers in midsize to large organisations can utilise various tools and technologies to gather employee feedback effectively. This includes conducting annual employee opinion surveys or more frequent pulse surveys, and engaging in direct interactions like focus groups and informal discussions to understand employee perspectives. Identifying key issues and low-hanging fruit for improvement is crucial, and then taking action to show your employees that they’ve been heard and that you take their opinions seriously.

To drive organisational change and gain support from senior leadership, HR professionals should focus on demonstrating tangible benefits and aligning with business priorities. Utilizing data-driven arguments is essential, showcasing metrics like reduced absenteeism, lower turnover rates, enhanced customer loyalty, increased productivity, and improved profitability associated with high employee engagement. Tailoring the conversation to speak the language of the boardroom, such as framing initiatives in terms of financial impact like selling more products or generating profits, can significantly enhance the chances of gaining approval and support for HR initiatives.

Question: What aspects of your background as a gymnast and having a sportsperson’s mindset have you integrated into your approach to HR?

My athletic background, especially gymnastics, has taught me valuable lessons about perseverance and resilience. It's about not giving up, even when faced with challenges. It taught me to pick myself up after every fall, much like facing tough situations in board meetings. I've learned to adapt, seek alternative approaches, and collaborate with others to find solutions. Sports have instilled in me a mindset of continuous improvement and determination, which I've seamlessly integrated into my HR approach, making it more resilient and adaptable.

Question: What qualities of a great boss do you believe are timeless and resonate across all generations?

Something that all employees want and need, regardless of their generation, is a good boss. Someone who supports them, guides them, helps them learn and grow, and shows up for them in good and bad times. In my book “Bad Bosses Ruin Lives” I explain this as the following building blocks, the tools we have to be a great boss:

  1. Be empathic – Understand what your people feel and need based on their individual and diverse situations, challenges and frustrations.

  2. Be compassionate – Take action to encourage and support your people through understanding and empathizing with their individual and diverse needs.

  3. Be authentic – Show your people who you are, what you believe in, and your true self.

  4. Be vulnerable – Show your people the full spectrum of your true self, including your emotions, struggles, and imperfections.

  5. Be respectful – Believe in the value of your people, recognizing their abilities and contributions, and treating them with dignity and courtesy.

  6. Be trusting – Believe that your people will do the right thing, having confidence in their honesty, integrity, and reliability.

  7. Listen – Hear and decode what your people say and suggest, showing that you value their input and contributions.

  8. Communicate – Share information with your people openly, honestly, transparently and continuously.

  9. Give feedback – Provide information to your people on how they’ve behaved and performed to help them grow, learn and improve.

  10. Give appreciation – Show your people that you recognize, acknowledge, value and appreciate their efforts, accomplishments and contributions.

  11. Provide development – Help your people create the best approach and plan for them to develop their abilities, learn new skills and achieve their goals.

  12. Provide coaching – Support and facilitate actions and activities to help your people learn, grow, discover and explore solutions to help them achieve their goals.

  13. Empower – Give your people the freedom, power, control, and space to take ownership of their work.

  14. Inspire – Motivate your people by driving them towards a common purpose to achieve milestones and overcome obstacles and challenges.

Question: How do you engage with Gen Z employees, fostering a sense of community and team spirit?

My approach to engaging Gen Z employees, getting their attention and having them be involved, is to help them understand the WIIFM (What's in it for me). It's crucial to provide them with compelling reasons as to what they’ll get out of what you’re providing or inviting them to join in on so that they will engage and be a part of it. For example, will they learn something new, have fun with colleagues, find out about a new HR program that will support them, etc.?

Just as important is to be proactive in exploring innovative strategies to engage Gen Z employees, constantly evolving and adapting them to meet their needs. Don’t rely on things that may have worked in the past, instead stay adaptable and embrace new technologies and methods to create and maintain a dynamic and inclusive workplace that resonates with Gen Z's values and aspirations.

Question: How do you envision AI impacting HR's engagement with employees?

I believe AI has a significant role to play in revolutionizing HR processes, particularly in handling routine tasks. By automating them, AI can save HR professionals time and effort, allowing them to focus on more meaningful interactions with employees.

However, it's essential to strike a balance between AI-driven efficiency and human-centric engagement. AI excels in handling repetitive and data-driven tasks, but it lacks the nuanced understanding and empathy that humans bring to interpersonal interactions. For instance, AI may efficiently remind employees about deadlines, but it can't replace the empathetic conversation a human HR professional can have when addressing an employee's personal challenges or career aspirations.

Therefore, while AI can enhance HR efficiency and provide valuable insights, it should complement human efforts rather than replace them entirely. The human touch remains indispensable in fostering trust, understanding employee needs, and facilitating meaningful interactions within the workplace.

Question: What do you foresee as the upcoming advancements in HR?

I'm really hopeful for progress in HR, especially after the strides we made during COVID where we started looking at new ways to work and new ways to support our people. My hope is that we continue to be brave, to challenge outdated norms and ways of working, and come up with new ways that will meet the needs of our diverse workforce.

I’m also hopeful of how HR’s role is being seen differently by the business. More companies are giving HR a ‘seat at the table,’ giving them a voice so that they can strategically and effectively drive business and people decisions. This shift is encouraging as it will allow HR to be able to do so much more, making an impact and doing what we really need to do.

Do you work in HR?

Email [email protected] and let’s talk :)

Note: All views expressed in this interview are personal and not linked to any organization.

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