Valuing The Strategic Importance of HR
Do You Value the Strategic Importance of HR? – A Conversation with OSV’s Jane Huston, SVP of Human Resources
Unless you’ve actually worked in human resources, you probably haven’t thought much about HR’s strategic importance.
But for OneSource Virtual’s Jane Huston, thinking about HR’s strategic importance is critical to her role as SVP of Human Resources.
“It’s easy to say, ‘HR does—’ and then fill in the blank,” she says, talking about her definition of HR and its importance to companies. “We recruit people, we do training sessions, we design benefit and compensation programs. All of that is true. But it’s really about enabling business results while making it a great and lovely experience for employees.”
That’s definitely true on a good day. But in March 2020, COVID-19 was preparing to highlight HR’s importance in new ways.
“Historically, I don’t think all companies or leaders have thought of HR as strategic compared to the role of CFO, or the head of Sales, or, depending on your industry, your chief technology officer,” Huston says. “But COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the HR profession and everything we can do in a crisis to make a company work well.”
“When we were in the thick of it,” she adds, “everything came to HR. Not only did we become more critical in keeping the culture thriving, but we had to become experts on things that no one had ever been through.”
HR has always played an important role in company culture, but what does that role look like when everyone is not only far apart from each other but also living under the enormous strain of a global pandemic?
According to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, “languishing” might be the dominant emotion of 2021. That’s what he argues in an article published with The New York Times earlier this year, in which he wrote, “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”
If that’s the environment that many HR departments across the country—and around the world—are facing, what can companies do to create an environment where employees feel empowered to flourish?
Tone Starts at the Top
“I’m a big believer that tone starts at the top, and that we need to encourage boundaries,” Huston says.
For her, this means not sending emails to employees or other executives after hours or on weekends, barring some kind of emergency. It also means taking some time for herself every now and then during the day.
“My assistant puts time on my calendar called ‘Breathe,’” Huston says. “I used to laugh about it, but now I’m so glad, because it gives me time to think. If executive teams model this behavior, then managers know it’s OK and can encourage employees to block out time for thinking, going outside, being with their kids, or whatever helps them decompress.”
Practicing kindness is an extension of this belief that tone starts at the top.
Research has shown that kindness can have a significant impact when it comes to improving productivity and efficiency. It can also lower turnover rates.
But how do you practice kindness at work when you’re not at the office every day?
As noted in a recent article published by SHRM, one thing we’re missing out on at home are those serendipitous encounters with a colleague in the hallway or breakroom.
“For many people,” the article says, “hearing a colleague say, ‘Thank you so much’ in the hallway, or a manager telling you ‘Great job’ after a presentation, were a highlight of office life.”
Finding ways of replacing those moments in a virtual environment isn’t hard, you just have to be intentional about it.
“During a one-on-one, I can say, ‘Great job,” Huston says. “But then later in the day I can send a follow up email or text message to say, ‘Hey, I was reflecting on our one-on-one, and I just wanted to say again I really appreciate what you’re doing.’”
“It seems so small,” Huston adds, “But just that act of me giving someone a compliment increases my feelings of happiness, and it increases theirs. Those are small but powerful things that we as managers can do.”
Flexibility Is Crucial to the Employee Experience
As OSV ponders what it means to return to the office in a world that’s dramatically improved but is not yet out of danger, the principle of top-down kindness will play a significant role in the final decision.
“We’re taking it very seriously, which is why we haven’t been quick to say, ‘Oh, we’re absolutely doing this,’” Huston says. “Because when we do, then we think, ‘Yes, but what about that?’”
“There’s no handbook,” she adds. “And everyone is coming at it differently. Some people are vaccinated, some aren’t. Some can’t get vaccinated for health reasons or for religious reasons. And some have family with compromised immune systems.”
But even if there are still more decisions to make about what returning to the office will ultimately look like, it’s clear that the desire for more flexibility is more important to the employee experience than it already was before.
According to a survey by the Boston Consulting Group, 90% of employees say they want to be able to work remotely at least part of the time. In another survey, nearly 50% of respondents said they would be willing to look for a new job if their current one doesn’t offer the flexibility they’re looking for.
“A lot of what HR did during the pandemic was in an effort to help people flourish,” Huston says. “The companies that continue to put the employee experience at the forefront are the ones who will be able to not only weather the storm but come back even stronger than before COVID.”
But that’s going to require that leaders continue to value HR as the strategic partner they’ve always been.
“Good executives will keep that up,” Huston says. “And hopefully it will be a lasting change.”