The Changing Shape of HR Skills
#evolve Magazine
March 09, 2023

Recruit, retain, engage — the familiar litany of HR imperatives seems not to have changed very much over recent decades, despite tumultuous change in the world of work. If anything, HR’s skill standards have proven their durability.

Even as the COVID pandemic torched the status quo, HR’s basic talent-tracking, employment-enhancing skills were already — and deftly — navigating a shift from traditional, office-bound work to more flexible schedules: more work-from-home, more remote staffing and a more urgent embrace of diversity and inclusion. Now, in the wake of further disruption, what skill sets do organizations expect of HR’s next generation?

For the People

It's important to differentiate the bedrock skills and capabilities that define effective HR from the trending skills that have emerged in our era of tech-focused solutions and greater financial literacy. Yes, a grasp of data analytics — and their strategic value — is a must for HR leaders, as is an ability to partner with CFOs on the impact of compensation programs. But these must continue to co-exist with a strong emphasis on finding top talent and wielding the softer skills of people management.

This was clearly evident during last year’s “Great Resignation” wave, as WorldatWork research revealed that recruitment, sourcing and selection-based skills were prioritized by the largest number of survey respondents (52%). It reflected a dynamic employment market that saw an unprecedented number of HR job openings, according to Kathleen Duffy, president and CEO of Phoenix-based recruitment firm The Duffy Group Inc.

“As a result, some of our clients are beginning to think ahead by sourcing and recruiting candidates in anticipation of their hiring needs,” Duffy said. “It’s all about being proactive by creating bench strength and a succession plan.”

And despite reports of significant layoffs in such sectors as technology, the U.S. labor market remains strong as 2023 unfolds. There’s no reason to think the basic HR skills will be less important whenever the market cools, along with an emphasis on process, productivity and measurement.

But since the pandemic, there’s also a focus on what McKinsey and Co. has seen among CHROs for more “people-centric,” as employees expect their companies to show higher levels of empathy and emotional intelligence in addressing physical, mental health and moral concerns.

HR Insights Advancing

On a practical level, this comes down to meeting employees where they are in the post-pandemic world of hybrid work models and multi-generational workforces. Tomorrow’s HR leadership can’t ignore changing patterns in how various workforce segments are working and how they expect to be rewarded. It goes beyond providing competitive health and wellness benefits and requires some creative engineering of programs and policies.

“HR leader insights around the full spectrum of comp and total reward levers are really advancing,” said Tracey Malcolm, global leader, future of work and risk at WTW. “Consider for a moment the perfect crunch that HR has had to address with mixed preferences for onsite versus remote work, and re-aligning rewards based on these work approaches. Or, with a large base of retirements, phased retirements, Millennials, and zoomer-interns, HR is taking a portfolio approach to emphasizing different solutions based on workforce segment.”

This suggests that a consensus about the HR transformations of the past few years is well under way. As Jeanne Meister, executive vice president of Executive Networks and founder of the Future Workplace Academy, recently described it, “the future of work has become the now of work.”

Skill-Based Hiring

In the meantime, statistics show that skill-based hiring is ascending while academic-degree qualification is not the absolute it once was. Surprisingly, perhaps, such professions as computer support and software engineering, do not need even require a degree, while an analysis of millions of online job listings by The Burning Glass Institute revealed that the number of jobs requiring a college degree dropped from 51% in 2017 to 44% in 2021. The implications for HR should be obvious: seeking out skills and relevant experience is itself an HR skill, demanding a defter recruiting touch than just checking off the box marked “College Degree” in order to filter viable candidates.

For Meister and Malcolm, the byproducts of the pandemic disruption are clear enough: schedule flexibility is what employees want, be they knowledge workers or those on the front lines, while hybrid work and training (via online classes) is going to be more pervasive. Already, the venerable brick-and-mortar training academies of manufacturing giants like GE are for sale.

At the same time, the imperatives of ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting have gone beyond annual-report boilerplate and are being baked into HR leadership skills. They can help ensure that talent acquisition and retention speak to the greater good through the diversity of new hires, next-generation skill development to foster worker growth and inclusion, and a focus on pay equity and transparency.

HR is also playing a larger strategic role in planning where, when and how work gets done — traditionally the purview of COOs and CEOs in the course of their business-driven decision making. According to Malcolm, evaluating work location options and taking into account the availability of skilled talent, demographics and climate-related implications call for enhanced HR skills.

Malcolm noted how for one global manufacturer, the question of where to sustain plant operations across North America, South America and North Africa applied people, physical-asset and climate-based analysis over the next five, 10 and 20 years. These examples point to HR prioritizing analysis and planning skills as much as the designing of talent and reward solutions for the employee experience.

Data Skills Prioritized

While people-focused HR skills have never been more important, new data analytic skills will continue to be prioritized, said Malcolm.

“Right now, advanced HR teams are creating digital COEs (Centers of Excellence) to help with reskilling, workforce planning and the employee experience,” she said.

“For example, one insurance organization is using data analytics and data science in HR to develop leadership capabilities and succession management by using data across leadership development programs, performance outcomes, 360 feedback, and other team-based data such as absence and turnover rates. This data is being applied to inform time-in-role decisions, leadership coaching, and to support interventions.”

Inevitably, the increased use of workforce monitoring software is playing a role in the reshaped reality of work, and in the employee experience.

“HR will have a role in fine tuning its application in learning and performance management,” Malcolm said. “A priority will be standards and rigor to address bias and ethical applications.”

More generally, Malcolm said it’s time to focus on “raising the bar overall in HR for a digital mindset and using increasingly available digital tools to get HR work done. Case in point: ask your HR team to come back with an employee handbook outline on managing flex work, as aided by ChatGPT, a reference to the artificial intelligence software that has generated countless headlines and feverish speculation of late. Ultimately, being in touch with the present and future of AI could be an HR skill no HR leader can afford to be without.

The Human Factor

If there’s an overriding imperative that emerges from any scan of the HR leadership skills and priorities touted for 2023 and beyond, it would have to be the emphasis placed on a serious upgrade of the “soft” people skills that have long been associated with HR.

From the “back to human” formulations of McKinsey to the “human-centric” approach to HR espoused by the management consulting and research firm Gartner in its 2023 HR priorities report of HR leaders across 60 countries, the human factor is posed as the vital HR ingredient for today and tomorrow.

Human-centric leadership is defined by Gartner as “leading with authenticity, empathy and adaptivity.”

In practice, though, what do these traits mean? For Gartner, authenticity involves acting with purpose and enabling true self-expression for both the HR leader and their teams; empathy requires a show of genuine care, respect and concern for employee well-being; and adaptivity mean enabling flexibility and support for employees’ unique needs. Given the infinite variability of self-expression, well-being and unique needs, human-centric HR is no set-it-and-forget-it skill.

Instead, it could go hand in hand with a move away from top-down HR — where leaders set the change strategy, own the implementation and roll out the communication campaign — to what Gartner calls “an open-source change strategy.” This would be less prescriptive than top-down approaches and more collaborative, involving employees in co-creating change decisions, creating personal change implementation plans and refocusing change communication through employee/employer conversations.

Open-source HR strategy isn’t an entirely new concept. It has its roots in the software industry, where programmers have been able to share computer code to improve on existing concepts rather than build entirely new ones. In HR, open-source strategy has focused on the sharing of case studies or common documents, as well as social media posts, to arrive at new best-practice solutions among HR professionals.

If taking the open-source concept further to include the ideas and feedback of employee population is going to succeed, it will require HR leadership skills to drive it, and build momentum and sustainability.

Editor’s Note: Additional Content

For more information and resources related to this article see the pages below, which offer quick access to all WorldatWork content on these topics:

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