As HR executives turn the page on a new year some will pause to reflect on just how much — and how little — has changed in the span of 12 months.
Increased attention on topics traditionally considered the realm of HR — discrimination, harassment, diversity, workplace culture — made workplaces the convergence point for some of the biggest storylines in 2018. Calls for equal pay, worker protections and better solutions for harassment and discrimination swirled through the boardrooms and shop floors of Google, Tesla, Amazon and CBS, among others.
In the U.S., political figures debated the historic number of people finding work and the policies driving that trend. Experts warned about the opportunities and consequences of artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies. HR wasn't just an observer in all these developments — it had a lead role, both when things went wrong and when experts searched for success stories.
And through all that turbulence, some elements of the industry remain unchanged. "We're still the stewards of information and our people," Jewell Parkinson, senior vice president and head of human resources at SAP, told HR Dive in an interview. "That is going to be our role."
HR executives and teams across many industries have common challenges to face in 2019. Below, we've recapped what real HR practitioners and industry observers seeing on the horizon.
The talent acquisition panic
For Ceridian's Chief People and Culture Officer Lisa Sterling, this year's challenging recruiting scene will haunt her into the new year. "The thing … that literally keeps me up at night continues to be the focus on attracting world-class talent to our organization," she told HR Dive in an interview. Sterling isn't the only one vexed by the talent acquisition panic.
"I've been in the industry 22 years, and I've had the most interesting year in 2018," said Scott Waletzke, head of enterprise recruitment strategy at Adecco Staffing, USA. "The utilization of technology is going to make it that much better."
Applications and resumes flooded recruiters' inboxes at alarming rates last year and technology has emerged as a much-needed solution to the deluge. "Tech is allowing our recruiters to have more valuable conversations with those candidates," Waletzke said. With these tools, hiring managers can place candidates in the positions where they are the best fit, according to Waletzke.
Of course, with hordes of candidates and low unemployment comes heavy turnover. And, as Sterling said, organizations need to find and lock down not just any workers, but the best talent for their business. This means companies need to provide a top-notch employee experience, starting with the application process.
"People are sharing on social media what those experiences are like, and in a tight labor market, retention is top of mind," said Jodi Chavez, group president, Randstad Professionals, Randstad Life Sciences, Tatum. Organizations can improve retention rates by amping up company cultures, offering training and creating a robust HR department to manage such initiatives, Chavez said.
AI as a partner, not a threat
As Waletzke monitored conversations about tech throughout the last two years, he observed a radical shift. "The overall temperature of conversations completely changed. 2017 was robots are going to steal our jobs … now there is starting to be this embrace of technology," he said.
For HR, technology has transformed recruitment, in particular. "We're really looking at ways we can use AI or machine learning to automate the talent acquisition experience so we can dive deeply into the one-on-one relationships," Sterling said. Job search platform CareerBuilder has used machine learning to add a touch of personalization, CEO Irina Novoselsky said in an interview. Those searching on CareerBuilder for jobs at Disney might see the word "client" replaced with the term "guest," a standard swap of lingo for the entertainment company.
"It really is early in that curve of HR users having to become technologists," Novoselsky said. "That really shifts the conversation they're having and what they're looking for."
While these developments may speed up what can be slow, painstaking work, Triplebyte Co-founder and CEO Harj Taggar pointed out that the tech may make the process more efficient, but it does not address everything. "It doesn't help with bias — and in fact, it exacerbates [it]," he told HR Dive in an interview.
That's perhaps why some practitioners endorse a more steady, careful approach to new technologies. "It takes time to figure it out, so I think as recruiters and HR professionals we have to really embrace this change, go with it, try things, fail at times, figure it out, but be comfortable with it," Larry Nash, director of recruiting at EY, told HR Dive.
Data insights continue to evolve
HR is by now familiar with the calls for data-driven insights — but those insights have to keep people at their core and can't just focus on financial or other success measures.
"It's not good enough to just reduce cost anymore," Art Mazor, human capital practice digital leader and the global leader for HR strategy and employee experience at Deloitte, told HR Dive in an interview. "That's old-school thinking."
Employers have learned the hard way that while working toward a metric may feel modern and effective, the results can be anything but if the focus is solely on improving the number and not on making real, substantive improvements or addressing the underlying issues.
More employers have opted to use data in an effort to better track their workforces, Sam Stern, principal at Forrester, told HR Dive in an interview. "But the problem is, usually the shortest path to success on that metric is to game the system. And to me, to be surprised by that is to be delusional. That's human nature."
Data has its limits, too. An employer can only slice and dice the numbers so many ways, and insights alone don't lead to a lot of change, Jim Barnett, CEO at Glint, told HR Dive in an interview. It's about what HR leaders do with those insights; change happens at the manager and individual team levels. For example, employers can monitor the employee lifecycle from onboarding to exit to get a clear view of why people leave — but without a deeper understanding of who is leaving and why, HR could miss key insights.
"Fundamentally, it comes back to understanding how your team is doing," Barnett said. "These fundamental things haven't changed over the decades."
The pendulum will likely swing back toward qualitative analysis partly to avoid the "paralysis by analysis" that some companies are experiencing, Chavez said.
"You could have all the data in the world and still have high turnover," she added. "There's still a human element. Do exit interviews. You won't see that on a data point."
More pressure to become 'agile'
Organizations are increasingly being asked to shape internal operations in a way that mirrors external business trends. To that end, executives have taken to terms like "agile," with more than 80% of C-level executives in one survey calling agility the most important characteristic of a successful organization. But what exactly does that mean?
The term can lend itself to many definitions, but Cecile Alper-Leroux, vice president of HCM innovation for HR technology company Ultimate Software, said in an interview with HR Dive that in an HR context it's closely related to another idea that became popular in the HR world last year: flexibility. Agile organizations embrace contingent work forms, like contracting, to cover particular gaps that employee models may not be able to address. Ultimate Software has experimented with "flex teams," for example, that address business problems as they come up rather than focusing on one specific task.
There's an element of the gig economy in these arrangements; "People want to control their own destiny," Alper-Leroux said, explaining that an agile organization allows workers to do that to some extent, which means it also points to a new way to measure worker satisfaction. "We have to embrace a new set of metrics other than traditional results."
But teams don't always form organically. "There's a push to ensure the work can get done with the fewest barriers and how best to onboard people alongside their new counterparts in the workplace," Mazor said. Those "counterparts" won't always be people, either. "What can we do to influence positively that drive to productivity of the enterprise?"
The role of culture in employer brand
Consumers are value-driven — meaning employees are now, too, Stern said. Employees and applicants are aware not only of an employer's advertising campaigns and brand communications, but the charitable giving an employer does, the messages it sends and the way it treats its partners and contractors. That info is simply more available now, Stern added, and people want to align with companies that share their values.
Societal shifts have partly enabled the rise of the employer as an "institution of trust," as well, Stern said. Some institutions have betrayed that trust in high-profile incidents, meaning employees are looking to companies to be less passive and to "show up" to certain moral events.
"The contract used to be an employer gives a job for life and a pension, so employees give their heart and soul and expect nothing else. And employers broke that contract," he said. "And employees have wised up. 'I need you to support my lifestyle because who knows how long we will have this relationship.'"
A new focus on where the work is being done
As employers turn their focus to employee experience, more are considering exactly how and where employees do the work that needs doing, Mazor said. Do workers gather on a campus or at multiple, scattered locations? Do people use virtual tools, like video, to connect and collaborate? HR pros must keep these questions in mind as they design culture.
"It's no longer about redesigning process. It's really around reimagining the work," Mazor said. "How do we blend this mix of workers from so many different sources and blend those with the varieties of tech that are available to us in the HR space and more broadly?"
But that means HR may be held accountable for more aspects of the employee experience than it may have been in the past, including a functional tech experience — something more traditionally the purview of IT.
"Is it needed for the day to day and is it current? Is it glitchy? Does it shut down every three days?" Chavez said of employee tech. "Those are things people are leaving their organizations for." In other words, HR would be remiss to overlook the day-to-day tasks of the frontline employee.
And more employers are keeping an eye on the challenges facing their frontliners, from the work environment, to the tools used and beyond. HR managers will put themselves in workers' shoes in 2019 to ensure no part of the experience is overlooked. Because for all the fancy tech a company can employ — "if it doesn't work right, it won't matter," Chavez said.
Potential for wage growth, but recession fears loom
The wage conversation will continue into 2019, Waletzke said. While employers may remain conservative concerning wage increases, some industries may “flex their wages up” because they are heavily competing for talent; either way it will be a topic of discussion in 2019.
"I think ultimately the focus then will shift to creating potentially other ways to attract talent, be it through different benefit packages or vacation time — alternative benefits to help attract people to the workforce," Waletzke added.
But as more outlets begin to speculate about a potential coming recession, that instinct to keep wages steady in the face of upheaval may feel justified, especially as automation and tech adoption enable some industries to phase out certain jobs entirely. Recession remains speculation, especially for 2019. The real question for employers is how they will approach the talent market in a potential economic downturn.
Some organizations will double-down on ensuring their employees will be more resilient and productive, Stern said, but "I think that will be a minority." A large cohort may instead go after automation and incorporate AI to streamline the work — and reduce the need to hire at all.
"It's less about people losing their jobs to robots and more people never getting jobs because robots already have them," he said.
Leveling the playing field for women and minorities
Certainly, the push for gender equality was a dominating theme within the overall employment conversation of 2018. As that dialogue continues in 2019, that theme will likely extend, but may take on different forms. "I think you're going to see more on that," Sterling said. "Not so much on the #MeToo piece, but in neutralizing, leveling the playing field."
With this may come the continued examination of the C-suite. In 2018, the number of female Fortune 500 CEOs plummeted by 25%, according to Fortune. Addressing this disparity may cue the change Sterling predicted. Many experts have recommended that organizations with systemic gender bias or ongoing incidences of sexual harassment trigger a cultural revamp starting at the top. The theory goes like this: If the board of a company features a diverse set of executives who are compensated fairly, teams are more likely to imitate the example.
Even as the #MeToo movement fades, the impetus it gave to issues surrounding sexual harassment and gender parity will likely continue to spark discussions and change. One report found that closing the worldwide gender gap will take 108 years, but initiatives like equal pay laws, better parental leave policies and stricter sexual harassment laws may zip up that gap more speedily.
Empowering managers to help employees
In 2019, HR execs can't afford to overlook one of their biggest tools in building an engaging culture: front-line managers. Employers will be looking for ways to put insights in managers' hands so they can lead to their teams to greatness. This shift in perspective is one reason why performance reviews have moved away from annual affairs and toward consistent, forward-looking talks, Barnett said.
"Now companies have really realized, it isn't about surveys or getting the number up. What this is really about is empowering managers to have thoughtful conversations with their teams," he added.
To ensure success, managers must be trained to have the right conversations. It's easy to tell employees they are doing well; it's considerably harder to get a problematic employee to change their ways, Barnett said. HR has an opportunity to educate and create real transformation in an organization through management personnel.
In turn, businesses are "really shifting [their] approach to workforce experience and how HR runs to drive those business outcomes. Not to support. To drive."
Development and training to fill important gaps
Skills gaps have spurred employers, non-profits, universities and even local governments to enter the business of upskilling talent. Such efforts are essential to keeping demand in check and may even involve bringing those who once left certain areas of the job market back into the fold.
"What we are also seeing, too, is this idea of what we would call 'encore careers' — people who exited and want back in," Waletzke said, "those individuals will also need to be reskilled, and I think that is a huge topic that we need to stay at the forefront of. Those jobs can't be left vacant."
The focus on employee development has also changed the way managers talk to workers, Taggar said. Those in charge are pressured to provide increasingly continuous and structured feedback. "I think in general everyone wants that, but people aren't happy getting a standard review anymore. People want access to coaching… and all these things to develop their skills more than ever."
But skills deficits also mean recruiters can't rely on the same criteria to fill out their payrolls in 2019. That's a lesson Nash believes has been crucial to staying competitive."In addition to having some of these hard, technical backgrounds, it's really important [candidates] have certain mindsets that will enable to them to grow and change," Nash said. "Just having a growth mindset that things aren't static — they constantly change, and you have to embrace that change."