Harvard Business Review’s mailing include a link to a cool article by Jeanne C. Meister about what HR people will be doing in the future, or doing “more of” in the future, given the impact of COVID-19 and the likely enduring switch to working from home. It’s based on a think piece from one of the thousands of organizations looking at the “future of work”, and there are tons of these reports coming out, as they have for the last five years. Most of them are, quite frankly, wrong. They’re pie-in-the-sky visions of “what could be”, not very practically tied to the current environment. In order for most of the predictions to come true, we would need to see a massive disruption in the workplace and workforce.
Like COVID-19 has now done, which makes some of the more recent predictions more closely tied to reality.
The report outlines 21 different job functions that HR people expect to see in the next 10 years and plots them on a 2×2 grid of how “techy” the companies are and time. It’s an interesting idea, but my take on it is that most of the 21 functions are “options” and not necessarily cooperative ones. People will make choices, and as paradigm one leads to some successes or failures, some of those other 21 options will fall by the wayside.
Here’s what I think is valid…
Well-being – the sh** gets real
Over the last five years, while there has been a lot of talk about well-being in general, and mental health in particular, one of the biggest challenges for the field has been to crystallize a specific problem to solve. While 10-20 years ago, disability was a question-mark for physical disabilities, people figured out access to buildings, retrofitting of offices, and ergonomic assessments. There was an identifiable problem to solve and people could focus on the task to find sustainable solutions. There were false starts, false successes, ongoing challenges, special cases, everything. But it was concrete, and a field developed around disability management and what it entailed in a full entity.
Well-being hasn’t really had that zeitgeist or defining moment. Some people see mental health initiatives being about formal diagnoses while others view it as someone simply having a bad day, and everything in between. Trouble managing work/life balance? Well, that looks different for everyone, right? So no blanket solutions. Working from home has always been a question-mark, often tied to accommodations of a individual worker problem or an incentive for a specific recruitment challenge.
Now? Everyone has similar headings to group their challenges under. Work/life separation when working from home. Time-shifting work duties to deal with home responsibilities like kids when all the schools are closed, while still trying to work and maintain productivity. Technological challenges. Isolation issues.
COVID-19 made all those issues real for EVERYONE. And so every sustainable return-to-work plan has to involve not only the return portion but the ongoing home portion. We’re not in a “temporary world” that people can cope with, this is the new normal. And organizations need someone to pull that all together for them to make sure their policies drafted in the old paradigm still make sense. Even something as simple as office supplies…if your old policy was that WFH was a privilege, so no office supplies were provided, but now EVERYONE is at home and needing paper and printer cartridges, who’s looking at the rules when bottlenecks or irritants crop up?
Where I disagree is with the suggestion that there will be “new jobs” being formed such as Director of Well-being and Work from Home Facilitator. In my opinion, those are functions that will need to be addressed, but most places are just going to assign them to HR and if they do use the new titles, it will be replacing old titles that are pre-COVID. Does that mean they are new jobs or just old jobs being changed? I don’t know.
Everyone will care about health and safety
OHS used to be something only the unions and a few people cared much about, particularly in an office environment. Sure, there were people who cared about scents; others who worried the lights were killing them; others wanted juice bars. But most of it was about regulations related to chemicals or heavy equipment. Ask yourself…when was the last time you read the minutes of an OHS meeting? Do you even know who your OHS officers are? Or who chairs the committee? Probably not.
But as people return to the office, that “health” role just went through the roof. They now have to understand social distancing, local and national guidelines, best practices in internal mobility of workers in elevators or stairs. Just as retail outlets had to figure it out for grocery stores. If people return to offices, will they need shields in front of adminstrative assistants? Will that be the “minimum standard” or a “gold standard”?
The research didn’t address this directly, other than as organizational trust, but their focus went to the IT / AI side, and quite frankly, most employees aren’t going to see anything like that anytime soon.
Nobody understands privacy
Oh sure, everyone understand the basics of privacy (permission to gather) and damage (leaks and breaches). However, while the survey work focused on AI and bias in algorithms, what they didn’t see coming that is directly tied to COVID is the sheer number of people working from home. I work in government, and we have long had a policy that certain docs can only be worked on at the office and saved on secure drives. Our regs are clear. But what do you do when people have to prepare those docs from home and the infrastructure from point A to point B is NOT as secure as what we had? Do you do the work and “hope for the best” or do you refuse the work because it can’t be done securely? In a time when rules are falling by the wayside all over the world to “get the work done”, privacy rules are likely being broken hourly. They aren’t breaches or leaks, but the assets are not secure.
As we move to a fully enabled WFH culture in many industries, what does that mean now? Fully encrypted VPNs, perhaps? And how long will that take to integrate into existing systems? Where I work, things are flying through the system at lightning speeds to meet immediate needs, which is great for productivity, but the reason they can do it is basically we relaxed all the due diligence rules that have been in place for some time. Red tape, a bunch of people say. Privacy laws, other say.
Other areas I’m not sold on
You could think that emergency preparedness and business continuity people will be important in the future, and I completely disagree. We just went through a catastrophic transformation, and while some people will say that proves the benefit for the future, the short version is that all of it was unforeseen. And very few orgs were able to use their BCP for anything other than phone numbers of key personnel. There was no loss of data, no damage to the office, we just couldn’t go to work. So we dealt with it. Not cleanly, not perfectly, but we did, and mostly WITHOUT BCP offering us anything. So if it didn’t help with the big event, why would I bother with it for next time?
Others want to argue for a more “woke” work culture, with diversity, safety in the workplace, community relations. Ethics in how we use info and how we operate period. Great. Except COVID also said “Stick to what we HAVE to do now” to keep the lights on and the trains running. We have legal obligations we aren’t meeting, and they expect orgs to pony up resources for ethical operations with the community? Most of them are going to slap a BLM announcement on their website and call it a day. They’re fighting to survive financially and economically. There are few examples of successful companies doing more than the minimum in those types of crises.
I want to embrace the calls for more creativity and innovation. I do. I’ve seen it on IT, I’ve seen it in options for WFH and everything else. It’s inspiring even. But I also think there will be a snap-back at some point, and innovation is going to be one where people start getting bitten. Oh, you did a new program with no due diligence and 2 years later discover massive problems? Snapback. Oh, you had a data breach while having all of your workers access confidential info on clients from home? Stick to your knitting. Lock it down. Not everything will be a home run, there will be failures. And when they do come, many organizations have a habit of NOT learning from failure nor celebrating it and moving on, but rather circling the wagons to regroup.
I am intrigued by the idea that there will be something called a VR Immersion Counselor. I don’t know who they talked to outside the executive suites, but a lot of organizations are struggling to switch to using Zoom, yet the CEOs think they’re ready for VR? There’s some pun in there about dreaming in technicolour, I think. I do think that HR will spend SOME time (i.e. a LOT) adapting to the new e-world. Interviews entirely by Zoom, time-shifting behaviour, references by chat, etc. It will be different. It will work, but it will take time.
I confess I am also not sold on the future of AI or “human machine partnerships”, at least not any time soon. If they want to give me a robot butler and everyone gets a smartcar, sure. Until then? Not buying it. I do think we’ll have better data algorithms to spot patterns in large data sets. But that still requires a human to interpret what it means.
Still, it was an interesting forecast. And unlike the ones of the last five years, it has a strong disruptive event to base its analysis on in order to make it realistic.