Not so long ago, HR managers were like high school assistant principals―paper-pushers who kept the building running and tsk-tsked those who broke the rules. Now, these managers focus more on people than on paper and, like skilled teachers, they help both the strugglers and the stars. And in the future? Expect those in HR (if it's still called that) to be akin to championship coaches, guiding employees throughout their careers and becoming more essential than ever to business analytics and strategy.
The role of the HR professional has changed dramatically along with the workforce and economy, and that evolution will continue as machines and technology replace tasks once performed by humans. But that doesn't make people―or the HR teams that work with them―any less important. Tomorrow's HR leaders will need to be bigger, broader thinkers, and they'll have to be tech-savvy and nimble enough to deal with an increasingly agile and restless workforce.
Technology is freeing up HR to take on bigger-picture matters, making the field more exciting, more demanding and perhaps more competitive as well. To some extent, there are still some companies that see HR as a purely tactical kind of role. But the good ones, the smart ones, see HR as a strategic partner.
We’ve Come a Long Way
HR has greatly evolved since one of the earliest HR departments (called "personnel management") was created in 1901 in response to a strike at the National Cash Register Co. in Dayton, Ohio. It wasn't until after World War II that the public embraced the idea of a human resources department to handle employees. And in the latter half of the 20th century, a slew of work-related laws—including the Equal Pay Act (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993)—made the presence of HR specialists even more important.
Nowadays, the stock of the HR professional is rising, with some practitioners being asked to join the C-suite instead of just visiting it. Many organizations are ditching the title "HR manager" for monikers such as chief happiness officer, director of the talent-attraction strategy and even head of optimistic people. Future titles are likely to reflect the growing focus on technology and analytics in the field.
It's that technology that will help HR adjust to a changing workforce accustomed to going online to get everything from a date to groceries. HR departments will need to make more information and services available to workers around the clock―a shift that will also free up time to focus more on business strategy and employee career paths.
Even if your job title or your responsibilities have yet to change, it's imperative to start adapting to the new reality now. You can begin by enhancing your skills in seven critical areas that analysts say are key to future success in the profession and likely to be widely practiced by 2025. They include business strategy, analytics and, of course, people.
1. Embrace Technology and Analytics
Savvy HR departments are already using analytics to predict and assess everything from employee retention to recruitment strategies to the success of wellness programs. For example, chatbots allow candidates and employees to have automated, personalized conversations with a computer. A worker could use a chatbot to find out how many sick or vacation days he has remaining or what procedures the company's dental plan covers. And a job candidate can answer questions, complete assessments, and track the status of his or her application through a personalized assistant who has a name, a face and a pleasant demeanor. Of course, all these features are computer-generated.
Millennials, now the largest generation in the workplace, are used to getting information right away through a computer or smartphone. A wide range of employee experiences, then—from application to onboarding to checking benefits and paid time off—should be available online to accommodate the digital customer experience younger workers prefer, and HR should be managing that effort.
Freed from such mundane tasks as processing payroll, answering benefits questions and scheduling interviews, HR will have more time for strategic planning. Human resources can go from being a steward of employment to being a steward of work.
2. Understand How the Company Succeeds
It's not enough to be conversant in the language of HR. Human resource professionals need to know and contribute to the vision, mission and financial success of the business―otherwise, they won't be taken seriously by the C-suite. And on a practical level, they won't be able to execute effective workforce planning or attract, hire and train the right talent, experts say.
Beyond knowing the company's stock price and how to read a profit and loss statement, HR leaders need to understand the strategic direction of the business and the economic and social environment in which the company operates. They need to anticipate and prepare for changes in work and the workforce. Only then can HR leaders effectively manage human capital and align HR initiatives with the organization's goals.
HR professionals need to understand something about how business and companies work. What does the CEO worry about? What does the CFO worry about? As HR moves into the C-suite, it needs to start acting like part of the executive team.
3. Stay Focused on People
Embracing technology doesn't mean taking humans out of the equation. In fact, HR managers in 2025 will have more time to focus on individuals, enhancing both recruitment and retention. At Cisco, executive vice president Fran Katsoudas' title changed from HR officer to chief people officer. She sees that as a sign that her job is morphing from mitigating risk and ensuring compliance to executing business strategies.
Additionally, top HR professionals of tomorrow could become what Goldstein calls "talent brokers" and coaches who help to guide the individual careers of everyone at the office.
With competition fierce for good talent, successful HR managers need to give top workers a reason to come to work for them. If you're not in a global business now, you're going to be competing with global businesses for the very best employees. You need to create an environment where people enjoy being there and can't imagine being anywhere else.
4. Be Ready for the New Workforce
The 2025 workforce will include not just transient workers (60 percent of Millennials told Gallup they are open to new job opportunities) but also gig workers who pop in and out of jobs on a daily basis. In addition, HR will need to help assess which tasks throughout the organization can be automated and then re skill those whose jobs are affected by automation. A recent Willis Towers Watson survey found that more than half of employers say it will take "breakthrough approaches in HR's role" to deal with automation and digitalization. Meanwhile, some of HR's remote workers will increasingly be very remote―as in, seven or 10 time zones away―as globalization leads to an increasingly diverse workforce.
5. Market a Modern Benefits Package
Attracting and keeping talent involves offering (and administering) a benefits package that appeals to the modern worker. That includes not just parental leave and flextime but also caregiver leave, expanded fertility benefits, gender reassignment and transformation assistance, financial wellness programs, and a slew of benefits that support critical life events. Recruitment marketing exists now, but given the demographics and importance of attracting talent, more organizations could add those [benefits].
6. Stay Abreast of Compliance Issues
Complying with tax regulations, laws like the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, and Form I-9 and E-Verify requirements will continue to be at the core of HR compliance. But as the workforce changes, HR will need to be agile enough to comply with laws related to the gig economy and remote workers.
There's also likely to be continued attention on pay equality, forcing HR to determine how to construct a compensation strategy that allows the organization to attract star workers while not violating the law.
7. Be Certified (or Update Your Skill Set)
As certain HR functions become automated or outsourced (payroll, benefits and recruiting, for example), human resource specialists need to expand their knowledge of both traditional tasks and overall business strategy. The field of HR is changing rapidly, with many new regulations impacting how we interview, how we pay, required training, how we protect privacy, et cetera. HR professionals need to pursue education opportunities.
HR veterans also note that certification leads to higher pay and more promotions. A 2018 PayScale survey found that certification increased the odds of being promoted within five years by more than 21 percent for HR assistants and by nearly 25 percent for HR directors. And the higher the title, the more likely an individual is to have HR certification, the study found. Salaries, too, tend to be fatter for those with formal certification. In 2018, HR credential-holders made nearly 32 percent more than those without credentials, PayScale found.
All signs indicate that HR will look very different by 2025. I can really envision a day when HR is no longer HR. Not only will HR leaders administer business decisions, they will help make those decisions—as trusted workforce advisors.