The past year has been an unprecedented year of transformation for most employers. If anything, the pandemic has shown us that we are living in a human era, says Kathy Woods, national workforce transformational leader at Deloitte in Toronto, who says she has never been busier in the space of HR consulting.
“The issues that we are dealing with are fundamentally human issues and all these things that the pandemic has caused end up coming back to: How do we make this work with our workforces and our people?”
Many organizations are looking to figure out the new ways of working and adapting to the new workplace. And the crisis has really shone the spotlight on HR, says Woods.
“When there is a crisis, HR is always in the middle of it because there is always a huge amount of blocking and tackling to do,” she says, citing as examples remote work, downsizing and upskilling.
“We are in a human era, and for us to succeed corporately, we really need to succeed through our people.”
Changes for HR consulting
Through this past year, HR consulting has been transformed, and it’s now not only seen as a policy reviewer and a creator of new policies but as a key partner in the shaping of business, says Dean Schroeder, senior practice leader for HR consulting at Gallagher in Calgary.
“Business leaders, as I see it, are awakening now to see the benefit of having a senior HR consultant come in and start to show the connection… to the organization's purpose and how that can and should be energizing in its own right,” he says, “but also taking it a step further and operationalizing that purpose to make it a core component in how companies work.”
As far as internal capacity and expertise versus external, that's become a bigger part of the conversation, says Ehren Baldauf, senior vice president of northern Ontario and north Toronto at Gallagher.
“HR teams are more and more stretched, both due to the realities of the pandemic… from the additional workload perspective as well as a likely greater cost consciousness on the part of many employers with respect to their HR spend.”
Encouragingly, more than half of employers (61 per cent) say they would engage an HR consultant more than five times a year, while 28 per cent would do it two to five times per year and just six per cent would do it once a year, according to a survey by Canadian HR Reporter.
General HR consulting (82 per cent) is one of the more popular reasons to hire an HR consultant, along with compensation (71 per cent), wellness, diversity and inclusion (70 per cent) and HRIS/tech implementation (54 per cent), found the survey.
Of course, a big change for HR consulting has been the move to online interaction, which has some definite pros and cons, says Baldauf.
“Obviously, it’s a little more challenging to build relationships in an online world sometimes… For us to be highly effective in our role, we have to really get a good understanding of what exactly the organization that we're serving is looking to achieve. So, that takes a lot more energy and effort to get that information in an online forum than we would typically experience in a face-to-face environment,” says Baldauf.
“But… it's really driven some efficiency. We're not travelling the way we used to in order to see clients, which obviously has cost implications, [and] the geographic scope of services can now be expanded. So, we're now able to work with organizations a lot more efficiently, regardless of where they sit in the country versus where we have physical office locations.”
Some of the bigger areas of focus for HR consultants these days are, understandably, shaped by the current climate, including remote work, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, as well as leadership development.
Rise of work from home
The pandemic provides a huge learning opportunity, especially when it comes to the massive rise of remote work and people’s changing expectations about where they want to work, says Baldauf.
Employers are going to have to be strategic and start thinking about potential tradeoffs, he says.
“The expectations of employees moving forward are going to be different, and those employers that use the pandemic as a learning opportunity are going to have a real leg up in a post-pandemic world when we start needing to have a real heavy focus on talent acquisition and retention of key employees.”
When it comes to the dynamic around the remote workforce, there is a long list of things to consider, such as policies around where people can work, says Woods.
“Do you have to be in the same city as where the physical offices or where your manager is?” she says. “It's really important for HR consultants to think about things like the tax implications of that, not just for the individual, but for the organization.”
Focus on diversity, equity and inclusion
In addition, the killing of George Floyd and subsequent issues around anti-Black racism and anti-Asian hate have led to a major uptick in interest around DEI, she says.
“I think the pandemic almost heightens that because people's sensitivities are heightened.”
With the rise of remote work, many employers are realizing that they can recruit much further afield and “look at it as an opportunity to open up work to communities [that] may have been more marginalized… There's huge potential benefits, says Woods.
With the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of employers are focused on social issues that employees are concerned about, “and wanting to make sure that they're seen as… being active with their work teams, active in terms of how they're perceived as an organization,” says Brad Lutz, president of Acuity HR Solutions in Winnipeg.
“A lot of that focus of perception is internal, making sure that their employees feel that they work for an organization that they can be proud to work for from some of those corporate social responsibility perspectives.”
Employees are more interested in their company's long-term plan, not only from an operational perspective but in making greater change in society, says Schroeder.
“There's a lot more initiative in and around the diversity, inclusion and belonging area. And really, it's about companies needing to provide not only training and awareness and maybe education around that but a way that they can measure their progress through surveys or stats or the participation of their of their staff.”
Developing leadership potential
Organizations also have a greater focus on leadership development, especially when it comes to remote workers, says Lutz.
“We've seen a lot of focus on leadership development, leadership analytics, just making sure that people have the opportunity to provide feedback and see what's working well and what's not working well and provide their leaders with that feedback and coaching to move forward with it.”
Some employers have taken a step back from formal policy, to provide their leadership team with the ability to exercise judgment and handle one-off situations, he says.
“We've seen that as a bit of a shift in HR as a whole, where instead of having the letter of the law defined in every sort of circumstance, it's ‘Let's develop our leadership team, give our leaders good support, good training and then allow them to use judgment without necessarily having to have a policy with everything.’”
There’s a trend to companies stepping back and saying, “How can we support our leaders to have the confidence in those environments?” says Woods.
“It's less about their technical or functional experience or industry experience and more about their ability to lead in this new and different environment and with the resilience and adaptability required to kind of bob and weave through all of these scenarios.”