Experts assess the likely challenges for HR in the year ahead, from AI to Brexit, engagement, and skills gaps

Between the introduction of gender pay gap reporting and the GDPR, and the myriad factors affecting individual organisations, 2018 has been a busy year for HR teams. And the profession is set to face an even greater variety of challenges in 2019: here are eight that our panel of experts have picked as the ones to watch over the next 12 months.

 

1. Experimentation with artificial intelligence will accelerate

“We are seeing more and more companies open to experimenting [with artificial intelligence], which is great,” says Ian Bailie, head of HR AI research at CognitionX, an AI advice platform. “There are three areas that people feel most comfortable approaching first. One is around recruitment, either candidate sourcing or selection. Another is using chatbots, either for recruitment to aid candidate engagement, or HR helpdesk-type work. And the third is around people analytics: people are starting to think beyond traditional engagement surveys or spreadsheet-based analysis, to more advanced techniques that are more predictive.”

Three factors might be hindering organisations’ adoption of AI in HR, adds Bailie. “The first is the appetite and opportunity for experimentation and innovation: some have that embedded in their culture or have a chief HR officer who wants to push the agenda forward. Others might not have the right technical foundation for some of these newer tools: until they have a really robust HR system, with a good data lake or integration capabilities, they’re not really in a position – culturally or technologically – to plug in some of the newer tools out there. Thirdly, you need users – employees and candidates – who are open to this experimental experience. So, for some companies, it makes sense to be at the forefront of using this technology; others will prefer to sit back and wait until it becomes more mainstream.”

 

2. Engagement remains top of the agenda

The need to improve employee engagement will “continue to be a challenge in 2019,” says Dorothee El Khoury, HR practice leader at The Hackett Group, a consultancy firm. “While it’s been high on the priority list [for HR] for a few years, it’s a problem that hasn’t been solved yet, and one that very few organisations would want to say is not important. We see big differences in how top performers and average HR teams approach engagement: top performers have a very different emphasis – they regard it as part of their DNA whereas, for average performers, it’s an annual or bi-annual process that lacks a focused approach. The best HR functions take a permanent, digital approach to engagement, and put it at the core of every process and procedure.”

Engagement is also on the radar for Michael Moran, chief executive and founder of 10Eighty, a people consultancy firm. “I think there is a growing interest, particularly from CEOs and financial directors, around the impact of engagement on bottom-line shareholder value,” he says. “I’m not just talking about measuring engagement – but creating an organisation where people truly want to work. Part of that will be organisations focusing on their mission, purpose and meaning.”

For many HR teams, improving internal communications will be central to boosting engagement. “We’re reviewing different platforms to use so we can promote us, HR, and our culture,” says Jill English, head of HR at The Creative Engagement Group. “We want to make sure that all our communications are received and delivered appropriately, and with impact, so people get on board with HR initiatives.”

As well as tracking email open rates and link clicks, English also deploys more analogue methods of communicating with staff: “It’s really useful to put a poster on the back of the bathroom door, or near the kettle – those little spots where people linger,” she says. “Just chatting is really important, too: we have Friday morning breakfasts every week, and HR is always there so we can share news that people might have missed.”

 

3. HR will have to change how it procures technology

“We’re moving to a world where, ultimately, organisations don’t have ‘an’ HR system – a single tool that HR professionals use a lot, and an employee or manager occasionally uses for self-service to put in some performance data or book time off, which is what we’ve seen historically,” says Bailie. “We’re moving to a world where there will be multiple apps or platforms that sit on top [of an HR system] that are more use-case specific – so I might have my performance app, a pulse survey [tool], and several different learning tools. So we end up building this massive ecosystem of technology.

“That means there needs to be a real shift in our thinking about how we select and purchase technology, because that traditional request for proposal (RFP) process for a rip-and-replace of an HR system, with a long buying cycle, just isn’t going to be sustainable in the future,” says Bailie. “So there’s a large amount of upskilling required to [help HR] understand technology, what it can do, how to choose it, and how to implement tools that are designed around the user. We need to use design-thinking methodology to think about what it is we need from technology, and then work with vendors to make sure they are building tools that support our users – because it’s not ok for these tools to only have 30% adoption: we need everyone to use them.”

 

4. Skills mismatches will become more severe

Changes in technology will have a significant impact on staff says El Khoury, citing Gartner research that suggests AI will create 2.3 million jobs by 2020 – and will replace a further 1.8 million jobs in the same timeframe. “The changes will cause skills gaps: while some go unfilled, others will be overstaffed,” she adds. “Employers need to be aware that it will be a stressful time for workers who don’t have the right skills, and that they have a major L&D challenge on their hands.”

 

5. Brexit’s impact will be inescapable for many

Brexit will inevitably be top of many organisations’ agendas in 2019, says Claire Williams, director of people and services at CIPHR. “HR should be thinking now about what impact, if any, it will have from a resourcing perspective – particularly around the provision of visas. That’s one of the tangible things you can work on right now. Beyond that, it’s prudent for Brexit to be on your radar but, until we know exactly what it looks like, it’s a bit of a waste of resources to plan out lots of ‘what if’ scenarios.”

She adds: “Managing uncertainty will also be key. Make a start now to understand who in your organisation will be affected, and how you can help to support them.”

 

 6. HR can’t afford to take its foot off the gas when it comes to the GDPR

“Securing human capital data in the wake of the GDPR is another high priority,” says El Khoury. “The average HR team sees data privacy as a risk: they want to use personal data [to inform decision-making] but they aren’t allowed to because the regulations only authorise anonymous analysis of data so long as staff are informed about why it is being used.

“Top-performing HR teams are more transparent about their use of employee data and build more trust with their staff – which leads to employees being more willing to share their data and for it to be analysed. They also embed the data regulations into everything they do,” she adds.

Expect to see an employer suffer a breach of their staff’s personal data in 2019, says Williams. “A lot of the cases coming through the ICO at the moment relate to pre-GDPR incidents. We’re all waiting with bated breath for an employer data breach and to see the sanctions that follow.”

She adds: “Recent research by CIPHR found discrepancies between the policies HR teams had written, and the extent to which they are being implemented. There remains a question over whether organisations have built data-protection principles into their culture and design, to ensure they are being adhered to consistently. This is definitely something HR teams should be focusing on in the next 12 months: it’s vital that they don’t become complacent about GDPR compliance.”

 

7. Workforces will become more agile

Expect to see more organisations using their workforces in a more agile way in 2019, rather than hiring in new staff. “Because we know the return on investment is much better if you grow your own talent,” says Moran. “But the difficulty is in matching the opportunities with the resources you have available. I think we’re going to see more around how you can redeploy a workforce – how you can retrain good workers for new roles, rather than sacking them.”

Creating a more agile workforce links closely with the idea of the employee experience, he adds. “You have to understand each individual: what’s important to them, what motivates them, and what they like doing – and then try to sculpt the job around those three factors. Millennials in particular are a demanding demographic: embracing agility is a good way to support their career ambitions.”

 

8. Flexible working remains at the fore

Offering flexible working options and accommodating staff requests will continue to be a significant concern for HR in 2019 says Williams. “We’ve seen this year a lot in the press about flexible working, and especially about the four-day week. Expectations around what makes a good work-life balance is changing as the demographics of the workforce change. I think employers need to recognise that, where possible – and I know it changes from business to business – that they are thinking about how they can bring flexibility into their ways of working.”

Flexible working is also front of mind for English. “In our industry, a lot of people go freelance in search of flexibility – making recruitment a struggle sometimes. We’ve found that by introducing more flexible working relationships with people on permanent contracts, these roles become much more attractive.”

She adds: “We demand a lot from our people: [relationships] work both ways. You have to have that trust between the employee and the employer – that sense that we’re all in it together – and that requires flexibility.”

 

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