2020 NAHR fellows

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Distinguished Fellow Dave Ulrich, co-founder/partner at RBL Group, Rensis Likert Professor of Management, University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

HRE: What is your outlook on remote work? Do you think it will survive on a widespread basis after the pandemic?

Dave Ulrich

Ulrich: Remote work is not new; some people have been doing virtual work for some time. But the pandemic coupled with facile technology has and will expand remote work. The challenge is to “redefine the boundaries of work.” Traditionally, “work” is a place we go to in the morning, spend time at during the day and return from. Now, much work can be done anywhere but still requires boundaries that define being “at work.” Those boundaries are less about the place and more about the shared values that create value for customers. Regardless of where one works (in a traditional office, in a remote office, at home, at a coffee shop, in a car, in a hotel or on an airplane), they are “at work” when they are engaged in activities that create value for customers. “Work” will likely be an ecosystem of settings connected by the value of creating value for customers (and other key stakeholders). People will likely opt into and out of different workplaces but have to commit to activities that create value.

HRE: How has the pandemic reshaped technology’s role in the HR function?

Ulrich: Again, technology or digital transformation is not new, but amplified by the pandemic on two dimensions. First, all organizations now have some version of a digital business strategy on how to access and use information to succeed in the marketplace. HR plays a central role in defining, clarifying, shaping and delivering on this digital business agenda. Second, within the HR function, there is an increasing demand for a digital HR strategy. We have seen this digital HR strategy move through four phases: 1. Efficiency, where existing HR processes are put into digital delivery; 2. Innovation, with the overwhelming number of new HR apps (Josh Bersin, the expert in this space, says over 2,700 new apps); 3. Information, where HR acquires, accesses and acts on information around people and organization (scorecards, dashboard, insights and eventually guidance); and 4. Experience or connection, where the digital world enables employees to increase their ability to believe (find meaning), become (learn and grow) and belong (have relationships and community). Most of the digital HR agenda remains at phase 1 (efficiency) and phase 2 (innovation), with emerging work on information (e.g., guidance) and experience (believe, become and belong).

HRE: Burnout and depression are rampant among American workers during the pandemic; what is HR’s responsibility in this regard? And how does it differ from the historical HR approach to mental health?

Ulrich: Again, mental health is not a new topic. The pandemic heightens attention on employee wellbeing because of the increased personal demands facing employees (social distancing, reinventing work, demands for productivity). HR professionals, working with business leaders, are on the front line of caregiving. They are often the emotional first responders to help employees find resources to cope with the increased demands. We have talked about five resources to help employees cope with the pandemic malaise that is affecting nearly everyone: 1. Physical: Take care of one’s body and space; 2. Emotional: Tame apprehensions and find emotional support; 3. Social: Create psychological safety and a positive community; 3. Intellectual: Learn and grow and establish a growth mindset; and 5. Spiritual:  Discover personal meaning and align it to organization values.

HRE: What should HR leaders be doing to advance the conversation around diversity and inclusion?

Ulrich: DE&I increasingly matters. It is simply the “right thing” to do as a signal of respect for people and as a way to help organizations fulfill their social citizenship stewardship. It also enables innovation, creativity and high-performing teams. It defines the internal values that create value for others. HR professionals should be exemplars of sustainable DE&I thinking and actions. They need to evolve diversity thinking from a focus on “power,” where there are limited resources, to a focus on “empowerment,” where they are unlimited resources. They also build the institutional mechanisms (e.g., around people, performance, communication and work policies) that create sustainable actions. As they hold themselves, employees, leaders and organizations accountable for sustainable DE&I, all people will be better able to fulfill their potential.

HRE: The role of HR has changed dramatically in 2020. What are the most important skill sets HR leaders of tomorrow will need to fulfill those roles?

Ulrich: In our seven rounds of HR Competence Studies, we have found that about 30%-40% of HR competencies that deliver value evolve every four or five years. The multiple crises of global pandemic, social and racial strife, and economic disruption will continue to require emerging HR competencies. We hypothesize and will test five emerging competencies: provide information asymmetry (ability to acquire, analyze and act on information to make better decisions); separate signal from noise (in today’s business context of overwhelming information, HR recognizes and focuses on what matters most; offer guidance (on the “right”  talent, leadership, organization and HR); provide anticipatory solutions (respond quickly to opportunities and challenges to create anticipatory scenarios that can be quickly implemented); and ensure social citizenship (help the organization navigate citizenship issues around planet, people, political changes, philanthropy and purpose/profit creation). These emerging HR competencies matter if and when they impact personal effectiveness, customer and investor value, and business results.