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3 ways HR can support culture through the ‘new normal’

Lead the charge in the rapidly evolving landscape with employee experience, culture and work from home.
By: | June 16, 2020 • 4 min read

Human Resources departments have long gotten a bad rap. After talent acquisition handles an employee’s initial hiring and onboarding, it’s likely most interactions with our department are about things like employee issues, annual healthcare enrollment and dreaded performance reviews. Even worse, it’s commonly recognized that if an HR representative is present, someone’s job is probably at risk. Now more than ever, the challenges facing HR practitioners are deep and complex.

We may have gravitated toward a human resources career path because we are a “people person.” It’s likely that we and other HR professionals value interpersonal relationships and have a high EQ (emotional intelligence quotient). The world around us is rapidly changing. Interconnectedness is becoming more virtual and less in person. How is it that an industry rooted in human interaction has gained a reputation as the boogeyman, and what can we do to change it?

Related: Are employees seeing light at the end of the pandemic tunnel?

Author Nate Randall is founder and president of Ursa Major Consulting.

With the rise of self-serve performance management, healthcare enrollment and payroll processing systems, HR representatives’ roles have become more about pushing buttons and sending email reminders than engaging with colleagues. With the necessity and trend of working from home, we in HR risk becoming even more of a secret society and faceless name behind the corporate curtain. HR has continuously been asked to do more work with less staff, effectively removing the social impact of the HR function. 

As technology has created fewer reasons to engage with colleagues, it puts HR in a challenging spot. Although our department is given the responsibility for creating a great company culture, we may feel that we rarely have the time, budget or ability to influence it. 

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It may seem impossible given everything we are tasked with, but there are some easy ways to integrate with our colleagues to improve HR’s reputation within the company. HR knows better than anyone that organizational change takes time. Below are both immediate and long-term ways to build your HR team to support your company’s culture through these unprecedented times.

  1. Participate

The first step is to be present in the company you support. This means stepping out from behind the computer (figuratively) and actively participating in the day-to-day. 

Invite your colleagues from outside HR to a virtual lunch. Although it can sometimes feel like high school all over again, asking to “join the table” of a different department is a convenient way to socialize without adding any more time to your day. You’ll be surprised by what you learn listening to folks from various walks of life.

If you offer virtual health, wellbeing, fitness initiatives or employee resource groups, join them. If there’s a club that aligns with your interests, this is the perfect opportunity to socialize with colleagues and allow them to see you as more than a department representative. Those trendy new virtual Happy Hours? You should be there with a drink in hand. My experience as a participant has always been extremely valuable in enhancing existing programs.

  1. Speak (and act) like a human

In HR, we have our own language. Abbreviations like COBRA, HIPAA, HSA and HCM abound. Although this can quickly convey information to those in our department, it will rarely mean anything to others in our company. Ensuring that we spell out words and explain what they mean in simplified language will make the conversation go more smoothly, rather than leaving them wondering “WTH is an FSA”?

Alexander Pope once penned, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Making mistakes is part of being human. But rarely are human resources allowed to make mistakes. When we do, our errors are amplified because they usually center around things that are intensely personal and impactful, such as employee benefits. Rightfully so, this can cause employees to have strong reactions.

Showing empathy, having the ability to apologize and being willing to find resolutions are essential skills for any good HR pro. Calming the emotional response of the other person by validating the way they feel goes a long way. After demonstrating empathy for their situation, an apology is the next logical step. Simply saying, “I’m sorry” can be sufficient, but it’s always best to repeat what we’re apologizing for, so the person feels heard. Fixing a mistake, or at the very least, making it right in some way is the critical end game. If we are unable to offer an immediate resolution, be sure to provide a follow-up date to help build trust, and then deliver. 

Another easy way to speak like a human and build trust is to ask for feedback. People love to share their opinion and all employee surveys are a key bridge-builder between HR and the organization. Questions can be as simple as, “What’s your favorite snack in your kitchen?” or something that requires a bit more thought like asking them to evaluate how they felt an HR interaction went. If we’re specific with our question, we’ll likely elicit a clear response. For example, “I’d love to know we can improve. How could we have explained our benefits in a way that made it clearer?” Additionally, we must be prepared to demonstrate change based on the feedback we receive. That will go a long way in building a culture of trust where employees feel their voices are heard. It may be obvious, but don’t ask anything you aren’t prepared to act upon. This can undermine the whole effort.

  1. Hire for culture

One trend that is taking off in the world of human resources is hiring a designated person responsible for employee experience and culture. This person’s sole responsibility is to create an inclusive culture where colleagues have opportunities to strengthen relationships and feel delighted about their work experience. This person is often responsible for things like company food services, as well as developing and maintaining such employee programs as fitness, wellbeing, company events and other employee-led programs. 

“All companies are communities—and as with any community, they have distinct characteristics that define their DNA,” says Alex Shubat, CEO of culture tech company Espresa. “HR teams today have massive responsibilities, to not only maintain the top tier benefits of health and wealth but also the ideas and experiences that make multi-generational and global workforces feel a sense of place, community and culture. More than ever, company culture is helping to get us through some very tough times.” 

Related: Culture proving to be a positive product of the pandemic

Designating a person to help boost employee culture in this time sends a strong message to employees that culture and employee experience are important to the organization. Having a person at every virtual and in-person event who can see and feel the culture and close the employee feedback loop only makes sense.

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“That’s a huge ask and a ton of responsibility in an already constrained HR organization,” Shubat says. “With new culture-based technologies, HR now has the ability to enrich their vibrant cultures without the significant labor and minutia involved. Just because you have more and more free-range employees who are working from home, or wherever on the planet, they can still get a sense of connection to their culture—and that is where loyalty lives.” 

One thing is clear, the shifting focus and trend in human resources towards employee experience and culture are only going to continue to amplify as our work world changes and we navigate to the new normal. The best organizations will be prepared to meet the expectations of their employees and recruits by supporting a rich and vibrant employee experience focused culture, no matter where they are on the planet.

Nate Randall is the founder and president of Ursa Major Consulting as well as host of the Illuminate HR Podcast. He is a frequent speaker, advocate and adviser to the Human Resources industry.

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