Brooks: Did 2021 finally break HR?

We made it!

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If you’re reading this column, CONGRATULATIONS! Really, I’m being serious. Just the simple fact of you being here means you’ve successfully made it through the lion’s share (or all) of 2021, a year that was truly unlike any other. In fact, I predict that future business school textbooks are going to look back on this time and feature this year as one of great significance in the arc of our profession and industry. And it’s certainly one we’ll all look back on ourselves with bewilderment, even when we’re long-retired.

Bug or feature?

Historically speaking, HR has always been necessarily rigid, as we were the rock of protecting our organizations from risk, keeping employees safe, complying with the law–and, of course, getting our people paid! The origins of personnel management were so crucial that they required organizations to make bulletproof processes and systems to ensure that everyone could safely rely on them. In a prior context, HR’s rigidity was a feature, not a bug.

Now, fast-forward to today, where the entire concept of modern employment is truly being disrupted. Many futurists have called the pandemic “the great accelerator” of trends and movements that were already in flight and have now begun happening at incredible speeds (e.g., telemedicine, remote work and grocery delivery). And when you look at things through the lens of employment being so rapidly reimagined by structural shifts far greater than the heft of Fortune 500 companies, HR’s stability and consistency have now ultimately become more of a bug than a feature.

Did HR (finally) break?

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I truly believe that 2021 is going to be the year we’ll look back at and declare: “Yep, that’s when HR broke.” Though this will likely be said with appreciation, as a necessary turning point.

Author Ben Brooks is founder and CEO of PILOT.
Author Ben Brooks is founder and CEO of PILOT.

That’s not to say that people leaders across the world haven’t been absolutely busting their hump, adapting and doing their best during this time. My goodness, quite the opposite! You don’t need to look far to see people who have been stepping up at heroic levels, even as they are shackled by ineffective legacy technology, antiquated policies, misaligned skills on their teams and an under-resourced function overall. But unfortunately, “making do” just isn’t sustainable.

Think of the stress test on each of HR’s centers of expertise–the effect of the labor shortage and inflation on compensation; the second war for talent’s impact on recruiting; vaccine and testing mandates creating complexity for HRBPs; cybersecurity threats taking down payroll systems; or extended hybrid and remote work disrupting our culture, learning and development, DEI, internal communications and employee experience efforts. When you add all this up, it becomes painfully obvious that the world is changing far faster than our function has, and we ourselves must accelerate HR’s rate of change in order to meet that of the economy and labor market.

See also: Why employees are redefining what work will look like in 2022

Let’s use this to change

John Kotter is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on change management, and his “Step 1” to leading change is “establishing a sense of urgency.” The start of 2022 is a great time for us to declare that what we’ve been doing is no longer working and is entirely unsustainable for us as organizations and as professionals. We can’t afford a third year of being Superwo/man–because it will break us as people, and in turn, it will break our organizations. So, let’s use the attention and reliance we’ve earned over the past two years to our advantage.

And haven’t we been wanting to “blow up” how we do HR for a long time, anyway? It’s in the very names of some of the HR communities of change agents who are seeking to innovate the function: “DisruptHR,” “Hacking HR,” “Hrevolution.” Nobody is saying we don’t need HR, we just need a “3.0” version of it for the decade that lies ahead of us. This is something that artists know: Oftentimes, we must destroy in order to create. And we can indeed destroy old paradigms, processes or programs while at the same time still protecting the great professionals in our function.

A reimagined function

Imagine an HR that’s more flexible, has the best technology in the enterprise, is flush with meaningful data, provides a more compelling employee experience and is a magnet for the best talent in the organization. Where executives, managers and employees alike all value and engage with HR as a mission-critical resource to their success. And finally getting the budgets and resources that we really need–like those our colleagues in IT, finance or sales receive–to be able to do the work and deliver results.

Of course, the kinds of skills and competencies we’ll need to have in an HR 3.0 will mean that many of us are naturally going to need to grow and learn. Embarking on the journey of doing so will definitely take us out of our comfort zones, but I promise you right here and now that tolerating that discomfort, pushing through and finding the courage to do bold things is a powerful thing that will truly catapult our careers and our lives forward.

So, as we turn the page and look toward 2022, let’s focus on rebuilding, reimagining and restructuring our function from the ground up. We’ve never had a bigger opening–and this opportunity is a guest that likely won’t stay for long.

Read more insights from Ben Brooks here.

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Ben Brooks
Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach's Corner column for HRE.