Uncertainty was a word that came to define many of the macro trends shaping the world of work in 2023—from the economy and global conflicts to climate change and the still-unfolding definition of the future of work. And as the start of 2024 inches closer, experts say that the questions marks that loomed over employers this year won’t be dissipating any time soon—necessitating HR leaders to step up more than ever with guidance and leadership, both to the C-suite and the workforce.
Jenni Short, chief people officer at Texans Credit Union, says HR is facing an unprecedented expectation to be a harbinger of steadiness for their organizations, as both employers and employees alike learn to adapt to rapid change amid ongoing uncertainty.
“It’s about how do we continue to support our staff, to provide great stability even in those times,” Short says about HR’s imperative for 2024. “I think it goes back to culture and connection and the openness that you have with your team. Because when there are uncertain times in the rest of their lives, they’re looking for that stability at work.”
It’s a role that HR has increasingly assumed in the last few years, particularly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic—which ushered in the rise of remote and hybrid work, rapid tech advancements and a reimagined employer-employee relationship.
Keeping organizations stable through those shifts has fueled an evolution in traditional HR thinking about change management, says Jacqueline Welch, executive vice president and CHRO of the New York Times.
“When you say ‘change management’ now, it sounds so cute and antiquated,” she says. “The whole idea of change management emerged with ERPs—where you had a year to think about things, find a third-party vendor, another year to implement. It was change management because we imposed a change on ourselves—very different than the world we’re operating in now.”
The rapid, external macro changes shaping the world of work, Welch adds, mean that “we’re moving away from the idea of managing change and instead moving toward supporting the enablement of our leaders as change leaders.”
HR in 2024: Embedding empathy
Key to helping leaders navigate ongoing change, Welch says, is to encourage them to lead with empathy.
For instance, leadership needs to be attuned to the anxieties their workforces are facing from outside of the workplace. The conflicts happening in the Middle East—and the uncertainties about what the war will mean for broader peace efforts—are doubtlessly impacting employees.
“Even the most remotely removed person is watching these events unfold with a certain level of anguish and uncertainty,” Welch says. “Employers need to be mindful of that.”
The deteriorating situation in Israel and Palestine comes amid the second year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and continued concerns about geopolitical issues involving China and Korea, she adds.
“I do think the global theater is so dynamic right now,” Welch says. “And for people paying attention to those things, it’s anxiety-inducing. So, we need to be mindful of that.”
To support empathetic leadership, HR can tap into lessons learned throughout COVID, Welch says, when employers made significant strides toward alleviating stigma around mental health challenges. At the height of the pandemic, an EY study found that nearly 90% of employees surveyed said they would be more loyal to an employer that exercised empathetic leadership.
Keeping lines of communication open and encouraging discussions about mental health, she says, can help HR and business leaders support employees struggling with ongoing global uncertainties—including the still-developing impact of the pandemic.
“I think, generally speaking, we haven’t fully processed [COVID],” Welch says. “Mental health can’t be over-focused enough.”
Employees want action
As HR and leaders look to mitigate the impact of global events on their employees, they also need to be mindful that employees may be looking to them to take a public stance on such issues.
A recent survey by Jobsage found that nearly two-thirds of surveyed workers want their employers to speak out on important social issues.
Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture, recently told HRE that the organization signed onto the Anti-Defamation League’s Workplace Pledge to Fight Antisemitism because “in times like this,” she says, “it’s important for us to come together as a global community to live our shared values—to support, care for and respect one another.”
Employers, led by HR, are going to be increasingly faced with figuring out when—and how—to make such commitments, says Christopher Collins, professor and director of graduate studies at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.
“We need to be thinking through the questions of, When do we speak up? And what we do speak up about?” Collins says. “Most issues out there have no clear answers—because of differences in political bent or ideas about what’s the right thing or not the right thing—so there’s no right answer. But deciding how to speak up, when to speak up and who speaks up is really challenging—and can put organizations in tough places.”
HR leaders in 2024 will be tasked with helping leadership navigate those questions, he says. Collins cautions, however, that while HR should be a driving force on this issue, it can’t act alone.
“What I worry about is that [strategizing for organizational response to complex issues] becomes our domain and that we own that. I don’t think we should,” he says. “I think we should influence it and help the organization think through how to speak up. But it shouldn’t fall just on our plates.”