Why resilience should be one of HR’s top priorities

While HR leaders have directed significant attention to the issue of burnout in recent months, less has been invested in the area of building resilience–essentially the work that needs to be done to counteract the risk of burnout, says Marcus Buckingham, author and head of research, people and performance at the ADP Research Institute.

Marcus Buckingham

Buckingham, whose team has conducted extensive research on the topic of resilience over the last year, says it’s a concept that HR leaders must become intimately familiar with–as organizations that cultivate cultures of resilience will be the ones to thrive in a post-pandemic world, especially given forecasts of an ongoing tight labor market. Buckingham’s research has also explored what he says should be another HR priority: shaping the talent brand, a topic that he will dive into at his keynote during the upcoming HR Tech Conference.

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Before the event, Buckingham spoke with HRE about how the events of the last year have shaped his research, and his outlook on the HR industry.

HRE: You’ve done a lot of work on resilience. How pivotal do you think this idea is going to be for HR in the coming months, as we continue to deal with pandemic-related stress and burnout?

Buckingham: It’s going to be hugely significant. We’re at 5.6%-5.7% unemployment now, and that number is going to go down. That means the power is going to shift to talent more and more and more to choose where they want to work. So, the HR function will have to be very tightly tuned into what kind of work conditions make people feel not just productive but also healthy. If companies are not intelligent about that, then that talent is going to take their talent somewhere else. Companies need to be very thoughtful about making sure that, when you come to work, you’re uplifted by the experience as opposed to depleted–whether that’s where you’re working or how dynamic or hybridized the work situation is or the nature of the work itself; all of those things are going to, interestingly, become bargaining chips, frankly, on the part of talent. So, HR better really understand what causes resilience and, on the flip side, what causes burnout.

The HR function will have to be very tightly tuned into what kind of work conditions make people feel not just productive but also healthy. – Marcus Buckingham

HRE: What role will tech play in that work?

Buckingham: Well, one of the things technology is really good at is ensuring that people can stay connected in ways that are far more efficient than even five years ago. What we need to lean into tech for is what tech does best: It enables us to stay connected to fellow team members in a way that doesn’t require us to be in an office, to share documents and interact with people around those documents that doesn’t require us being seated on the other side of a table. Tech enables me to collaborate, to innovate and, therefore, to be responsive to my teammates in a way that I couldn’t even two or three years ago–which is tremendous. Technology done well should be individualized–individualized learning, individualized coaching, individualized ways of getting paid, getting benefits. If we use tech to understand who that individual is and what their current circumstances are, and then deliver content or services through that individualization filter, that’s the highest and best use of technology.

Having said that, all the data we see says you better not try to get tech to do what only humans can do–in the same way that banks 15 years ago thought ATMs would replace the need for tellers. To this day, banks have more tellers than ever because they realized people are anxious about their money and need their hand held, and an ATM machine doesn’t do that. It’s the same with HR. Do not try to get HR disaggregated by technology because pretty much everything HR deals with–the good stuff like promotions or the challenging things like employee relations issues or personal leave–are all fraught, and humans are anxious when they’re fraught and we need our emotional hand held. Technology can’t do that. One of the big, big, big shifts the HR tech community is going to need to wrestle with in the next five years is the limits of what technology can do.

Related: How Josh Bersin thinks the pandemic will reshape HR tech

HRE: Have the events of the last year prompted you to pivot your own research?

Buckingham: We did learn a lot about resilience. There’s surprisingly little research done about resilience. It’s interesting to think about because it’s the opposite of burnout but we don’t learn much about resilience by studying burnout–just like you don’t learn much about marriage by studying divorce. Why can some people power through this [pandemic] better than others? What is it about their ecosystem that enables them to do it? How much is trait versus state of mind? I wasn’t planning to research resilience until a couple years from now, and the pandemic totally changed that. It created a wonderful opportunity to study how we find meaning and purpose in the face of unavoidable suffering.

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And then the social justice movement really took the lid off of what we know about systemic disadvantages. Even though, in the U.S., the civil rights movement is 60 years old, we actually have no way of knowing if things are getting any better or worse when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. We can measure diversity in terms of representation and equity in terms of whether people are being paid the same but, in terms of sentiment–if people feel valued and heard at work–we don’t have a way to measure that. So, for the last year, my team at the Institute has been focused explicitly on how do you build a thermometer to measure that sentiment reliably, and one that everyone could use? If we’re going to make meaningful change, we need a thermometer to help people know if they’re getting healthier. That’s been a singular focus for us and was really prompted by George Floyd’s murder.

HRE: What’s the latest on your work on developing the HR Net Promoter Score?

We’re moving into a world in which talent has the power, and the CEO of every company is going to be turning to the CHRO and saying, “How can we build our talent brand?” The question in our research was, what drives the talent brand? What drives a person’s likelihood to recommend their company as a place to work to their friends and family? We can measure that so then the question becomes what role, if any, do HR’s interactions with people play in driving that talent brand?

And, it turns out, it does so in a way that’s meaningfully different than marketing, finance, IT, operations. Individual employee experience of their interactions with the HR function has a huge impact–a disproportionate impact–on the person’s likelihood to run around and advocate for the company as a place to work. If you want to look at what lever the CEO could pull–over and above making sure every team leader is a jolly good team leader–to ensure the talent brand is trending up and not down, the function they’ll look at first is HR.

Historically, almost all of the functions of HR have been seen as administrative cost centers–you have to get people paid, get people benefits, do some sort of rewards and performance management, some recruiting. HR isn’t a cost center–it’s potentially a huge value creator. These data show that the CHRO should run, not walk, to the CEO and say, “See, the way in which we handle all these HR things is not administrative; it’s a valuable way of creating the talent brand.”

At HR Tech, I’ll be answering a second question: We know that HR and the experience have a huge impact on the talent brand–now, what do they do? There are two surprising answers, both of which fly completely in the face of the megatrends in HR tech. The answers were not what we expected at all, and, I think, will cause a lot of people listening to go, “Huh, I wonder whether we should be thinking about what we do differently.”

Register here to hear keynoter Marcus Buckingham’s insights live at HR Tech in Las Vegas.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].