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Why return-to-work is putting HR and people leaders in charge

John Anderson
John Anderson is Managing Director, Human Resources Practice, Allegis Partners.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those in HR and people operations positions, and leadership positions in particular, rapidly found their expertise more in need than ever before. As companies transitioned to remote work–and then a year later, started to plan their return to the office–people operations professionals drove the multifaceted considerations and logistics of both shifts. And that’s just scratching the surface of the increasingly prominent role that they have been asked to take on amid the pandemic.

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As a result of COVID, people operations has been called upon to entirely rethink how the function can deliver the most effective and supportive work experiences. Employees in these positions have crafted and implemented new policies around mental health, flexible and hybrid work arrangements, employee engagement, diversity initiatives, and much more. As the role has taken on new meaning within many organizations, it’s becoming viewed in a refreshed light, both among the C-suite and the broader organization. This is a sea change that will remain long after the pandemic subsides.

Related: Here’s why AI is making HR pros indispensable

One of the most apparent ways that this shift is playing out is that searches for HR positions are rapidly on the rise. According to recent data from job site Indeed, HR and talent position openings have risen by 52% from their pre-pandemic baseline. That’s following a 40% dip in postings last year, more than any other job function.

In part, this uptick is driven by the fact that companies are staffing up their human resources departments to navigate the nuances of the return-to-work process and a booming post-lockdown economy that has many companies rapidly scaling. At a more forward-looking level, people operations positions have become even more valuable because the work has evolved, and its highly strategic nature is making a bigger, broader impact on organizations. In navigating multiple hot-button issues at once–including the logistics of remote work, ensuring employee health and safety, and the impacts of the social and racial justice movements–the work of the people operations professional has become more meaningful than ever before.

That’s also being reflected in rising compensation levels for people operations professionals. Especially at the executive level, HR pay is soaring, with some companies paying CPOs on par with CFO compensation. At the highest levels, corporate boards are also taking interest and increasingly gravitating toward adding CPOs and CHROs to their ranks. The expertise of these leaders in talent, compensation and workplace issues has become a necessary commodity as the board agenda becomes saturated with related topics: mental health and wellness; diversity, equity and inclusion; and the future of work, to name a few.

As a further extension of this trend, even billionaires are creating venture funds focused on people. As a recent example of this, Marc Lore, a former CEO of Walmart eCommerce, and former New York Yankees player Alex Rodriguez recently started the VCP (Vision/Capital/People) Fund, which aims to invest significant seed capital (ranging from 40-80% stakes) in early-stage startups to allow them to build out their executive teams and prove their concept.

This approach is nearly unprecedented in the investment world and speaks to a broader recognition of the importance to a company’s success of bringing in and retaining the best talent.

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At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, HR and people operations leaders were able to step in in a significant way and lead companies through the multiple crises that they faced in navigating the unknown. Over the past year and a half, however, their value has proven even more far-reaching; in many cases, being asked to redefine core aspects of their organizations.

This is also compounded by the “Great Resignation:” With strong demand across the job market, more and more companies are recognizing the importance of taking proactive steps to retain their top talent. As the return-to-work process ramps up over the coming months, talent, compensation and workplace issues will remain at the forefront—and as organizations grapple with these topics, people operations executives have cemented their place as crucial voices within the C-suite and are beginning to gain a foothold within corporate boards.