3 ways to humanize HR and create a culture of connections

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Belinda Parmar, OBE Chief Executive Officer, The Empathy Business


  • HR is an outdated function in some organizations – in order to survive it must adapt with the changing needs of its people.
  • COVID-19 has precipitated a mental health crisis which demands a new kind of empathetic workplace culture.
  • Here are three ways organizations can rise to this challenge and offer a new vision of HR that champions people not process.

While Human Resources – HR – has been on life support for years, COVID-19 has sounded its death knell. Less than 20% of us want work to return to how it was. According to Gallup, even prior to COVID-19, only 1 in 10 of us were actually engaged in our jobs. While not all occupational malaise can be laid at HR’s doorstep, one has to ask the question: what would employees miss if the HR department disappeared tomorrow? Sadly, the answer is not much.

HR lost its humanity a long time ago, with employees being referred to as “resources”, “assets” and “human capital”. HR is the function we speak to when we have a payroll issue, a vacation request or a benefit question, all of which can be (or is being) replaced by automation and AI.

Rarely has HR been the beating heart of an organization, bringing humanity and clarity to our working lives, but somehow we accepted this. We allowed what should have been a fundamental part of business to be sidelined from the people it was meant to serve. HR should be the first port of call at times of crisis, a social safety net, a team equipped to look after our growing emotional needs.

Workplace stress is set to rise

We are on the brink of a mental health tsunami. A survey by the Associated Press demonstrated that the pandemic has increased stress for more than 50% of employees. Research from the University of Birmingham reported that these effects will not disappear in a post-vaccine world – similar to the way workers reacted to 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, stress due to loss of job security is expected to take centre stage in the months to come.

In an Oracle study, 71% of executives said 2020 was their most stressful working year ever, and 53% reported struggling with mental health issues at work. While companies advocate for ‘leaner’ structures to respond to revenue declines, they have missed out on a key aspect of high employee stress levels: it simply isn’t financially sustainable. Workplace stress costs employers $125-190 billion in healthcare costs in the US alone.

The fault lies less with individuals than with the corporate system. Often HR and people directors do not have the same clout as sales people, and without money and a voice at the top table, it’s hard to make a difference and create an environment where people feel they belong and are empowered.

The fourth industrial revolution and the global pandemic gives an opportunity to re-write the HR script and move focus from process to people. This can lead to a new type of leadership and culture. There are three actionable nudges to make this happen:

1. Change HR’s name to the Connections Team

It might sound superficial, but in my experience transforming companies, there is power in language. When the UK government referred to those providing essential services as “low-skilled workers”, there was an uproar. A simple change of terminology, calling them “key workers”, shifted public perception, and we went out every Thursday evening to clap and appreciate our most valued members of society. Language changes behaviour, and connections are vital to a people function, building connections and becoming the social glue of the team, whether virtual or physical.

2. Measure and track people’s emotions

Get rid of the outdated employee engagement surveys which lack insight, and check how people feel about using collaborative software. Adobe has continuously tracked employees’ moods from the start of the pandemic and responded with a no layoffs pledge and provided an extra day off. Whatever actions you take, the key is to acknowledge and track how people are feeling. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

3. Train your people to manage emotions

Empathy is not a soft skill, it’s a learnt one that you have to work at. You cannot expect people to be prepared in the current, unprecedented working environment. Studies of emotional intelligence in the workplace have found that emotionally intelligent employees are less stressed and more committed to the organisation they work for. The Connection Teams replacing HR would want to look into developing training modules on topics like: ‘Having Difficult Conversations’; ‘Learning to Say No’; ‘Asking How to Lead Remotely’.These are what employees need most in a hybrid working environment.

We need a new social contract between employers and employees, and this is the time to write one. We need to change the measurement from attitudinal surveys to actual behaviour and measure tangible things like the percentage of time everyone speaks in a meeting, the number of people involved in decision making and the percentage of time people are spending on company politics rather than building connections.

A Connections team is an exciting place to be right now, and it will attract a different type of leader, one focused less on process and more on people. A focus on the human aspect of HR may well be what saves it.

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