“HR needs to rethink its role”

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Companies should create opportunities for people to be successful in the long run. This might not be what people want now (satisfaction, purchasing power,… ) and could be seen as a new paternalism (we want people to be successful, happy,…). But in our own interest we need to put people before their responsibilities and help them to survive in the world of work and acquire the new competencies needed. In an individual age, an individual approach is needed. HR needs to rethink its role.

Taking care of people

People are core to any business strategy. Companies need to take care of their employees in order to be successful. This is even more valid in times or scarcity and turmoil. This has to be considered in a changing nature of work, work organization, societal norms etc. as described in Lynda Gratton’s book ‘The Shift’ (2011). There is a growing individualisation with risks of isolation of people, fragmentation of work life and exclusion of and poverty.

For companies “taking care of people” will mean that they need to create conditions and opportunities for people to be(come) successful in the long run and avoid the negative outcomes of change, work for the positive outcomes and develop new roles and competencies to tackle the challenges of the future. This should result in a positive outcome for the employee, the company and society at large. This taking care makes people responsible for their own future.

However, (too) many people do not want to be taken care of in this way. For them being taken care of by their employer is the provision of income, satisfaction, flexible solutions,… It’s a hedonistic consumption of employment. They are in the old deal of work: generating income to finance consumption of goods and services. Providing meaningful work that requires different skills, that enables engagement within and outside the company, that requires people to connect and engage in co-development,… is not offering easy and often passive solutions to the need for income.

“Taking care of” is conditional and related to the contribution that someone has to offer to the company. The ability to contribute to the results of a company and therefore the possibility to generate income will depend increasingly on new competencies that have less to do with those competencies that people have acquired in school.

“Taking care of people” should not be a new paternalism. People receive opportunities which they take on or they don’t. They will evolve during the execution of their job and acquire the new competencies. In this way companies will take on certain responsibilities that used to be proprietary to educational systems (such as schools, universities and even the family). So one
could ask oneself why companies should bother doing this. The answer is simple : offering those developmental opportunities beyond the short-term execution of a job is part of our corporate social responsibility.

In addition, the companies that do so will develop gravity, attracting employees that seek opportunities for growth and long term employability. Companies need to accept the risk that this investment in people that gets them in “better shape”, enables people to leave the company more easily and search new endeavors. The gain of this for companies is amongst others the increasing interconnectedness of people that will have worked in various environments. This should reinforce not only the individual employee, but also the companies they have worked for.

As said, many people are still in the old deal at work, focused on income and consumption, instead of focusing on living a worthwhile life or having a job that makes a difference. This is not meant to be judgmental as everyone can determine what makes his or her own life worthwhile. But consumerism might be the biggest obstacle for making the shift happen. Greed, sloth and envy need to be overcome if someone wants to live in interdependency and freedom. So there’s enough reason to be pessimistic, as those biblical sins have been around.

What can we do?

In this age of individual thinking we need to provide individual solutions. We need to embrace the diversity of people and look for ways to encompass different and sometimes diverging needs. The one-for-all solutions will no longer be appropriate answers to complex problems.

Corporate arrogance (“if you don’t like it, go”) should make way for an approach that embraces individual needs and potential.

• Provide meaningful work that expands the employee’s vision and enables him to have a long career. For this we need to create organizations, cultures, processes, and environments that foster individual growth. The new organization will be a network of individuals engaging in to them meaningful work.

• Focus on the individual’s potential and his/her possible contribution to the company and to society. Job descriptions, job-related assessment, etc. become obsolete as people take on assignments (serial mastery). Instead of searching for the right candidate for a job, we need to focus on finding the right assignment for the candidate, capitalizing on potential. And we need to look for those employees who can perform in tomorrow’s world.

• Provide ways for employees to acquire future-oriented skills. First we need to make people aware of what the future might bring and how these changes will affect each individual employee.

• Develop leadership that is based on coaching, which is the most individualized way of learning and progressing. Coaching instead of teaching, telling, … Coaching is based on creating awareness and a feeling of responsibility that leads to action. I am convinced that coaching will play a major role in realizing the potential of the Shift and avoiding the grim characteristics of the default scenario.

• Allow for idiosyncratic deals, refrain from judgment about why someone wants something at a certain time. I am not talking about the cafeteria-plans. Very often these focus on the choice that someone can make between short term and long term benefits. I am referring to the possibility to take sabbaticals in order to take on other roles in life, to engage in social action, to acquire new skills. Collective bargaining will not be accepted by those individuals looking for a tailor-made construction that enables them to achieve their personal goals.

These are some thoughts about the future of work and its impact on organizations. HR can play a major role in this as architect of a new organization. The only thing we should not do is thinking that old approaches will make us successful. And therefore, in addition to the list of recommendations, we need to rethink the role of HR in tomorrow’s reality. As individualization increases, people will do their own HR management. It will be called self-management. They will look for ways of developing themselves, selecting companies or assignments that will accelerate their progress. They will negotiate about their own HR approach.

Intelligently designed companies that can be habitats in which employees can be(come) themselves in the first place will attract and retain talent. HR needs to let go of the old ways. We will probably not talk about HR anymore since that refers to the old deal as well. In future we will probably just talk about people management within companies.

David Ducheyne (General Manager HR & People Services / CPO)

Senior HR Business Partner

DP World Antwerp

HR talent werving en selectie

UZ Leuven

Projectleider soft HR


Projectbeheerder HR Analytics


HR Directeur

Groep DIlbeek

Learning and Development specialist

Helden Van Het Zol

HR Adviseur Social Affairs

Aldi Holding


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