How can HR help create a human future of work?

Six thought leaders share their views on the HR challenge to create a more human future of work

Professor Roger Steare on hierarchy

Professor Roger Steare is an author and Corporate Philosopher at Cass Business School.
One of the biggest challenges that the HR profession faces and that employers face, is that we still believe a medieval and feudal hierarchy is the best way to govern people. It’s something we dropped a long time ago in British society, with universal suffrage established after the First World War. But in most organisations, be they public or private, they are feudal hierarchies with a dear leader at the top, the aristocracy, and everyone else is a peasant to be taxed and / or exploited. I’m exaggerating to make the point, but you can’t argue that that is the political settlement in most organisations, and increasingly, the tension between that structure in business and society is profound.

Neil Morrison on the over-standardisation work

Neil Morrison is Group HR Director at Penguin Random House.
This is the over-processing in work, saying that everything has to work in a certain way. It almost reduces people to the lowest common denominator which says ‘if we give you any freedom, If we give you any sense of responsibility, you might do something bad, and therefore we’re going to put a system in place to prevent you from doing that’. And I think that creates an inhumane workplace; a workplace that feels very artificial vs our normal lives.

That used to be the case for our consumer experiences too. But organisations, when they’re dealing with consumers, have gotten a lot better at individualising, tailoring, giving people the feeling that they can control their experience. I believe we need to replicate that at work, because the workplace now feels very different. We say to be people: ‘this is your pay, these are your benefits, these are your hours, this is your workplace and it all has to be the same as everyone else’s.’ And yet that is completely alien to the rest of our lives where we are able to tailor.

David Jackson on the culture of speaking up

David Jackson is an Associate Director of HR Business Solutions at Manchester Metropolitan University.
You want someone feeling confident that even if theirs is a dissenting voice, they can do something with that, and part of HR’s role is making that easy. It’s about having an environment in which discussion is good, debate is valued and people are comfortable and confident. I worry sometimes that we have stripped away this middle ground so people either don’t say anything and don’t challenge, or they rock the boat and it’s all very explosive. There has to be somewhere in-between those two points, and that’s when I think you get really good decision making, and it’s also when you can draw people into a deeper engagement with the organisation.

Meg Peppin on a seat at the top table

Meg Peppin is an Organisational Development Consultant at MP Partnership.
I think this notion of being at the top table; it’s a limiting assumption actually, because managing, growing, supporting, respecting and valuing people belongs to anybody that’s in any type of leadership role in an organisation. So I think devolving leadership development, or centring it around one function, is self-defeating – it needs to belong everywhere. If every leader in the organisation, whether that’s finance, sales or general management were energised, excited and prioritised the relational aspects of work and saw it as their most important focus – that could be a very different future. But what I see is that people are interested in their own specialism, and that’s how organisations have been designed – they’ve been designed to categorise us. So I think the notion of having HR at the top table, for me, is a distraction.

Nicola Rabson on the perceived value of HR in business

Nicola Rabson is the Global Practice Head Employment and Incentives at Linklaters. 
Business has not yet seen or understood the value of HR. We have been a very numbers-driven society, and I think there is a tipping point that is occurring now, where people realise that soft skills doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy skills. Soft skills are actually things you can’t define; and by that very nature, they become invaluable. Now, invaluable isn’t a word that one equates with valueless – it means something quite different – and I think HR has a moment now to really become a strategic partner in business.

Paul Nowak on training the future workforce

Paul Nowak is the Deputy General Secretary of the TUC.
When the pressure is on the bottom line, the first thing that goes is training, training budgets and support for managers. When I engage with organisations, I stress the importance of investing in the medium to long term – in managers, in people. The impact of not doing that can be felt years down the line, so that investment in training and skills is vitally important. Four in 10 employees in this country say they receive no training at work. One in three companies provide no training. That can’t be good for organisations; it’s certainly not good for the people we represent. Especially in this changing world of work where you need new skills to adapt and be flexible.