27 Jan Reimagining the Role of Human Resources in the Future of Work
Since early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen an unprecedented level of labour market disruptions sweep through the world, with millions hit with job loss, indefinite furloughs and reduction in their working hours or salaries. As companies fought to stay afloat, senior workers were often the first to go, faced as they were against fresh-eyed young employees who possessed industry-relevant and technologically-up-to-date skills. On the other end of the spectrum, students saw their prestigious internships – crucial for resume-building – withdrawn or postponed, and fresh graduates struggled to secure employment – having to either prolong their job search, or settle for jobs outside of their industries, temporary stints, or lowered wages. Suffice to say, in the first year of the pandemic in particular, employees and job-hunters had few – if any – cards to play.
Now two years into the pandemic, the tide has shifted. In what is being dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’, businesses are scrambling to stymie growing resignation rates, especially in the United States. The subreddit r/antiwork has seen its numbers skyrocket in recent months, with frustrated workers speaking out on a lack of work-life balance, burnout, and inadequate pay – issues that were highlighted in the pandemic – among others. Most recently, the r/WorkReform subreddit has also started to gain steam, calling for reasonable living wages to align with minimum essential standards of living, which includes food, healthcare and sheltering. In the United States, the number of Americans quitting the jobs has exceeded pre-pandemic numbers for eight months consecutively, as of November 2021.
In Singapore, the story seems to play out a little differently – mixed survey results provide an unclear picture as to whether the Great Resignation has truly taken hold. Indeed’s survey in December 2021 revealed that nearly 25% of Singaporean workers intended to make a job switch within the first quarter of 2022, while another more recent survey by NTUC LearningHub this January suggested that only 10% of Singapore’s workers were embarking on active job-hunting in 2022. What is for certain is that some sectors are in greater flux than others. Within Singapore’s legal industry, 2021 marked a record number of departures – 538 in 2021 compared to previous years’ range of 380 to 430, with a large proportion comprising junior lawyers.
The future of work is changing – with wider and more transparent information sharing, employees are now better-placed to negotiate for themselves. With Covid-19 bringing to light work-from-home arrangements and the pervasiveness of overwork culture, topics such as mental health are increasingly included in workplace conversation.
Amid these shifts, the ‘Human’ in Human Resources (HR) is progressively being brought ever more to the forefront. Organisations must quickly recognise and adapt to the shifting sands in the labour landscape to stay ahead, and HR professionals are crucial in this respect to ensure that employer and employee are mutually aligned in their needs, expectations and goals.
An Ever More Educated Workforce
The labour movement has often seen much strife between employer and employee, with unions created out of the need for workers to band together to protect their common interests, and advocate for better wages, more reasonable hours and safer workplace conditions. While the effectiveness of unions in helping their members achieve better and fairer compensation, benefits and protections has been much debated, the balance of power and knowledge between the employer and the layperson employee has remained relatively imbalanced.
Yet, with the advent of the Internet and dedicated job forums, information has become easily accessible at our fingertips. Websites like Indeed allow current and potential employees to access information on company culture, job scope and responsibilities, compensation and benefits, while a quick Google search reveals the market rate for your role. In addition, pages like the popular Ask A Manager offer the opportunity to consult professionals for advice on workplace-related topics.
Exploitation is less tolerated, as workers can now wield social media as a tool to call for justice – demonstrated in Singapore in the recent viral Night Owl Cinematics saga on the issue of harsh treatment between employer and employees and more recently, the allegations of toxic workplace practices, such as a lack of work-life balance, unprofessional interview experiences and preferential treatment, against Shopee.
More than ever, employees are increasingly educated on their employment rights and empowered to make informed career choices, evening the playing field in the labour market and workplace negotiations. Organisations and their HR professionals should take into consideration the enhanced level of awareness and education amongst employees and would-be hires, and factor this into a range of areas – such as hiring and negotiation policies, talent development and retention processes, and general workplace policies and protocol – to remain attractive and competitive in the labour market.
Greater Awareness on Mental Health and Overall Well-being
Thanks to Covid-19, lockdowns and work-from-home arrangements became the great equaliser amongst employees of all ranks and positions. From the top to bottom levels of every organisation, everyone experienced similar issues – cabin fever, the exacerbation of mental health issues and conflicts within the household, and the blurred lines between work and home. Workers, in particular those in essential sectors such as food services, retail and healthcare, also experienced burnout in record numbers – reporting high stress, depression and anxiety levels stemming from a system that has been stretched beyond its maximum capacity without any indication of reprieve.
Governments and organisations quickly recognised the criticality of addressing these concerns – suicide rates were at unprecedented highs, and staff in frontline sectors were quitting in droves or protesting their working conditions. Their cries for help, often publicised on social media in pleas for members of the public to do their part in reducing the strain on the healthcare system, forced the conversation towards topics that were – prior to the pandemic – considered taboo and oft-overlooked: mental health and work-life balance.
In response, governments introduced a slew of measures. The COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce was created in Singapore to tackle mental health needs amidst the pandemic, and the U.S. Senate passed the Dr. Lorna Breene Health Care Provider Protection Act to reduce and prevent burnout and suicide amongst healthcare professionals, amongst others. Most recently, ‘right to disconnect’ legislation was implemented in Belgium, banning civil servant employees from being contacted outside of working hours. At the organisational level, as countries and businesses began to open up post-lockdown, work-life balance was increasingly encouraged with options such as a 4-day work week, permanent work-from-home or hybrid work arrangements.
Covid-19 brought everyday concerns of the layperson to the forefront, giving greater voice to employee concerns. Two years into the pandemic, the discussions do not seem to be dying down; in fact, the movement surrounding mental health awareness and action (and by proxy, conversations around work-life balance) has gained traction, and the workplace seems set to transform under increasing calls for action for better hours and working conditions.
It is important for organisations to ensure that their employees are feeling heard and supported. Stresses to mental health often lead to absenteeism, lost productivity and disengaged employees. This can be done by having open conversations surrounding mental health issues to signal a safe space for employees to communicate on challenges they might face, training managers to spot signs of mental distress, and providing access to wellness or health services – for example, by including counselling services under employee medical benefits. HR professionals can also help organisations to commit to workplace mental health and wellness at a systemic level with policies – such as during hiring and performance management – to protect against discrimination of those with mental health issues or promoting work-life balance in general workplace policies.
The Evolving Role of HR
The role of HR has traditionally held multiple negative stereotypes. Typically, many employees tend to distrust HR and hesitate to bring issues to their attention, and view the department’s function as merely administrative. Online, an oft-repeated warning is, “HR is not your friend, they are there to protect the company.” Branded as a passive spectator carrying out the demands of the company, the HR department seemed a necessary evil that neither employees nor employers welcomed.
However, as the labour market seemingly begins to tilt in favour of workers in 2022, many organisations are now looking towards fostering a people-centric corporate culture, with focus on mental health, job satisfaction and work-life balance – issues that rank highly amongst job seekers.
This is where HR professionals can play a critical and differentiating role. Companies need the HR department to help determine where they can channel resources towards employee retention, and workers need HR to help effectively communicate what they hope to experience for a better workplace environment to upper management. So, beyond being a merely operational function, HR professionals need to take on an active transformational hand in guiding their organisation’s goals, business strategy and resource allocation – from having a say in the training and development of employees; to helping to build and foster company culture; and putting in place and implementing policies to ensure productivity and smooth workflows towards department and organisational goals.
The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a rethinking of manifold workplace considerations and expectations – from mental health awareness to work-life balance, employee rights, and more. It may still be premature to attempt to define what the ‘new normal’ may consist of in the context of the labour market, but what we can be certain of is that the paradigm has already changed. HR departments must be ready to adopt an ever-more strategic and transformative role to make an impactful difference to the lives of employees.
Yap Qi is a Corporate Affairs Executive at Future-Moves Group, and holds a degree in Human Resource Management. Yap Qi contributes thought leadership content related to her keen interests in corporate affairs, employee development and welfare, and the Future of Work.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Future-Moves Group.