How HR can stop firefighting and start preventing fires

Andrew Heath · November 15, 2021

As seen in People Management

It’s time for people practitioners to move away from solving issues as and when they arise and begin to address the root causes, says Andrew Heath

Ask any HR professional why they wanted to do this job and they’re likely to say they wanted to make an impact or do the best for their organisation’s people. Ask them whether this is happening on a daily basis, however, and most will say no. They’re fighting a series of workplace ‘fires’, whether that’s helping a manager deal with a grievance or responding to a request from the CEO for the latest absence data. During the pandemic, this firefighting intensified as HR teams responded to changing government rules and the challenges of remote working.

If you’re in this to be more strategic, lurching from one crisis to another makes it difficult to have that impact. You know you need to address issues around inclusion but don’t know where to start because everything in your inbox seems urgent. Yet many of those problems stem from wider cultural considerations; people are leaving because the brand didn’t live up to what they thought it would be, or the values their leaders claim to espouse are missing in action on the shop floor.

Other teams in the business have lead indicator data to help guide these decisions: so, sales managers know that a marketing campaign might generate more buyers, for example. This means their eyes are on a result in the future rather than constantly dealing with what’s in front of them. HR, by comparison, is managing the lag indicators because they’re addressing things that either happened in the past or need to be dealt with straight away.

From a reputation perspective, HR has long had to deal with being perceived as the ‘Cinderella’ profession. But in many ways, the pandemic showed HR off in a new light – supporting entire teams to shift to remote working almost overnight, putting wellbeing front and centre and making tough decisions about furlough or who would work on the front line. There is now a unique opportunity to build on that and make a difference on issues that have gained ground in the past 18 months. This could be addressing employees’ concerns about work-life balance through long-term wellbeing initiatives; setting targets for better representation of ethnic minority groups; or rethinking parental and flexible working policies for a hybrid working world. In short, if HR can see beyond the time it spends working in the business, and work on the business, it can achieve that ambition of becoming more strategic.

So how can HR reset that balance? It really needs a reliable and regular source of data. One of the most effective indicators for the people function is up-to-date information about employees’ experiences of the organisation. Annual engagement surveys can act as a useful benchmark of how the workforce feels about a range of issues such as the benefits on offer or the training they receive, but by its very nature this data will be backward looking and dated quickly. Using pulse surveys or equipping managers to run short questionnaires on a more regular basis means they can take action immediately, creating space for HR to see the horizon in front of them.

A more frequent feedback loop can help head off those day-to-day issues that can overburden HR, too. Knowing that an employee is feeling disengaged because they require more training on a specific tool or there’s been a misunderstanding with a colleague can often be dealt with in minutes by a direct manager before those feelings of disengagement grow and risk that employee’s future with the company. The lag and lead indicators are more in balance – with early warning you have time to address engagement issues before they become a retention problem.

A good example of this is in managing performance. With more up-to-date information on how employees feel about aspects of their role, conversations about performance and career progression can be much richer and more specific. Employees can get a clearer idea of what’s expected of them, which means targets become more achievable and they feel more engaged with their work. This has a multiplier effect, too. If one employee can improve what they do (and how they feel about work) by just 10 per cent, and this happens across whole teams and departments, that soon results in organisation-wide change.

The landscape continues to evolve as we move into the hybrid working world. The past 18 months have shown us how quickly things can change and checking in with employees once a year via an annual survey won’t provide an organisation with the forward-looking intelligence it needs. The time is now for HR to stop fighting fires and to gather real-time information about what employees need.