Workplace & HR Trends

Note from CFO.University: We appreciate the insights into human capital management Brandon Laws and Xenium frequently share with us. This transcript summarizes the trends they are observing in human resources management and the workplace. This is a great list to benchmark your company with. The success of your business may depend on how well you are positioned to lead and capture the benefits of these trends.

Here is Brandon with his panelists, HR leaders Alishia Young and Lacey Partipilo.

Trend #1: Diversity and Inclusion

I suspect that in 2020 we’re going to see more companies focused on bringing diverse employees into the fold and making sure that they feel included, rather than just checking the “diversity box.”

Alishia: I agree, but I don’t actually think that it’s a trend. I think that this will continue year over year over year, and it’ll be a hot topic for many years to come because I don’t think that many businesses are there yet. As much as we’d like to pretend we are, I think there are still a lot of organizations that have a lot of work to do in this area for improvement. Rather than calling it a “trend,” I’d say that there’s an “expectation” now that employers should focus on inclusion. It’s no longer, “I hope we are.”

Trend #2: More Effective Performance Reviews

We all know we dread performance reviews, and oftentimes they’re not all that effective. Do you think this year is going to be the year where we just finally put our foot down and say we’re scrapping them?

Lacey: The companies that I’m working with are still creating systems to recognize and reward performance, but we may be moving away from some of the traditional ways of doing reviews. I think time is really important and so maybe employers are going to look at ways to reduce the amount of time they take, but I don’t see reviews going away.

Alishia: I have high hopes, though, that a trend we’ll start to see is more engagement at the day-to-day level. Following that, we’ll be able to have a lot more creativity around how we manage performance reviews and what that process looks like. But I think, for some reason, we’re still missing a big chunk of what has to happen in the performance review process, like daily feedback and coaching. We need to get this right before we’re able to transition to a more progressive performance review system.

And I think that defining scores would help employees understand what their goal is for that year-end review, so that they can work day-to-day at it. It’s too subjective as it is right now.

Lacey: I’ve seen clients incorporate one-up reviews too. We do that at Xenium — having the manager’s manager take a look at the form before it’s presented. Even though I’ve been doing reviews for a while, there’s still good feedback that comes back when I’m sending my reviews forward. I think just taking the time to do those best practices will be really important.

Trend #3: Psychological Safety

Okay, let’s move on to another trend I’ve been hearing about in the HR world: psychological safety. Have you heard this term before? It has to do with leaders that don’t operate in a fear-based culture. What’s your take on the concept?

Lacey: Yeah, I think it’s coming up a lot. I think sometimes, though — and maybe people aren’t going to be happy with this response — we sway too far to try to create this workplace where everybody feels comfortable and included. It can create this dynamic where people are walking on eggshells.

I think that we can optimistically try to create a workplace where all of our employees are comfortable and it’s safe, but realistically, we’re not obligated to do that. I have a lot of companies that I’m talking to right now where the employees are asking for that — they’re using that language. In these cases, the employer thinks, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that. I thought I was doing my best. We already have these policies in place and now I’m being asked to go above and beyond.”

Alishia: Lacey is right. Before psychological safety can really be embraced in a workforce, we have to make sure our management understands what that means. Part of that is breaking down the barriers around what’s okay to talk about and what’s not okay to talk about. Employees should be able to walk into their manager’s office and say, “Today has been a tough day for me.” And a manager should look at them and respond, “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you want to spend some time together? You want to take five and talk?”

But, unfortunately, sometimes — even myself included — we’re running so fast in our day-to-day that we forget to just stop and look at the other person and acknowledge them. We have to learn to embrace those tough conversations. I may not like what I hear, but on the other hand, I would prefer to hear it and be a support system behind it. I think that’s where it starts. I think it’s great that we talk about psychological safety, but I think it starts with us as individuals allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with our own highs and lows.

Trend #4: Remote Work

When it comes to remote work, as much as that makes sense on the surface, I think a lot of us still have a long way to go in accepting that this is the future. Your thoughts?

Lacey: I think it goes back to what you said about having that one-on-one relationship with the employee and being able to communicate clearly what the expectations are so you can actually measure them. Because if people are working from home and don’t have a really clear picture of what they’re supposed to be working on, how am I supposed to even hold them accountable? I think that’s why managers get uncomfortable.

But when you know what the output is supposed to be, and when you’re seeing that happen — whether they’re next to you, down the hall, or across the country, it doesn’t matter. I think it’s also finding the right team members that can have more flex time and work from home. I think allowing team members to be adults and treating them like adults is the number one thing we can start with. That starts with not micromanaging the five minutes they were late.

Okay, but how do we monitor the work getting done? How do we shift our perspective to caring more about results than physical location?

Alishia: You know, it’s interesting because it’s not just even remote workers. It’s even team members that are here in the office. From text messages people get on their iPhones to personal calls, there are a lot of office distractions. So, just because you’re in the office doesn’t mean you’re present the whole time.

Trend #5: A Seat at the Table

I’ve noticed, over the past couple of years, that HR people really want to sit at the table and coach people on how to become business partners. Give me some sense of what it takes to get there.

Lacey: I don’t think it’s a trend. I think it’s the reality of us trying to make sure that we are valuable to the organization. I think that the majority of organizations don’t want HR first. They want leaders first and people with business acumen first. When we talk about ourselves as HR individuals, we need to bring to the table all of these components versus just that HR technical component. I think it’s great to have HR technical — that’s our world, our bread and butter, quite frankly — but in order to get that seat at the table, if you don’t have that leadership and that business acumen side of things, you’re going to struggle.

I think one of the biggest challenges for probably HR people is that they’re expected to do compliance and systems and the strategy and all the “people stuff.” How do you get strategic when you’re constantly in the weeds? How do you go get business acumen? How do you talk like some of the executives at the table so you can actually sit there at some point?

Alishia: As HR folks, we have to understand how the business ticks. Where do we actually make money? Where do we lose money? Are we profitable? Are we not profitable? Where have we invested? Where are we not invested? I think the start is just understanding how your current business ticks and understanding the financials behind that. Once you do, then you become even more relevant when you’re making the HR decisions.

As a leader here at Xenium, I need to understand the ins and outs so that I can put together proposals for major changes or shifts. I need to understand the impact that it’s going to have on the entire organization, not just my department. I think that’s how you start to get it. Once you’ve got your own business down, then all of a sudden you’ll start to notice other key executives and leaders now see you as a thinking partner.

Trend #6: AI Automation

Okay, how about AI? Employers are trying to figure out how to use AI automation to make really good business decisions while obviously not cutting their workforce in half. It’s all noise, right? Where is this trend going?

Lacey: Yeah, I think that we need to be thinking about how to scale the business and use technology and AI to take us to the next level. I think in our world, in HR, nothing’s going to replace our voice and our presence when it comes to really tough conversations with employees. You know, like engaging in culture initiatives and bringing people together from an inclusivity perspective.

But it is real that there should be and there will be areas, even in HR, that will be automated. You can see it just in how many organizations have electronic onboarding already. They don’t necessarily want us sitting next to them walking them through. And yes, I do think we’ll see a lot more decisions based on real metrics that affect the whole organization.

What I worry about is that, with the focus on AI, we’re going to lose the emotional intelligence that’s so needed. I just hope that it doesn’t take away from the fact that relationships are still important.

Alishia: I don’t necessarily think so many jobs are going to go away. They might, but they’re going to open up other opportunities for us to shift our focus. Like in HR, we’re going to see that we’ll need a lot more coaching and a lot more training and development around emotional intelligence. Maybe we’re not doing onboarding and benefits enrollments all the time and those things are all automated.

But, in business, there are still decisions that have to be made, and those decisions are typically going to be made by humans.

Trend # 7: Pay Equity

What’s your perspective on pay equity? Is it really a trend or just a concern that HR and employers are going to have?

Lacey: When it comes to pay equity, we need to ask ourselves, “How do we articulate the nuances of a job and the value that one employee brings to the table versus another?” It’s important to be able to talk through why there are pay discrepancies. For this company, we had to get into the nitty-gritty of the role — and of the people that were in the role — to be able to really defend pay discrepancies should something come up down the road.

Alishia: Now we’re being forced to have tough conversations that are awkward and uncomfortable sometimes, but our employees need it from us and they’re expecting us to be able to articulate the “why” behind the decisions that we are making. I think, again, this goes back to performance reviews and management engagement with employees.

Lacey: It lends itself to the conversations about career pathing too– helping people understand what they need to do to get to the next level. I think it’s just going to further those conversations and force managers to have them even though they’re uncomfortable.

Trend #8: Creative Perks and Benefits

In HR, what do you both think about offering perks or benefits in fresh new ways? Is this going to be something that we’ll need to look into in 2020?

Lacey: I think it would be hard to create a benefits plan that’s going to apply to everybody. And I think the foundational things — like a 401(k), health insurance — they’re boring, but they’re necessary.

I’m just wondering if there’s more wiggle room to do things above and beyond that so we can differentiate ourselves as a culture. Thoughts on that?

Alishia: I think what we’re going to continue to see is that we have a lot of different generations in the workforce now, and what motivates one is so different than what motivates the other. What one person considers a benefit, somebody else might think is the norm.

For example, what about paid parental leave? What about those who have already raised children or who don’t have them at all?

Lacey: A friend of mine saw paid parental leave and told me “that’s not going to help me. I want more money for continuing education.” I think that’s a fair request.

The menu of benefits is what we’re describing here. It sounds like a great and inclusive idea!

Trend #9: Generational Understanding

Speaking of different people wanting different things… how do we envision different generations, with completely different outlooks, working together in harmony?

Lacey: I’m having lots of conversations about frustrations that managers are having with their employees. Maybe they’re from two different generations and can’t get along. I think it goes back to just training around communication, social and emotional intelligence, and helping people understand where other people are coming from. That’s not going away. I mean, I think that by 2025, 50% of the workforce is projected to be made up of millennials.

I think we’re going to have to figure out how to get different generations to be willing to learn from each other. Older employees can teach some of these folks coming out of school the things that they know from experience, and the younger generations can teach technology and the other things that older generations would benefit from.

Want to know more about HR trends in 2020?

The conversation above is just a small excerpt of the larger HR trends discussion that I had with Alishia and Lacey. If this article piques your interest, listen to the entire podcast.


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