From data-driven decisions, to culture and kindness, HR experts offer their views on the themes that are set to dominate HR practice over the coming 12 months

2019 was a year of flux for UK HR professionals, with a complex political and economic landscape shaping everything from employment law to labour market trends. As we move into a new decade, 2020 is an opportunity for HR leaders to focus on getting their own house in order: to lead change, advocate data-driven action, and become a truly strategic force. Here are the seven key tends our panel of HR experts have picked as the ones to watch over the next 12 months.

1. Data will be at the core of HR decision-making

The upper echelons of the HR profession have been discussing the importance of data and evidence when it comes to making robust, non-biased decisions for many years. But 2020 could be the year that we finally start to see practitioners more widely embracing ‘the numbers’, and backing up their professional knowledge and intuition with hard facts and figures.

“The use of data isn’t ubiquitous yet, but I’m seeing it used in cleverer ways than I was a couple of years ago,” says Perry Timms, author of Transformational HR and chief energy officer at PTHR. “I’m seeking a stronger commitment to using data, and more people who want to know about it and get it in their kit bag. But we still need a big push on upskilling HR people to be confident with data.”

“HR teams need to expand their traditional suite of management information and reports, and look to track and measure a broader range of data that better takes into account employee behaviour, wellbeing and collaboration,” says Claire Williams, director of people and services at CIPHR. “Having this data at their fingertips will help HR teams to unlock employee potential, drive performance, and gain respect as a important, relevant and strategic force within their organisations.”

But being evidence-based isn’t just about using any old data; it has to be accurate, timely and relevant. “It’s imperative that organisations ensure their HR data remains high quality and accessible to the right people, when they need it,” says Williams. “Teams also need to ensure that any data collected is robust and relevant to the organisation,” adds Vicky Walker, head of people at Westfield Health. “Success can only happen if HR is tailoring their approach to the priorities of the organisation through ongoing evaluation.”

2. HR will position itself at the forefront of change

The scale and pace of change that organisations – and the humans within them – are facing is unparalleled, and is only set to increase over the coming 12 months. “If you look at the disruption we’re facing, a big chunk of that falls into the HR space,” says Rita Trehan, a global HR strategist and author of Unleashing Capacity. “So how do we come up with solutions to these challenges? There is a greater need than ever for HR to start thinking very differently about what we do if we want to be the people that are influencing decisions and not just standing on the sidelines.”

Technology is sparking many of the changes that HR teams need to be at the forefront of, adds Trehan. “The rate of technology change is just unreal; we can no longer predict what the future might be. So we have to be able to take a view, pivot and change. The HR function has to step up and say: how ready are we for this new world of work? Do we have the capabilities that we need?”

For those tech projects that are actually within organisations’ control – such as system change projects – again, HR needs to be taking the lead, says Williams. “HR should consider developing a digital roadmap and strategy not only to capitalise on the opportunities it presents for increased efficiencies and engagement but also to help shape the future of their organisation when it comes to investing in technology that will support business growth.”

3. HR professionals will work harder to broaden their skillsets

With data and technology high on the agenda this year, you might expect that it is technical skills that HR professionals will need to work on in 2020. Not so, says our panel of experts: it’s time to double-down on the so-called ‘soft’ skills that distinguish us from the machines.

Trehan, for instance, says HR practitioners need to develop a greater awareness and understanding of the socio-economic context they’re operating in. “[We need to] “get really savvy with what’s going on with the world today. You need to understand what’s happening politically and what that means for your organisation. And understand what is happening with technology – how do various innovations change things for your customers, employees, and stakeholders? Challenge yourself: what are you doing to learn and be informed about these things? As a profession, we have to push the boundaries of what we question and the assumptions we make. We have to deploy critical thinking; spot trends, themes and relationships; and connect the dots together.”

“We cannot just follow what the computer recommends without making a critical judgement,” says Professor Vlatka Hlupic, author of Humane Capital and The Management Shift. “We have to take the whole picture into account and use our skills, which relate to empathy, decision-making, and emotional and contextual intelligence. We need a broad spectrum of skills [to succeed] – to use both the right side of the brain, which is more intuitive, and the left side, which is more rational and analytical.”

Many of the challenges facing businesses have a strong people component at their core – so we can expect to find more problems falling at HR’s door in 2020. Walker says it’s crucial, therefore, that practitioners hone their ability to identify what’s most important and time-critical, and prioritise those projects and actions ruthlessly. “Yes, the day-to-day tasks still need to take place, but it’s critical that priorities are based on business needs,” she says. “Collecting robust and relevant data is essential to really get under the skin of an organisation and identify where resource is most needed in order to drive positive change.”

4. The era of strategic HR might finally arrive

Writing for HR Zone, HR consultant Jon Ingham argues that the 2020s will finally be the era of strategic HR. “Many HR people still talk about HR being a support function, and there is little understanding of what would be different if we were to truly be a strategic contributor,” he says. “Most HR plans… are just lists of activities with little attention paid to the impacts they are going to provide…. [in 2020] that will no longer be enough.”

“I’m hoping HR will take more of a strategic role in organisations over the next 12 months because without adequate talent, and people who are healthy and productive, organisations simply cannot exist,” says Hlupic. “When employers treat people really well, organisations do better and society does better, too.”

Organisations need to be managed holistically, she adds: “we can’t isolate people aspects and processes. People are not human resources: they are sources of value creation. They are not just a number on a spreadsheet – they are humans who have to be given responsibilities and freedom.”

HR’s journey to being taken seriously as a crucial, strategic contributor will be unique to each organisation it operates in, says Walker. “It starts with improving the visibility of the HR team and essentially rebranding it. We have to show how HR contributes to organisational success, and why it’s more than just a function that takes care of payroll, hiring, and other day-to-day procedural tasks.” Gaining recognition and importance also depends on HR teams honestly reappraising their mission and purpose, and aligning their work more closely with business objectives by using data to help them identify key areas to focus on.

5. We’ll start to break down the structures that get in the way of work

Complex business challenges are more frequently requiring cross-functional teams to solve them – meaning that organisational charts often don’t accurately reflect how a business actually functions, let alone how it could or should be structured in order to achieve its goals.

A growing number of UK HR teams are turning to agile methodology to help them try new ideas, produce results and rapidly refine their approaches. Key features of the agile approach include ‘scrums’, with teams tasked with delivering results in as little as two-to-four weeks, flat management structures, and continuous feedback loops. Timms is a huge proponent of the approach, working in the past two years particularly with UK public sector organisations to help HR teams “create that agility, that sense of product, that sense of inclusion… to get leaders out of the way, to de-bureaucratise, de-layer, and pick up the pace.”

He describes the results he’s witnessed as “phenomenal. It works: it creates speed, creativity, inclusion, and energy,” citing organisations as diverse as Leeds City Council and global broadcaster Sky as enjoying success thanks to the agile approach.

And it’s not just commercial benefits that the agile approach delivers, notes Timms: “The agile approach is really good for highlighting the efforts of those quiet but soldier-like people who are often overlooked. When people get the chance to step into this sort of environment, they can really see what they’re made of. I’ve had people say they’ve never enjoyed work so much, and that people are starting to notice what they do.”

6. The focus on employee experience will switch from process to culture

Many HR commentators have so far framed ‘employee experience’ in terms of people’s interactions with processes and technology at work – how an organisation goes about recruiting people, its onboarding process, and performance review processes, for example. But it’s time to broaden our definition of employee experience and think about employees’ experience of the workplace culture.

“It’s not just onboarding and career paths, it’s about: how do we want people to be?” says Timms. “It’s much more about culture than process. Employee experience should be about creating a culture where everyone can truly influence things – that people aren’t overlooked, or it’s just the usual suspects who are rewarded or involved in decisions. For me, it’s like a supercharged version of engagement – it’s almost like a higher-level, more obvious inclusion method, with employers putting people in the spaces where they’ll have the biggest impact. It’s like an overlay and uplift of [employee] engagement, rather than a reboot of it.”

“We need to look at employee experience holistically,” adds Hlupic. “We need to look at how people are treated and appreciated [throughout their time as an employee]. For example, we need to create caring cultures where there is psychological safety and people are treated well, and there are initiatives for health and wellbeing. And we need to look into relationships and how people work together – is there friction and conflict, for example? Are employees’ voices being heard? Is there transparency around performance and reward?”

Trehan says organisations need to ask their people more profound questions than those usually found in employee engagement surveys. “We’re not going to shift the dial on culture if we survey people and ask things like ‘do you like your boss?’ “You need to ask the bigger questions: what are the silos that are stopping people doing what they think they can do? How easy is it to come up with an idea and follow it through, without going through 10 layers of leadership? Can you name five times you’ve looked at your company values and thought, ‘yep, those hold true’?”

Small changes can add up to a significant difference when it comes to culture, says Hlupic. “At one company I interviewed for my new book, Humane Capital, they have a ‘dream machine’ where, each month, each employee writes down a wish – to take the family on safari to Africa, for example. If the company hits target that month, they pick one dream from the box and pay for it. Little things like this can really improve the employee experience, which leads to engagement and passion for performance, and, ultimately, to profit.”

7. HR will show both courage and kindness in the face of challenge

This could be the year that more HR leaders display courage in the face of unethical or immoral behaviour at work, and empathy for the workers who need them to champion their cause. “The HR director needs to be the person who calls out everything at a senior level from an ethical, moral and kindness point of view,” says Timms. “So many decisions made at board level are economically driven and don’t take into account the psychological or humanist impact. HR directors need to stand in that space and say: ‘this might bring efficiencies but people will be traumatised and performance will suffer’.”

He adds: “At the moment, I don’t think HR leaders are strong enough to stand up to this type of behaviour – they don’t have the data or the convincing arguments to do so. But I want to see them battle more; to demand that these sorts of issues are sorted first, not later.”

Trehan is also an advocate for a more courageous breed of HR professional. “Senior HR leaders are often risk-averse – they are not prepared to call out that rogue executive, or a board that’s not functioning properly, or a toxic workplace culture, because they want to protect their jobs. They see these things happening, but they don’t call it out.

“Calling it out takes boldness,” she continues. “I worry that we don’t fulfil the role that we should – of providing stewardship to leadership. I would love to see us be more comfortable challenging bad boards and bad practices in 2020.”