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News Article

HR Executives Must Make the Most of Seat at the Big Table

By Conal Quinn | Wed, 05/18/2022 - 17:04

Among the many changes to the workplace environment that the pandemic generated, the new role of Human Resources (HR) stands out. HR executives may have been occasionally taken for granted in the past, but industry experts agree that with the advent of the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), the department has taken on a reinvigorated relevance. CHROs should capitalize on this development.

Yamile Nacif Rueda, Human Capital Leader, Accenture, underscored how the global pandemic has put HR workers under the spotlight. “Each day during the pandemic, our strategy was under scrutiny,” she said. This greatly increased the importance of the HR department. What is more, all evidence indicates that this elevated position is here to stay, so HR officers should utilize their sway to improve their company’s culture.

Nora Villafuerte Garza, Vice President of Human Resources, Nestlé, said that this change was already in the cards for some time: “This may be the best time to be a CHRO with all the changes happening around us. However, the rise in importance of the CHRO began at least 5 years ago. We are living through complicated, changing times. In this country, we have a series of new laws. Twenty-five years ago, HR was losing importance as trade unions were pushed aside and labor relations were undermined. But now, we are back at the forefront of business operations.”

Villafuerte highlighted how digitalization puts a lot of pressure on HR officers. It was up to them to supervise the implementation of new platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams and to ensure that employees were adapting well and not losing engagement. With such a crucial role, Villafuerte noted that HR officers are valued more than ever and no longer need to fight for a place at the top table. Due to a dearth of candidates with the required experience and qualifications, HR positions are among the most-sought and competitive jobs on the current market.

Hernán Valrcarce, Vice President HR, Danone, concurred. The importance paid to employees’ physical and mental health has been on the rise for years, while remote work and flexible schedules were also already considered. Nevertheless, the pandemic underscored their importance further. Referencing inflation, Valcarce  noted how HR is transforming how businesses approach the managing of finances to reduce costs and jump-start profits, too.

“For this reason, increased HR specialization is of immense value, said Juan Domínguez, Chief People Officer, Clara, particularly because the pandemic has created many new problems to solve. Diva Carrillo Ortega, Senior HR Director, Honeywell Mexico, noted that the brunt of these challenges fall on the HR department. Since it provides the communication links to exchange perspectives across all layers of the company, it was up the HR officers to ensure remote work went smoothly and that communication networks were kept alive outside of the office.

To this end, technology was essential. “In HR, we have to be agile in how we adapt and respond to changes,” noted Carillo, adding that HR needed to supervise how the digital transformation affects the experience of employees. She argued that, going forward, people must lead the digital transformation. Businesses must embrace the flexibility offered by technology and implement new digital processes to improve working processes. Carillo added that a main responsibility of a CHRO is creating a collaborative workflow, as well as to allow employees to connect their experiences with management. “Employees who enjoy a positive work experience and feel more motivated to work toward their goals are more valuable to any business,” she concluded.

Domínguez emphasized that the increased digitization of business processes should not be synonymous with depersonalizing the workplace. Instead, it should be a boon to mental and emotional health, enabling personal growth and development and considering the diversity of the employees involved. He also emphasized the need to personalize the digital experience, since “employees need to see the benefits themselves.” This transformation must be accessible and enjoyable to all generations, however.

Villafuerte similarly posited that HR must treat technology as part of a company’s new value proposition. Businesses that fail to do this will be left behind. Nevertheless, company culture must not be neglected. To be effective, CHROs must make use of their deep knowledge of people and relations to define and establish this culture, said Villafuerte, particularly for companies that are just getting started or seeking to grow rapidly. “Businesses do not create value, people do,” she said, adding that “How we treat people is what separates us from other businesses. Products can be copied, often more quickly than we would like. But the most difficult thing to copy is the human factor.” Villafuerte added that in the C-suite of a modern business, a new triumvirate can be observed. with the CFO and CHRO on either side of the CEO.

“We must link the goal of the company with the capabilities and interests of its workers. A business is only as good as its leadership. It is up to HR to work on human relationships and ensure teams have the leadership they need,” Valcarce subscribed.

Domínguez joked that in popular culture, HR officers were seen as the ones who disciplined employees when they did something wrong. However, this responsibility has been passed on to management. With the increased orientation towards digitization, HR remains focused on human capital. However, the second technical revolution must serve people and not replace them. “Digitalization is not done for HR but for people. This is not about substituting one for the other or replacing the responsibility for managing human capital and talent. It allows us to focus our attention on employee wellbeing and the health of the company,” he said.

To foster this wellbeing, companies adopt different approaches. Villafuerte responded that Nestlé uses software aimed at improving the mental and physical health of employees. This initiative was made possible by the startup Cuéntame, which provides psychological and nutritional advice that extends to employees’ families to improve their home life too. “Businesses have been lagging somewhat in how they implement data and analytics to boost employee wellbeing,” she said. With Cuéntame, however, Nestlé measure employee happiness with up-to-date questionnaires with an added comparative element. “The key to monitoring employee wellbeing is to keep asking questions and listen,” agreed Valcarce.

For a CHRO to be successful, they must be upfront and direct with leadership and not be timid lacqueys, agreed Villafuerte and Valcarce. It is up to the CHRO to tell leadership what works and what does not. To earn respect, a CHRO must show that they have no ulterior agenda and tackle the difficult questions head-on. Nevertheless, the power of actively empathic leaders who approach people to understand needs cannot be understated. Now that HR has a seat at the top table, it must make the most of it. The model of the HR officer who simply manages wage slips and decides who deserves a bonus or a paycut is long gone. “We work out what is best for the business by finding out what is best for people, because it is people who move a business forward. That is how we earn our place at the table,” decided Domínguez.

Conal Quinn Conal Quinn Journalist & Industry Analyst