Articles 5 min read

The skills and competencies that HR needs right now

In adversity, there is also opportunity. If there is one positive thing that has emerged from 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic, it could be that some businesses have achieved extraordinary transformations, even in the face of massive disruption. The enforced impetus for change, the goodwill of many employees in engaging with uncertainty, and a big leap forward in the use of technology and the virtual world, have all combined to give us a unique insight into the potential for HR to transform workplace productivity.

Whenever new potential is unlocked, however, the pressure to realise and sustain it inevitably increases. Expectations of what HR professionals can – and must – do to support businesses in 2021 have risen sharply. It is not surprising, therefore, that the skills and competencies that HR professionals need to deliver permanent productivity gains for their organisations are under scrutiny.

Driving organisational excellence: HR’s new journey from “Transaction” to “Transformation” 

Covid-19 was an agent of change in 2020 for organisations everywhere, and now is the perfect moment to think about HR’s future role in driving productivity. It is now clear that the profession is uniquely placed to make a difference, though until recently too few HR professionals made a connection between what they do on an everyday basis with business productivity. Since 2020, we have become more aware that a remote workforce can be trusted, can maintain motivation, remain engaged and can be (even more) productive, even in the face of adversity. So, how can HR enhance productivity and the employee experience in this new way of work?

UKG’s recent e-book on transformation through productivity – Tackling HR’s productivity killers – notes that HR spends 41% of its time on transactional activities, with not enough time to focus on more strategic priorities, the sort that contributes directly to a happy, engaged – and more productive – workforce. To change this HR needs to develop skills in three broad areas….

Mindset: Change is a Core Capability

Skills development for HR begins with mindset. Change is now a core capability in driving organisational excellence. This means thinking ahead – it is no longer good enough simply to respond to a set of new circumstances. Future change needs to be expected and even anticipated by HR. The profession needs to know and be ready to face what is coming next. It needs to build agility and better support business to bring sustainability in the long run, even in what feels like a never-ending crisis.

The sense of urgency generated by the pandemic has created a much clearer and closer alignment between business and HR mindsets among enlightened organisations. According to recent research by the Top Employers Institute, for example, the focus on cultural and organisational change is now the number one HR priority among its members. The best practice on display around change by a few now needs to be replicated in many other organisations for it to become the rule, rather than the exception.

Even with a change mindset firmly embedded, however, the recent publication Boosting HR productivity in 2021: Moving from reactive to reimagining points out that when it comes to productivity, HR needs to wear two hats simultaneously. It must both transform HR strategy to reflect a more agile way of working, while also delivering and designing ever more efficient transactional processes.

Strategy: Encouraging agility and humanity at all levels

When HR has a change mentality front of mind, it can then drive productivity for the organisation through any set of strategies that impact positively the employee experience. Through this lens, productivity becomes closely intertwined with how agility is encouraged. HR has a licence to think about the way it designs the attraction, development and retention of talent, the management of performance, succession planning and career development, with workforce agility as the key objective.

What 2020 has taught many in HR, however, is that productive changes are not possible without a similarly agile and humane approach further down Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. For example, the basic health and safety of employees, once taken for granted in former times, is now regularly cited as a top business priority. The twin areas that are now driving a sense of security among employees are well-being and work-life balance.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health and well-being were moving up the HR strategic agenda. Since 2020 there has been a massive and positive step change in this area, with more leaders and managers actively engaging with and committed to well-being programmes in many businesses. And, according to the Top Employers Institute, well-being strategy is being driven by a growing leadership encouragement of work-life balance and the use of vacation time as a means of improving, not diminishing, productivity.

Wellbeing has of course, moved up the priority list by the enforced change to working from home. Although some may soon return to the office, many will not. With hybrid models now emerging, and more workers on a contract or freelance basis, HR needs to develop the strategic skills to guide business leaders and managers away from command-and-control models and towards more enabling styles. Only then can a more strategic approach to agility and productivity truly take hold?

For example, well-being and the movement to work from home have meant that peer-to-peer recognition schemes have been becoming increasingly popular. Leaders and managers have been used to giving recognition at pre-determined key moments in the year. But the pandemic has made the need for encouragement more obvious. With leaders physically disconnected from their direct reports, there is a real risk that good work from team members would otherwise go unnoticed and unrecognised.

Delivery: Doing more with less through technology and data analytics

Alongside mindset and strategic skills, HR needs to improve delivery skills in completing transactional tasks more effectively. Across all areas of an employee’s working life, technology has become a pervasive and dominant feature. What HR needs to do now is focus on the new skills it needs to deliver everyday workforce processes through technology platforms. Employees want HR technology that is integrated, easy and intuitive to use.

HR professionals also need to understand that better delivery cannot be impersonal. It must enable the personalisation of each employee’s needs and wants and increases the value of the data. Another skill that needs to be developed with that of data analytics. HR will be expected to analyse and use to improve performance further.

To achieve this needs HR to take greater ownership of the way in which technology is used and presented. In the past, HR technology has been part of a wider business project, usually driven by the IT department. This must change. And this means HR must learn to drive and collaborate to a greater extent within the business to have more influence over the effective and efficient delivery of the basics.


More HR leaders are starting to wake up to the potential and pressures of their wider sphere of influence. Higher expectations have come through the adversity of the past year, but now comes the opportunity to make the gains real and permanent. For this to happen, HR needs to see its own change-readiness as a core capability and deliver people-focused productivity gains, all delivered with the help of digital technologies and data-led insight.

With these new skills and competencies, HR can make the move from a short-term transactional mentality to a long-term transformational reality. With the right skills, competencies, processes and technology in place, HR has a now-or-never opportunity to deliver a step-change in productivity – and its own reputation.

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