The Evolving Role of Today’s HR Leader Puts Training, Operations, and Employee Wellness Front and Centre

By Lyn Currie

The past two years have challenged the way in which employees work, communicate, and continue to find connection and fulfilment in our organizations. In a relatively short period of time, roles and methods for accomplishing tasks have been altered (perhaps permanently), and nowhere is this shift more evident, or perhaps more dramatic, than in office of the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO). The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded that those leading human resources functions in organizations both large and small have had to pivot and take on an entirely new set of responsibilities.

In a series of interviews with some of Canada’s top HR leaders, Waterstone Human Capital discussed the changing role of the CHRO and some of the ways they have seen their role evolve and expand. It quickly became clear that there have been three pronounced shifts in the role of the CHRO since the start of the pandemic in 2020, which have created a new set of priorities for these leaders:

  • A redefinition of the CHRO as an operational leader;
  • An increased focus on employee health and wellness; and
  • A focus on learning and development priorities.

When we asked how they managed, the answer was universally the same: it was the corporate culture that helped them navigate the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

New operational responsibilities

The onslaught of the pandemic required HR leaders to quickly turn their attention from longer-term objectives to short-term operational priorities as workplaces shut down and the physical health and safety of employees became the primary imperative. HR leaders were called upon to develop and support plans for how to mobilize teams into safe work environments while maintaining the productivity of the organization. Many organizations shifted to work from home scenarios, while others were deemed essential services and had to reconfigure operations to account for physical distancing. The role of the HR leader now included the need to solve both logistical challenges and maintain a constant communication channel to their employees. “In a day to day HR capacity, we are really well attuned to things like operational problem solving, but we generally don’t have to do it on the fly,” says Leslie Collin, VP Talent and Culture at Unbounce in Vancouver. “So we talk things like return to work, and often it is in relation to things like maternity leave or a change in someone’s circumstance – they’ve been away for leave or they’ve moved, so they’re returning to work in a different capacity…  So operational pieces that you would often look at as the facility manager’s responsibility or the operations team’s responsibility, all of a sudden those boundaries disappear.”

For many, the role of HR now includes working in concert with operations to facilitate a safe working environment, but also includes having a lens on productivity within new work parameters. The HR leaders we surveyed noted that creating a safe working environment while still maintaining a line of communication and transparency with their teams was their biggest challenge.

Increased focus on health and wellness

While employee health and wellness has traditionally been a component of HR leaders’ scope of responsibility, the recent months have shone a light not only on physical health and safety but also on mental wellness.

“We’ve never seen the wellness of our employees under threat in such an abbreviated period of time,” says David Cooper, Senior Vice President of HR at goeasy Ltd. in Toronto. “So if you weren’t really good or plugged into the evolution of wellness for your staff, you had to get very good in a fast period of time.”

The COVID-19 pandemic created uncertainty around compensation and job security, and increased feelings of isolation for many employees. This led to increased mental strain – something that can be hard to see and detect, especially with employees working remotely. In order to address some of these concerns, HR leaders have increasingly been called on to work with their organizations to leverage new and existing wellness resources for their staff, offer increased flexibility for working (where possible), and worked to decrease the some of the stigma around mental health conversations.

“My team actually came together, and we pulled together a mental health awareness seminar,” says Cooper. “This was really mental health awareness and what our responsibilities are as managers and co-workers and what goeasy’s goals are for our employees, which is really to develop resilient performers. That was is. So managing your mental health no matter where you are on the mental health continuum, and if you are feeling good staying there; if you’re not feeling well how to get help and how to use goeasy’s resources.”

The HR leaders we talked to also pointed out that working from home comes with its own stresses. Whether that’s balancing work and home schooling, managing feelings of isolation, or fighting against the idea that exists in many organizations of “if you’re not in the office, you must not be working” – something the pandemic has proven wrong.

Learning and development priorities

The learning and development portion of an HR Leader’s portfolio has grown exponentially over the past few months, according to the HR leaders with whom we spoke. At the start of the pandemic, there was an immediate need for practical technology training as many employees were required to adjust in a matter of days to performing tasks remotely. Video conferencing has become the de facto mode of communication; Zoom has become a verb. One HR leader noted that a critical requirement was to ensure that employees were trained to access files and information quickly and to share data over a common, secure platform. Many organizations were able to successfully pivot to this new mode within days; for others, the transition and training took more time.

As employees have settled into new ways of working with technology, HR leaders have started to focus their attention on broader leadership development. Developing and teaching skills such as crisis communications, learning to lead remotely, and employee engagement have all become high priorities for HR leaders as they look ahead. Also on the priority list: the development and training around new processes and policies, to support the ongoing changes being experienced in companies across the country.

As the ways we work continue to evolve, the impact and scope of roles like the CHRO will also continue to shift and expand. In the meantime, we’ll be looking deeper at the CHRO’s role in operations, employee wellness, and learning and development in the coming weeks – watch the Waterstone website for more information.

How has your role as HR leader changed as a result of COVID-19? Share your stories and help us celebrate and explore the changes happening in HR.

Lyn Currie is Managing Director for Waterstone’s executive search practice.