Gone are the days of “human resources personnel.” We’ve entered the people era.
Among the radical shifts in office life (hybrid workplaces, expanded commitment to DEI, and intergenerational teamwork), a tidal change is occurring at the management level as well. If employees don’t want to be treated like expendable, interchangeable cogs in a corporate machine, then the operations supporting them are adjusting accordingly.
The office of “human resources” appears to be on its way out (at least in name). Replacing “resources” are titles like chief people officer, head of people and culture, and other more employee-centric names.
The Rise of the CPO
As an experienced HR professional, Kimberly Samon found her own job title transitioning to chief people officer back in the late ’90s. That company was ahead of the curve, but she’s noticed the designation become more widespread over the last few years. Currently, CPO executives are seen in many industries—and their absence can send a negative signal about a job. “Now if you get a call from a recruiter and they say ‘CHRO,’ the company is actually not positioning itself to be very progressive in the eyes of people who do what we do,” said Samon, who works with companies in the capacity of chief people officer and senior people strategy through her consultancy KSL Advisors.
“If you think about it, when you hear the term ‘human resources’ it’s implying that it’s like a widget, that it’s a thing. Whereas when you use ‘people,’ it’s much more intimate and understanding and there’s a sense of relationship and community there. It signifies something about the company and how they value the people equation within the overall context of success in their organization,” said Samon.
Corinne Murray, a founder of Agate Studio, a consultancy firm focused on the future of work, agrees that employing executives with the titles of chief people officer or chief culture officer sends a message down the company chain. “It’s definitely a brand message from the company trying to say that there’s a level of progressiveness that happens here, and we acknowledge and recognize that you, the workers, are more than just the work you produce and you are more than just a line in one of our spreadsheets.”
Of course, a name change doesn’t automatically translate into a shift in culture or leadership. “I know plenty of companies who use the ‘chief people’ nomenclature, but then they still treat people like widgets. That ‘human resources’ kind of phrase is hard for a lot of people to break,” said Samon.
So how can “people people” at companies do their work effectively while also translating an important brand message? The answer lies in another relatively new concept: employee experience.
How Employees Think About HR
“Go to HR” and “HR needs to see you” always had an ominous ring, didn’t it? These phrases conjure up images of a bland office manned by a stern overlord. Traditionally, employees associate the acronymic HR with hiring, firing, compensation, or problems during their tenure.
But someone who’s in charge of people and not resources feels like an improved level of support. Companies who haven’t yet made the change in their own structure should keep in mind change at the corporate level takes more work than zhuzhing up an org chart. “It has to be backed up with a change in behavior, a change in service level, and certainly a change in culture for a lot of companies,” said Samon.
This action can often be neglected, said Murray. “In a lot of cases, I see people being named these different titles, but the scope of the work hasn’t quite changed to adapt to the title.” Someone can be an empathetic leader, but company policies and values–from corporate communications to employee experience all to the way to how workplaces are designed–need to align as well. “It’s still pretty fractured,” said Murray. However, there are ways to bridge the gap between what companies claim to stand for and what they actually do.
Leading From the Top
Creating an employee-centric company begins at the top of the ladder. “All of this [change], unfortunately, hinges completely on the upper echelons of the company’s leadership. Depending on how empathetic and progressive and create-your-own-adventure kind of leader a person might be, it can make or break how truly employee experience-centric a company is,” said Murray. This means looking at the company’s board, CEO, and other chief-level folks who make important strategic decisions, and not allowing the entire employee experience to rest on a single person's shoulders.
Take parental leave, for example. As Murray pointed out, “Most companies still only have maternity leave, not parental leave, even though there are tons of studies about fathers needing to be more involved in children’s lives and the benefits of that, not even taking into account that not everyone who works for you [may] ascribe to the male or female gender identity.”
Listening to Those People
So what do employees want in this post-pandemic world? Samon observed the two factors employees are looking for most are trust and flexible work, which go hand-in-hand. “They want to be treated like grownups. Back in pre-pandemic days, we required folks to come to the office, because we felt like we had to have eyes on them for them to do their jobs and we could track hours. We somehow convinced ourselves as companies that hours translated into productivity,” said Samon.
“Workers today are saying, it doesn’t matter where I am–with technology, I should be able to do my job equally well. And if I can do my job in four and a half days versus five days, then I shouldn’t be penalized for being more productive than other folks.” Offering a flexible work arrangement is one way to bolster claims of being people first. Samon advises companies to follow talent, not geography. "If you have a great employee who lives outside of a commutable distance of an office, then you should be able to hire that person," she said.
Knowing Whether Your People Practices Are Working
Measurable KPIs keep a business humming and thrumming. But how do the heads of people and culture measure their own levels of success? Samon highlighted four key metrics which, taken together, tell a story about the health of a company.
•Engagement scores (how do folks feel about the company, leadership, compensation package and culture?)
•Attrition data (which employees are leaving?)
•Exit-interview data (to understand if people are leaving due to work culture or compensation)
•Length of time to hire (does the company have a great reputation and can it attract the right skill sets?)
“I’ve never seen a company that had outstanding performance and failed in those four areas,” said Samon.
Taking stock of the entire employee journey is paramount. HR’s job doesn’t end with the onboarding process, but continues through the thousands of touchpoints an employee has with the company throughout their tenure, from how people receive information about their job, to training an employee to be self-sufficient, to the actual tools used in a workplace.
“Those touchpoints equal experience,” said Murray. “It’s not just snacks and ‘We'll throw you a party because we’re happy you’re here,’ or saying you can wear jeans. Experience is all these very mostly unsexy things that do or do not create more hurdles for you to cross over before you can get your work done,” she said. “The culmination of those things equal culture, and people very justifiably can become disenchanted with a company and with that internal brand quite quickly,” if they aren’t up to a certain standard.
Put simply: If employees are unhappy, changing the name of your HR department isn’t going to suffice.
Tweaking a Title for Today’s World
Some companies are going one step further, dialing in on emotions in the workplace by creating “chief happiness officer” jobs, writes Callum Borchers in the Wall Street Journal, combining the traditional duties of HR with team-building activities and a hyper-sensitivity to how workers are feeling. The job, in other words, is about creating good vibes. Be warned: This can arrive with an additional level of stress for the happiness officers themselves, who might feel they have to be in a persistent good mood.
Similarly, “chief well-being officers” and “chief wellness officers” are also becoming more prevalent, with an emphasis on employees’ emotional rather than physical health, going beyond the simple gym reimbursements popular in previous decades. Fancy updated job titles aren’t limited to the happiness index, however. The transition to remote work has inspired a few companies to create “head of team anywhere,” “head of dynamic work,” and “head of remote” job positions for leaders dedicated to fostering a more successful hybrid workplace, reports Emma Goldberg in the New York Times. The lack of rigidity or diehard commitment to old norms can be a signal to potential employees that a company is adapting to the current moment.
There’s Still a Ways to Go
Since early 2020, employees are savvier than ever before. From refusing to jump back into full-time office life, leaving for new opportunities, and learning how to negotiate beyond salaries and bonuses, empowered employees are on the rise.
“People are far more choosy about the companies that they join. There’s a host of people who are just going to go to top dollar. Then there are a host of people who are really looking at the purpose, the flexibility, and how the job fits into their lives more than ever before,” said Samon. This leaves a workplace ripe for disruption.
“The leaders are people who are ready to roll up their sleeves and design a future that doesn’t necessarily look like the past,” said Murray. “There are boundless opportunities of what we can learn and what we can create.” You can join the tide, or watch it roll in.
Kara Cutruzzula is a journalist, playwright, and author of Do It For Yourself, a motivational journal designed to guide people through their work and creative projects. Her next book, Do It Today: An Encouragement Journal, will be published in October.