In the information age, many traditional business functions have undergone transformative change—but none more so than the once-staid human resources department
Two or three decades ago, the personnel departments of many organizations were decidedly impersonal. Or at least that’s how Cissy Pau remembers it. When she graduated with a degree in business administration from UBC in 1995, the days of managing the workforce with a tight, paternalistic grip were still fresh in the minds of her superiors. “When I first started, I was working for a fishing company—this old-school traditional industry,” says Pau, now principal at Clear HR Consulting. “People would tell me that back in the day HR was about keeping tabs on the workforce. Did you leave for lunch on time? Were you late coming back? It was much more of a policing role.”
For most of the 20th century, workers were regarded as little more than cogs in the corporate machine—with the personnel department enforcing rules and filling out forms. As the economy evolved in the information age, workers began demanding more; they wanted non-monetary recognition, more personal autonomy and an acknowledgment they were, first and foremost, human beings. “Personnel” slowly gave way to “Human Resources”—a change in vernacular that Pau says reflects a shift in values away from policing the workforce and toward a strategic approach to managing it. “The new workforce is very values-driven,” says Pau, adding that HR’s primary function is increasingly to connect the dots between corporate and personal goals.
Creating those links is something that Marlene Higgins thinks a lot about. As HR director for Kal Tire, a 62-year-old automotive retailer and service company based in Vernon, she’s responsible for managing a diverse workforce of more than 6,000 staff in 250 locations across Canada. Getting people to consider a career selling tires in a slick startup world requires a personal touch. To that end, Kal Tire has built an internal development strategy based on finding out, and leveraging, what makes individual employees tick—whether it’s the knowledge that installing new tires helps keep the roads safe or that they have the chance to move up within the company while maintaining their work/life balance. Says Higgins: “When you connect an employee and employer with purpose and meaning, you’ve got magic.”
While Kal Tire can’t offer frontline staff the same sort of flexibility or remote working arrangements common in, say, the tech sector, the company offers partial tuition reimbursements for students who work there part-time while in school or for more than one summer. By contributing to education in a concrete way, says Higgins, the company shows it’s willing to put resources into its people, whether they ultimately stay with the company or not. As well, each year 700 employees from across the country—from nearly every rung of the corporate ladder—attend “Kal Tire Campus,” a corporate training centre in Vernon. There—in addition to going through standardized management training modules—employees appear in front of a panel of senior leaders to discuss their futures and map out potential career paths. But the conversation goes beyond professional goals. Higgins has employees in the program write a detailed letter outlining lifestyle goals as well. For instance, someone aiming to open a new location in a small town may be after more than a management job. If a slower-paced lifestyle and a lower cost of living are also on the priority list, that’s information leaders can use. Taking the time to set career trajectories based on a holistic life view pays off. “When you give them choice and it matches their lifestyle needs, you get a far greater return on investment and a far greater connection.”
That connection is likely the most effective tool in keeping good people, says Marc-David Seidel, associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. Harnessing a higher purpose and paving the way for personal growth might make people feel better about the work they do, but research shows the biggest predictor of whether someone will stay in a job is having strong social connections—friends—in the workplace. With more people working remotely, finding ways to bring people together in person—through Kal Tire-style training programs, a conspicuously placed pool table or a company mixer—is an increasingly important part of the HR function and key to retention.
Seidel notes that work friendships tend to endure even as we change employers: “People move jobs more now, but they keep up their social connections with people from other organizations.” This can be a boon to companies looking to recruit workers, which is why many have taken to offering bonuses or other incentives to staff who bring in a qualified friend. But it also makes it tricky to retain talent when workers are constantly hearing about greener pastures from their buddies. Building a culture of trust, where employees feel accountable to each other, is one way to avoid the wandering eye and minimize attrition.
That’s been the strategy at Vancouver startup Unbounce, which makes landing web pages for businesses and other groups. As the “people and culture” manager, Leslie Collin strives to keep a loose grip on her growing workforce of over 110 employees (up from 40 just two years ago). There are no set work hours at Unbounce, and employees are encouraged to work how, where and when they can be most effective. They can arrange schedules with their team leads and won’t be chastised for taking half-days or a long lunch. The only rule is that they need to work in the office at least some of the time.
With stiff competition for tech workers in Vancouver, standing out as an employer of choice comes down to creating an environment where people want to come to work, says Collin. That goes beyond giving people autonomy. In a buyer’s market, employees are looking for opportunities to gain skills at work, and they want to know they are making meaningful contributions that shape the company. To meet that demand, Unbounce has leadership development and mentorship programs that allow employees to broaden their horizons; Collin herself recently paired up with a developer at the company to learn how to code. In addition, an open-door policy means anyone can pitch an idea to the top brass. “You can book a meeting with a CEO or one of the founders. Nothing is really off the table, discussion-wise or learning-wise.”
While Collin says intense competition for talent has forced the tech industry to trailblaze this value-added approach to HR, she anticipates it won’t be long until other sectors follow suit. “It’s no longer enough to just offer fair and adequate compensation and a medical benefits package,” she says. “It’s about the whole experience you’re getting at work. That’s something we embrace here, and that’s definitely where HR needs to go.”