From Personnel to People Ops: The Evolution of HR - Moving From Paper-First to People-First HR [eBook]

Shift your focus away from tedious, paper-based tasks and truly prioritize your employees!

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by GoCo - September 13th, 2022

From Personnel to People Ops: The Evolution of HR - Moving From Paper-First to People-First HR [eBook]


Is human resources inherently people-centric? That depends on how you look at it.

The roots of human resources can be traced all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, when workplace safety became a huge concern. Companies established labor relations departments and leaders to create safer workplaces, a seemingly people-centric initiative. Back then, there was a visible connection between the role of personnel and worker well-being. This same connection also affected the economic health of the organization, as worker safety led to more productivity, fewer missed days, and less turnover.

The role and function of human resources have evolved over the years. On the surface, the value of HR appears to be a win for workers and organizations alike, especially considering how the role of HR came to be. However, HR continues to catch flack from employees because of an assumed lack of people-centricity.
Its function as a whole has become largely transactional, focusing on paperwork, processes, and protecting the organization while offering little value to employees.

Today, we’re seeing yet another shift, this time in a way that balances the benefits of HR between employees and employers. It’s time for human resources to change the narrative and become the people-centric function for which it was originally designed. Technology can remove the paper-driven transactional relationship that hinders the path forward.

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Why HR Gets a Bad Rap

Many people have an opinion about what HR does and how they feel about their workplace’s HR department. In many cases, that image isn’t completely positive. HR is often a target of outright resentment. It’s a stress factor for employees, especially if they’ve ever been called into the HR office. The reasons can vary.

For starters, many employees believe that HR exists only to protect the company and not the workers. As HR professionals, we know this isn’t true. HR benefits both employers and employees, but workers struggle to see value in HR when the relationships are so transactional.

HR also seems like a distant entity to employees. They usually only engage with HR during the hiring and onboarding process or when they’re involved in a work-related issue. Because of this lack of ongoing interaction, employees may feel like HR is out of touch with workers on a daily basis.

Other opinions about HR collected from online forums and social media sites like Reddit share even more insight into the employee experience:

  • HR doesn’t treat humans as humans

  • They threaten employees with corrective action

  • They care more about policies than people

  • They overcomplicate things

  • They don’t offer direct answers

  • They’re incompetent

  • They care too much about office politics

  • They nitpick issues instead of focusing on real problems

  • They’re not always fair or objective

These opinions can be hard for HRs to hear. But remember, they’re exactly that—opinions. This doesn’t mean these apply to all HR departments or that you’ve failed as an HR professional.

But knowing the narrative from the employee’s perspective is important. It shows that HR clearly has a lot of work to do if the goal is to build stronger connections with employees and create a truly people-centric organization.

The first step: be introspective and honest with yourself. Decide if you have ever been the type of HR that employees complain about. We all have room for improvement, and knowing what employees truly want and need from the HR role can help you create better experiences.

The next step: prioritize these three areas of improvement:

  • Focus on the people. Take care of your people, and they’ll take care of your company.

  • Increase your competence. Keep learning and investing in your professional development so you can be a more capable HR leader.

  • Streamline processes using HR technology. Spending less time buried in paperwork and inefficient processes allows you to spend more time advocating for your employees.

The Traditional HR Role Is No More

HR’s earliest emphasis was on worker safety. Decades later, this role gave way to what used to be called personnel (which is now called human resources). Personnel served as a liaison between the organization and its employees but in a mostly transactional manner.

For example, a day in the life of a personnel worker may have included posting jobs, scheduling interviews, handling new hire paperwork, conducting payroll, getting employees to sign agreements or notices, providing forms for corrective action, evaluating employees, and ensuring compliance with labor laws (among many other things).

It was task after task, form after form. Check the box on your to-do list and move to the next. There was very little relationship-building involved. The main priority for personnel managers was to support the business.

That’s not to say they didn’t care about worker happiness, safety, and well-being. We’re people too, so, of course, those things matter to us. But the time-intensive job left very little time to focus on culture and creating a people-centric environment.

Luckily, times have changed.

HR has moved beyond the traditional function of policy policing and working behind the scenes to being on the frontlines of the employee experience. HR used to hold a reactive role that handled issues as they arose, but it now proactively works to improve the culture and prevent issues from forming. Instead of simply enforcing policies and giving directions from leadership, HR departments are creating policies that support employees and working alongside leadership to create a better, employee-centric workplace.

This shift is moving HR from a paper-first approach to a people-first model, and it’s happening faster as better HR technology becomes available.

The Modern Approach to HR: The People-First Model

Compliance, paperwork, and processes still play an important role in human resources. Ultimately, these things affect your people and the health of the organization as a whole. But a people-first model takes into account how tasks and activities impact the employee experience.

Characteristics of a People-First HR

The Academy to Innovate HR shares eight key priorities of a people-first operation:

  • Employee development

  • Employee recognition

  • Continuous engagement

  • The employee journey and lifecycle

  • Gaining employee trust

  • Change management

  • Connecting employee performance to company goals

  • Culture development and transformation

These characteristics underscore the idea that HR is no longer an entity that’s working in the background and providing a business support function. People-first HR means being people leaders, not just process handlers. To achieve each of these characteristics, HR needs to become more visible to employees, understand their needs, and advocate on their behalf.

Qualities of a People-Ops Leader

It’s not enough for HR to go through the motions of being a people-ops leader. Given the way many employees view HR and its lack of empathy toward the worker, HR departments should also work to shed this negative image and be seen as an advocate for the people.

Actions speak louder than words and job titles, and the qualities you embody can help to reinforce this image.

Qualities that people-ops leaders should possess:

  • The ability to lead with passion, empathy, and kindness

  • A lack of fear in having tough conversations regarding diversity, equality, and inclusion, along with actions to ensure DE&I are taken seriously

  • Initiating well-being in the workplace, both in terms of physical, mental, social, and financial health

  • A proactiveness to give and receive feedback on a regular basis and use that feedback to instill change and improvement

Employees see people-ops leaders as mentors, guides, and advocates. They help others grow and achieve their highest potential. To fulfill their expectations effectively, people-ops leaders need to be risk takers and visionaries. They need to be agile in creating beneficial changes for the people they’re supporting. And they need to do all of the above with empathy and social responsibility.

Becoming a People-First Leader

Generally speaking, human resources professionals excel in many of the above qualities of a people-ops leader. We tend to be naturally comfortable in advising and coaching others, being good listeners, showing kindness, and connecting with people.

But to fully achieve the role of a people-first leader, HR professionals need to improve the areas that aren’t naturally comfortable to us. For most of us, this entails a growth mindset, business acumen, adaptability, and technology. And with the right technology, HR leaders can also make progress in the other three areas.

How Technology Plays a Role in People-First HR

Technology has been one of the driving factors in creating a people-first HR. A decade ago, paperwork and hands-on, manual processes bogged down the role of HR and even contributed to our image of being miles away from employees and focused more on processes than people. HR technology flips the script by helping HR to organize, automate, and manage many of the processes that used to keep you tied to your desk.

If you find the idea of HR technology scary, you’re not alone. Moving away from paper-based processes and systems is new for many long-time HR professionals, and there’s always some level of fear when dealing with the unknown. But technology is the path forward for turning a paper-first HR department into a people-first one. Here’s why:

Efficiency Throughout the Department

Technology can simplify many of the tasks you’re used to doing manually, such as data entry, job postings, and new hire paperwork. By digitizing these and other processes (and even automating some of them), HR can get out from under the paperwork mountain and free up time to invest in employee engagement.

Better Access to Data

Digital technologies provide access to data with just a few clicks. They remove the need to store paper records in space-eating filing cabinets. Search functions can help you locate data quickly instead of spending precious time combing through potentially disorganized paper systems. Plus, you can maintain a greater level of data security with privilege-based access.

Improved Employee Experience

Technology-focused HR processes make an impression on your employees, too. With Gen Z entering the workforce, the majority of today’s workers have grown up with technology and use it extensively in their everyday lives. Filling out new hire paperwork online at home, completing the onboarding process digitally, and logging into portals to check benefits and PTO banks feels natural to them.

These digital processes can also help your organization appear modern and cutting-edge, which may help you attract better talent.

The Challenges in Integrating HR Technology

Implementing HR technology is usually easier than done. Regardless of your organization’s function or specialty, there are a few key challenges many HRs experience in making this shift.

The Paradox of Choice

As you start exploring the idea of HR technology, you’ll quickly notice just how many options there are to choose from. The number of choices can overwhelm, which ultimately makes it harder to choose.

That’s what we call the paradox of choice—more options doesn’t always mean great options, nor does it make the decision-making process any easier. In fact, data shows that 54% of HR professionals say that too many choices is their number one challenge when buying technology. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of exploration and comparison and end up not adopting any solution.

A Lack of Know-How

If paper-based systems are all you’ve ever known, starting with HR technology can feel daunting. Where do you begin?

As with any new venture, you have to take the time to learn in order to do. Start by educating yourself and leading by example. Take some time to explore your options with HR technology, what it’s capable of, its benefits, and how it can transform you into a people-first department. Try starting with one process you want to automate or one thing you want to make easier for your people, then go from there.

The Wrong Mindset

HR employees are among the busiest bees in the hive. Adopting new HR technology isn’t always a matter of fear or a lack of know-how but rather a perceived lack of time. Due to the nature of our work, we rarely have a couple of free hours to learn a new process or approach. So we tell ourselves that we simply don’t have time to make things better for our employees, even if we truly want to.

Change isn’t easy, but the right mindset can make it easier. One way HRs can create a positive mindset is to make learning about HR technology a priority. Make time to learn about new processes or solutions that will enhance the workplace. See what other companies are doing to improve their workers’ lives and the response they’ve gotten from those changes.

HR Technology Sourcing Tips

As you’re discovering and exploring your options, you’ll eventually need to make a decision on what to implement. Here are some tips that can guide this process:

Start with the Problem You’re Trying to Solve

Something is driving your HR technology decision, but what? In one survey, 58% of HR departments were moved to purchase HR technology specifically for talent acquisition and retention. Four out of ten departments want to create collaborative work environments, develop their employees, and improve the overall employee experience. Workforce planning and supporting DE&I also made the list.

Whatever problem you’re trying to solve, make it your starting point. From there, you can narrow your focus to different software and technologies that align with your goals.

Use a Design Thinking Approach

Design thinking is a popular framework for innovation. It puts the user experience at the heart of the design to ensure that innovation truly supports the user and provides a better solution than what already exists.

Applied to HR, design thinking can help HR departments be more mindful of the problems they’re trying to solve and how they’re solving them with technology. The steps are as follows:

  1. Empathize — Innovation should be human-centered.

  2. Define — Innovation should solve a problem.

  3. Ideate — Innovation stems from a collection of ideas.

  4. Prototype — Bring innovation to life via a product or solution.

  5. Test — Innovation should be refined.

This process is ongoing. It’s not enough to reach a technology decision—we must also test it in real-time and see how it supports a better option than what it replaced. Over time, that solution should either continue to solve the problem to its highest potential or be replaced with something even better.

Get First-Line Team Members Involved Early

Solving business problems requires a team effort. Get first-line team members involved early and make sure they stay involved. This includes employees, IT leaders, and other key stakeholders that can help you gain perspective on a problem.

Know How Much of an Investment You Can Make

HR technology may already be built into your budget. Make sure you know how much you can afford to spend on new solutions. This will help you narrow your search and not spend time exploring options that have no way of earning budget approval.

Connect with Other HR Professionals

Your best sources of information on HR technology are other people in the same boat. Tap into your professional network to ask for insights and advice.

Join Facebook Groups

Facebook Groups can be valuable business tools, especially for learning how a certain technology or tool works before you buy it. Join Facebook Groups related to general HR technology or specific solutions. You may get answers to questions you didn’t think to ask.

Participate in Twitter Chats

The same goes for Twitter chats. #HRSocialHour is super helpful and gives you insight into other HRs challenges and solutions. It’s a great place for learning and getting bite-sized information you can apply to your everyday role.

Spend Time on the Expo Floor

Now that in-person conventions and conferences have returned, spend some time on the expo floor at these events. SHRM, HR Tech, and other top conferences usually have exhibit halls with vendors. It’s a great place to make professional connections with other people in HR as well as potential vendors.

Use Vendors as Learning Experiences

Vendors usually provide free demos of their HR technology solutions. Take advantage of these demos to get an inside peek into how these tools work. It’s a very small time investment that can help you flesh out what you really need to solve your challenge.

Make a List of Questions

As you’re learning and approaching your problem from different angles, keep a running list of questions and points. Refer to this list often to keep your technology search on track.

For instance, when you’re closing to the decision-making phase, one question you should ask is how long implementation takes. You might also want to ask about the age of the technology and how often it’s updated. Older technology might look fine on the surface, but it could have scalability limitations that will make it irrelevant in the near future.

Putting It All Together — Moving from a Paper-First to a People-First HR

Going from a paper-first to a people-first HR is the future of HR as a whole. The right HR technology enables this shift to happen by eliminating many of the paper-based, manual processes that take time away from cultivating a people-focused environment.

As a leader in HR automation, GoCo is helping HR departments transform into people-first environments. We believe that technology doesn’t replace human connections but rather enhances them by providing streamlined experiences and understanding more about your people and organization. When choosing any type of new technology, consider your people first!

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