The adage "change is the only constant" sums the past two years in Human Resources (HR), also called People and Culture. And my life is no exception. Mid-pandemic, my family moved from bustling Montreal to the base of a mountain in nearby Bromont. Work from home became my default, along with its various challenges. For example, a few weeks ago, I had to navigate working with my son at home after he was exposed to COVID at school.
In the face of so much change, I see two broad responses in HR. On the one hand, companies like Apple and many banks are trying to fight change by imposing restrictive return-to-work policies. On the other, companies like Shopify and BenchSci, where I work, embrace change and aim to go beyond the flexibility that employees demand to rethink the future of work entirely.
For such companies, several trends will be transformative in 2022. Here are the top five that I'm watching closely:
Trend 1: HR as a product
Prior to COVID, much HR focus was on efficiency and culture-building. The world was more static and HR practices were fairly standardized. The main way that companies differentiated themselves was through culture. Operational efficiency with standard HR activities liberated resources to focus on building an attractive culture. HR managers would move from project to project in this pursuit.
This approach doesn't work anymore, for two main reasons. First, change is happening too fast. This is partly because of the pandemic but also trends in technology (e.g., blockchain), culture (e.g., #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter), and work itself (e.g., the rise of freelancers, the Great Resignation). Second, due to pandemic-induced labor shortages, employees have more leverage and increasingly express diverse needs.
The response is to treat HR as a product. This means paying more attention to candidates' and employees' unique backgrounds, needs, preferences, and journeys. It then means developing, personalizing, and continuously optimizing HR solutions. HR professionals will need to think like product managers and establish quicker, stronger feedback loops to understand and rapidly react to qualitative and quantitative data.
Trend 2: Bottom-line impact
The pandemic has increased the importance of HR functions within organizations. Reimagining work, competing to attract scarce talent, and retaining superstars are top priorities.
Accordingly, a companies' product-market fit will no longer be sufficient to guarantee it a high valuation. Especially in companies where intellectual capital is critical—which is most companies today and all in tech—HR practices are crucial to sustained success. In the growing war for talent, I foresee increasing interest in HR activities' direct and measurable impact on a company's bottom line.
We might call this a measure of "HR-market fit."
Trend 3: Digital connectedness
Survey after survey shows that employees value flexibility, and a large majority prefer to work at home most days. I've seen this first-hand at BenchSci, with many team members—including me—moving from urban centers to more rural locations, where they happily work with beautiful views of nature and a lower cost of living.
However, surveys also show that people miss the connectedness from being in the same physical space as colleagues.
Therefore, there's a race to figure out "digital connectedness," allowing people to enjoy working from home while also retaining and strengthening their relationships with colleagues. Companies that win in 2022 will figure out how to enable remote work while deepening relationships, encouraging cross-functional collaboration, and effectively onboarding a diverse workforce.
Trend 4: Global talent marketplace
Besides where people work, how people work is also changing. The past few years have seen a rise in flexible work arrangements, from gig work such as Uber to freelance work on platforms such as Upwork. Blockchain technology has also introduced entirely new ways for people to organize themselves, such as through decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs).
Meanwhile, many companies have an increasingly out-of-touch view of employment. First, they see it as binary—someone's either a committed full-time employee worthy of rewards such as equity, or they're a contractor treated transactionally. Second, they see it as continuous—someone's either working 12 months straight per year, or they're less valuable. Third, they see it as long-term—someone's either committed to at least two years, or they're not serious about the role.
But employees now have many more options. Take a decentralized autonomous organization, for example. While these are still in their infancy, they turn all of the above assumptions on their head. People can work on multiple DAOs simultaneously, contributing their skills where appropriate. For this work, they receive rewards in tokens, effectively earning equity. They can come and go as they please, with their rewards and status linked directly to their contributions and impact. They can even build algorithms to contribute work and have the algorithms rewarded on their behalf!
In 2022, companies will have to adapt to a world with widespread gig, freelance, and blockchain-based work. We'll have to think about things like inter-company programs, internal mobility, sabbaticals, and parting ways, redesigning our HR practices to provide more flexibility and variety in work.
Is there something in between freelance and full-time employment with one company? Can and should companies retain a relationship with "alumni" while they're working elsewhere, seeing this as part of their long-term relationship rather than separate from it? These are some of the questions we'll be asking and answering next year.
Trend 5: Flexibility, inclusivity, and purpose
As noted above, the nature of work is changing. A key contributor to these changes is people's desire for flexibility, inclusivity, and purpose.
For this reason, we need to rethink our vision of perks and benefits. Simply throwing money at the problem isn't going to work. Surveys show that employees will forego salary increases in exchange for greater flexibility.
Of course, nobody knows what the future holds. Two years ago, we couldn't have predicted that there would be a global pandemic that would radically reshape where and how people work.
But I think we can say that HR will continue its transformation. It's an exciting time to be part of this function, as we all work together to navigate uncharted territory—from the comfort of home.