Michael Ross has the look of a man who straddles two worlds. Scruffy jaw and tousled hair…blue blazer and tortoise shell glasses. The EVP of Human Resources at Visa is an East Coast financial maven thriving in the sunshine of Silicon Valley.
Ross clasps his hands behind his head and gazes into the middle distance as he considers the question before him. “What keeps me up at night? Are we changing fast enough?”
As the guy in charge of building a team of innovators at one of the world’s most influential financial technology companies, it’s no wonder Ross is fixated on the speed of change. Which is precisely why we asked him, along with two other bright minds of HR, to weigh in on the future of the discipline.
We’re all wondering: What’s the best way to support our people in a landscape that’s changing faster than a mood ring on a toddler?
Spend a few minutes with any of these HR pros, and it’s abundantly clear that the job itself has changed just as much as the landscape. Gone are the days of plan administration. Welcome to the era of strategic business drivers, value alignment, and wearing lots and lots of hats.
“Great HR supports what the company is there to do. It’s aligned with values, and it brings value.” So says Jo Dennis, in a lyrical British accent that tends to make Americans hang on every word. Dennis left a career-making global position at HP to head up People and Culture at the comparatively tiny Omada Health — a move that some folks might have found terrifying for any number of reasons. For Dennis, however, it was the next logical step. “I was hungry to create something impactful for each individual, and do it with a team that was up for the challenge to think about HR differently.”
“Ultimately,” she says, “HR exists to create the kind of environment where every single person, no matter what experience they have, what level they are, what background, what race, what gender, feels like they can do the best work of their lives at that company.”
Duane Bray of IDEO agrees. “HR often holds the keys to the CEO’s vision. If there’s a disconnect, then there’s a challenge. It’s important to align the company’s values and mission with individuals and create offerings that bring them together.”
Bray knows a thing or two about being on the “receiving end” of his company’s HR offerings. He spent his early career as an interaction designer at IDEO, before leading its HR function. Which gives him a unique perspective on the needs of IDEO’s creative workforce.
“We’re finding that when the benefit aligns with the mission and purpose of the organization, it’s different from simply having luxurious amounts of food or bicycles thrown at you. Employees can tell the difference between hollow offerings to keep you at work longer, versus heartfelt offerings that align with the mission.”
So, heartfelt caring is also a strategic initiative. “We like to create opportunities for people so they know they’re being looked after,” says Bray. “We know supporting baseline health helps us long-term.”
Michael Ross puts it in clear financial terms. “HR needs to think in terms of driving business outcomes. It has to drive ROI discussions. The same rules apply to us as the guy who is buying the real estate or the person in charge of product development. We’re spending a lot of the company’s money.”
“Companies are waking up to the idea that happier, engaged, healthy employees have an ROI impact,” says Ross.
Bray expands on Ross’ happy/healthy equals ROI thread. “Unless organizations take a hard look at their benefits offerings, they might see themselves at a competitive disadvantage. The impact of this has gone way beyond just Facebook competing with Google. It’s affecting all types of companies.”
Or, as Dennis succinctly puts it: “Without people you have no product. And without connected, motivated, and committed people, you’re unlikely to win.”
Power to the people, for sure. But how will this play out as we look ahead?
“Today’s workers want great employee experiences, more than anything,” explains Ross.
And why wouldn’t they? Their expectations for service experiences are being set by companies that have very little to do with the employer. Coffee chains, department stores, and of course, apps and web sites that make self-service a snap. Dennis explains, “The digital experience of our personal lives needs to be reflected in how we work.”
A lot has been written recently about the consumerization of technology, and how this trend has affected the workplace. (Check out these articles from Forbes and Entrepreneur for starters.) According to Jo Dennis, the time is now to make a change.
“Technology has given people the ability to see what options are out there for them. The ease of access, support, and services we have in our personal lives doesn’t exist yet at work. By comparison, the office experience can still feel paper-based, generic, and slow.”
Technology also has the benefit of allowing a more personalized experience — which is another expectation employees are bringing to the workplace. “Everyone needs different things,” Dennis reminds us, “and to be engaged with differently.”
“People want to consume things in a way that makes sense to them,” says Ross. “Particularly when you get into health and wellness. It comes down to the company’s ability to design something that allows for that flexibility, so that people can do what’s relevant to them.”
Which means HR is a field ripe for disruption. “There’s a desire for more radical transparency in everything from compensation to benefits,” says Bray.
If anyone would be able to sense the blowing winds of change, it’d be Duane Bray — IDEO is one of the world’s foremost innovation firms. It’s the place where big companies like Ford and ConAgra go when it’s time to shake things up.
Bray continues, “I’ve been asked to be a part of several different national HR organizations. And they’re all discussing 20-year-old best practices. At the same time, all of these groups are aware of the headlines out there like ‘HR is dead’, or ‘HR doesn’t get the way people are coming into the workforce and their expectations’. If you do your homework in your organization, you’ll sense this. It’s an invitation to think a little bit differently, and decide what’s the one place where you try something different.”
Fair enough. But how do you charge boldly forward into this new future when there are so many offerings and so much complexity to navigate?
It comes down to smart partnerships.
“I do think subject matter expertise matters,” notes Ross. “I’m always looking for partners, not vendors. Somebody who makes me smarter. They’ve got to be there for the long-term relationship.”
“Good partners can provide insight into how the workforce is changing. Even the most conservative CHRO needs that,” says Bray.
Good partners can be hard to find, however. “I think it’s important that they have a strong perspective,” says Bray. “They need to have a POV of what they’re trying to do. They’re willing to ask good questions and challenge us about our beliefs. And similarly, they’re open to us doing the same thing.” Finally, he adds, “I’m most impressed by partners who have really done their research about us.”
Thoughtful partnerships can take the burden of “pipes and processes” off of HR professionals, giving them time to focus on the strategic initiatives that align with the company’s values and deliver ROI. “I’d much rather spend time helping people be successful in life than the actual process of enrolling people in a benefit,” says Dennis. “That’s where technology comes in. And specialists.”
For all the talk of technology and disruption, it’s clear that the future of HR will grow from its roots. “When you get people that feel connected, that they can contribute, and that the company values what they do, it brings the best out in everybody,” says Dennis.
So forward-looking companies may simply become more adept at helping people help themselves.
Duane Bray tells a story that demonstrates this principle in action. IDEO has a relatively young workforce with a large number of 20 and 30-somethings — a group that can be less than proactive about saving for retirement.
As Bray tells it, “You can’t go to somebody and say, ‘We want you to care more,’ so we were like, ‘Actually, if we care about people’s financial health as an employer, it’s up to us to do something.’ So we designed an auto-pilot 401K. When you start, you have to consciously say, ‘I don’t want to participate.’ Otherwise, you’re in automatically. The system knows your target retirement date. It builds its own plan around that. Every year it increases, so you get your maximum contribution. We want people to feel like they’re set up for retirement, but we’re not going to be preachy about how they get there.”
“We like to create opportunities for people so they understand that they’re being looked after. We’re supporting baseline health care knowing that, in the long run, it really helps us and employees.”
Innovative ideas for improving the lives of employees are popping up everywhere. While we may still have to wait a while longer for our oft-promised jet-packs, it seems like the future of HR is shaping up quite nicely, with a bit of help from smart partnerships and deft technology. Perhaps the most important question now is: What role do you want to play in it?