​​It seems that HR has an image problem. Despite more than 30 years of research on HR, there are still gaps in our understanding of the effects of HR strategy and practices on outcomes – especially as business demands continue to grow.

“I believe HR is needed and should have a place in an organisation. But we need to approach it completely differently,” says Professor Karin Sanders, Head of UNSW’s School of Management and Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Karin recently chaired the second HR International Conference (HRIC), hosted by UNSW. She says the papers presented shed some interesting new light on HR practice around the world.

A new focus on wellbeing

In previous decades, HR has focused exclusively on the performance of people as ‘assets’ – “almost like exploitation of a resource” according to Karin.

“But now we realise more and more we need to take care of staff. At the conference, Professor David Guest (Kings College, London) discussed the need to focus more on employee wellbeing rather than performance,” she explains.

“His research highlighted the link between wellbeing and performance – because if people believe they matter, that they are important in decision-making, they will perform better.”

However, if you focus exclusively on performance, you lose that connection with wellbeing – and you may find that productivity and retention will suffer. Especially as staff spend increasing amounts of time at work. “Employee wellbeing is not just about absenteeism, it’s psychological wellbeing too – a feeling that you fit in this environment and feel welcome.” Organisations now have reliable scales to measure employees’ wellbeing.

Karin says she tries to encourage some balance amongst her own team at the School of Management, where 10 to 12 hour days are the norm. “If a PhD student is working a 15 hour day, they are no longer productive. You need at least four hours for yourself every day, to relax and recharge your brain. And you need to sleep.”

Make expectations clear

No matter what size a business is, if employee expectations are made clear there will be a much stronger relationship between HR practices (such as hiring and performance appraisals), and wellbeing and performance.

Karin says there are three key elements to an effective HR practice.

“Firstly, employees need to perceive HR as distinctive and visible. All employees need to know HR is there to support them.”

All HR messages also need to be consistent. So if your business objectives focus on innovation, make sure you hire, promote and reward people for their ability and impact in that area. On the other hand, if you recruit people based on their ability to work in a team, but give them KPIs based on individual performance, you are not being consistent.

“The third element is consensus. All policy makers need to send out the same message to employees,” says Karin.

“For example, in a research university research is the priority. So research should be the focus for performance appraisals, training and promotion. If management in these universities start prioritising teaching performance, it sends a mixed message.”

Give people more autonomy

Much has been made of the different needs of a millennial workforce. But what will this shift in demographics mean for HR?

Karin believes giving people more autonomy within a flexible workplace structure will be increasingly important – but it needs to be reciprocal and team-based, not just a benefit for parents with young children.

“Let teams share these kinds of structures – my research shows this will lead to better performance. But focus on the very different needs of each person at the table, from the 24-year-old graduate to the person close to retirement.”

This autonomy expands to include the ability to define their own roles within an organisation.

“They still may want the support of a manager, but we’re moving away from this ‘tasks for today’ approach to empowering them to complete their responsibilities the way they want to.”

She gives the example of academic research. “We may have the expectation we need to publish four articles in a peer-reviewed journal every year. But how, when and who we work with on research is up to us.”

Harness the power of HR analytics

Karin says the conference also highlighted the importance of HR analytics in coming years.

“This is not about ‘big data’,” she explains. “It’s about having a clear question in mind, and using data to find the answer and a solution.”

For example, if you have a high level of turnover or absenteeism, employee data can tell you why. Perhaps the tasks are too onerous and there is burnout – you’ll need to restructure workload and focus more on wellbeing.

“This is a critical way for HR to help management and have a significant impact.”

Know your business inside out

This brings us to the issue of HR’s leadership role in an organisation. Karin believes it’s time for HR to step up, develop strategic skills, and have confidence in its abilities.

“In my opinion, too many people in the HR department are under-qualified. They’re young, they may not see it as a long-term career, and they don’t spend time understanding what their organisations actually do.”

This impacts their ability to take the lead and make difficult decisions. Karin, perhaps unsurprisingly, advocates all HR professionals need a university degree.

“If you are talking with line managers and can’t show you understand what you’re talking about, you won’t be taken seriously.”

So you need to know your business’ activities, objectives and goals. But you also need to ‘own’ the HR responsibility.

“Don't act as an assistant to the Line Manager. You will need a strong, confident personality – know your expertise and if you have any gaps, fill them.”

What will our future workplace look like?

Karin believes it’s time to redefine the workplace as ‘a place people want to be’ – where they have ownership of their role and a voice in the organisation.

This goes back to the idea of autonomy, but that feeling of belonging and cohesiveness still matters. For example, if people are working from home they may need at least one team session each week – a lunch, workshop or meeting – that brings everyone together.

“In five to ten years, given the new generation coming through, we will have many more workplaces that are defined by the employees,” she says. “That means the role of HR changes its focus, to be more about managing the fit between individual people and a team culture.”

Professor Karin Sanders is Head of UNSW’s School of Management and Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She also teaches on the Strategic HR series program at the AGSM. To find out more visit agsm.edu.au/hr