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May 22, 2007
Stories of HR: Human Resources in Sore Need of an Upgrade
 

Sorry to get all serious on you, but it occurred to me that work/life balance is the key ingredient inside happy employees. Oh, you say you knew that? There are multitudes of firms doing their best to show they care, and boy they really, really do. Somewhere along the line, however, a change took place in the workplace that is now referred to as, yikes, “people over product.”

I want to figure out how that happened. First of all, HR (fond term for human resources handling) became more important when workers started being much less expendable. Remember the '90s, anyone? Holding onto an employee became a struggle for many. Add to that, as author and management consultant Mary Boone, author of Managing Inter@ctively, says, “the new perception of career is not a straight ladder up. People are building a resume on experience and a body of work.”

In the work-a-day world, suddenly humans were commodities, particularly during the last decade when job shopping was a sport. As a matter of fact, it was considered and is now again de rigueur to change your work address as often as possible.

Before that occurred, all attention was on product of service. People were always thought of as disposable. Legal issues started the changing trend toward placing more importance on employees. HR is now more critical to a company in order to fully manage their greatest asset: folks. How does the family feel about the job? How is the home dealing with the job? These are as important as the actual employees’ happiness.

Employers Group head William Dalman believes, “Human Resources is suddenly the focus. You have to manage people. The workforce—even in a period where the economy is down—has the upper hand. Most are selling their talents and negotiating with employers. The true talent are independent agents setting the rules and getting many if not all of the perks they seek.”

The definition of “benefits” is certainly changing. Dalman says “People come to a company based on what they offer to an employee in the benefits package. Especially benefits that create a balance between work and life! It’s fascinating how people in business are amending the way they look for compensation.” Imagine.

People want more money and better packages, surely, and yet businesses are getting more sophisticated in how they define what business is—and how it affects their employees’ lives. What a world we live in: give away something other than money, and people say they’re happy.

More and more employees are realizing a large bank account and a poor personal life is not what they want. The employers who offer their employees better quality-of-life benefits will end up with what amounts to happier, more stable, and more productive workforces. The most successful employers of the future listen to their people. This goes beyond the concept of the suggestion box and expands into setting up regularly held forums, retreats, meetings and online communication tools in which everyone gets a chance to voice their opinions. Employees who feel their input counts are more loyal, happier and more productive.

One of the best ways to accomplish this, I’m guessing, is to set up a fully-free corporate blog and a site for folks to run onto and say how they really feel. In addition to sponsoring work-related forums and making traditional business-important information available, firms should be creating message boards online, posting serious and jolly work from everyone in company newsletters, sponsoring clubs, selling items from the company store—anything that helps them generate a feeling of belonging. This community makes employees feel that they belong to a team, thereby increasing loyalty to the brand.

Five years ago, Sapient was all the rage: a biz and tech consultancy creating effective business and technology “solutions” all over the world. What impressed me is that it was a prime example of how the dot-com industry changed the employer’s relationship with its employees. Though the company really doesn't have this in place anymore, I still learn from it: Sapient’s People Strategy Organization concentrated on keeping all employees happy and healthy at a low cost. One way, they say, is to avoid extravagant furniture. Then, they did a body fat loss contest the employees pulled together in order to turn getting healthy into a game. Sapient offered compensation days for extra-hard and noticeable work. And they gave out flexible hours and five floating holidays off for employees to use outside of the majors. Weekly wind-downs (cool term) and rooms reserved for socializing at the end of the week meant a chance for people to catch up with other teams and employees they may not get to talk to except via e-mail. All of this keeps the employees connected and more dedicated to the company.

Making employees happier is not all HR does. Dalman thinks our youthful workforce needs to feel a sense of humility—a word you rarely hear used anymore. “The challenge is to give these 'brats' who never felt a bad economy a dose of reality. Mentoring will combat this. This helps develop an employee. The goal is to take raw talent and basically direct it. It is the biggest challenge to managers: Make the best use of these kids and whatever their talents are—particularly the hidden ones.

Managers need to assess personalities of employees more. More quantitative ways to measure how people do their work will, in turn, help good managers assess people.”

Really good new managers have it so much easier now—unlike the last decade when they purely had nothing to go on. I remember them. Most hadn’t experienced a downturn, so as the economy went up…up…up, they assumed it would never end. Gosh, how naïve. This, I was told again and again, is “not my Pop’s economy. We’ve got the Internet. It caused this economic shift, and we can create wealth with it.”

The barrier to entry is higher now. Way high. Let’s hope people, and those who guide them into becoming excellent resources, can keep it that way.


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Richard Laermer is CEO of New York's RLM pr, representing, among others, e-Miles, Epic Advertising, Yodlee, Revolution Money, Group Commerce, Smith & Nephew, and HotChalk. He was host of TLC's cult program Taking Care of Business and speaks on trends and marketing for corporate groups. You can read Laermer on The Huffington Post and on the mischievous but all-too-necessary Bad Pitch Blog. For more like this, follow him on @laermer.

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