The 6 most pressing issues keeping HR professionals up at night

February 12, 2018 - 7 minute read

Last week, one of the UK’s biggest events for the human resources industry, HRD Summit 2018, took place in Birmingham. More than 900 attendees saw industry titans such as Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Ames, Josh Bersin and Mark Ellis deliver keynotes, while giants like Salesforce, Workday and LinkedIn were all present.

While the number of issues facing HR today are even more numerous and varied than the snacks, treats and drinks served up to HRD Summit delegates to get them through the intense two-day program, there were several macro-themes that everyone in the industry is currently wrestling with. If these aren’t keeping you and your team up at night right now, they soon will be.


1. The search for purpose

The only word or phrase more ubiquitous than the eternally-overused “we’re on a journey” was the need for “purpose”.

The Simon Sinek principle that great businesses start with the ‘why’ before thinking about the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ has been fully embraced by leading HR thinkers and applied to people management theory.

Kevin Ames of O.C. Tanner explained that employee engagement was a three-step plan driven by purpose: “Identify and articulate the higher purpose,” then have people do great work in service of that purpose. “Great work is making a difference that other people love,” explained Ames. Finally, make people feel appreciated for that work. “Recognition is a moment where we feel deeply acknowledged.”

Tim Drake of Hudson Talent Management picked up on this theme and explained how Purpose led to Values, then Mission and finally Vision, all being essential to creating a company culture that engages employees in a deep way.

2. Employee engagement

It’s an oldie but a goodie. Employee engagement is still firmly on the HR agenda but the conversation has moved on from the foundational (that it’s important and that it needs to be measured) to something more nuanced.

“Companies with highly engaged employees outperform peers by 147% in earnings per share,” explained Denise Willett of Achievers. “You know as a customer when you receive a highly engaged employee experience. The customer experience is determined by the employee experience.

“Employees expect to be engaged differently in work but we’re all doing engagement in the same old way. There’s really been a shift in responsibility for engagement from employer to employee. Employees want to learn everything, they want to work where they want, we need to reflect that.”

The challenge in engaging today’s workforce was picked up on by Kevin Ames:

“Employee engagement is not a program, it’s one heart and one mind at a time.”

3. Managing the whole employee

From health trackers to health insurers; from corporate wellbeing apps to corporate wellbeing services; and from mental health apps to employee property rental services, the exhibitor area of HRD Summit UK was dominated by products and services aimed at helping companies to manage the whole employee - both in and out of the workplace.

“Thriving employees must be able to be their authentic selves at work and must feel energised,” explained Mercer | Sirota’s Nick Starrett.

This need will only become greater with Generation Z now entering the workforce, according to Sally Winston and Colin Ireland of employee researchers ORC International: “Bringing your whole self to work and being whole self at work is essential for Generation Z."

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For McDonald’s, this has meant providing its zero-hour non-desk employees with the most flexible work experience possible, allowing them to sign up to work shifts that fit in with their lifestyle, so students can plan shifts around classes or single parents can plan around childcare.

Shereen Daniels, Head of HR for Caffe Nero asked HR professionals to reconsider the role they play. “We focus on fit, or even worse. We ask ourselves: will they survive in the madness of our organisation? Forget thriving..!"

“HR takes a passive role, accepting and not challenging the culture we work in. We say ‘great person but they didn’t fit in’ instead of ‘great person, what can we do to help them thrive in this environment’?”

4. The 4 generation workforce

There are now potentially four generations working within the same organisation and this was a topic that touched a large number of presentations, with many HR professionals trying to come to grips with the question of how to manage employees of such different ages, education types and motivations.

ORC’s Winston and Ireland provided particularly intriguing insight on this subject. “Gen Zers are taking steps to make themselves as adaptable as possible. They don’t want the same career forever because they know they’re going to have to adapt over time due to the changing nature of jobs.”

“They don’t necessarily want to be sat at a desk. They’re attracted to more traditional blue collar jobs, like being a waiter or barista. Some still want to perhaps do more corporate jobs but to do it on the coalface of an organisation and be able to escape the desk.”

If merging the baby boomer mentality with this new reality, it needn’t be.


“Every generation is consistent but different,” said Ireland. “We’ve found that catering to the newer workforce actually doesn’t discourage older generations and they sometimes even embrace it,” added Winston.

5. The rise and rise of HR technology

Matt Jones of CIELO said that clients invariably come to him asking two questions: “One: how can I use technology to be more efficient? Two: How do we improve the experience of our customers?”

The idea of using technology to free up resources was prevalent throughout the show, as was the way that consumer technology is increasingly informing workplace tech.

“Consumer tech is merging with HR,” continued Jones. “Chatbots, for example, could be used to help with onboarding - telling employees where to park or what to wear for your first day.”

Paula Coughlan, chief people strategy officer for McDonald's agreed. “The new generation is expecting businesses to act and behave like people do outside the workplace and like modern technologies.”

“If it’s not mobile, it doesn’t exist for us at Ericsson. We simply cannot launch any new way of working that requires sitting at a desktop, stationary.”
- VP and global head of talent management at Ericsson, Selina Millstam -

6. The move towards experience

Experience was one of the words of the week too.

“Providing employees with ‘total reward’ means moving beyond engagement to experience,” explained Nick McClelland and Andrew Drake, directors at JLT Group.

“Experience starts before joining, entering into the role, enjoying working at company, and have a great off-boarding experience so the employee tells the world positive things.”

Appical’s Paul Ulat agreed. “Managers don’t typically closely follow the progress of an employee onboarding over time which is a mistake. The employee experience is such a vital aspect.”

Again, it’s the next generation of employees who are going to place the emphasis even more firmly on this topic in future.

“They’re ripping it up and are going to start again,” said ORC’s Colin Ireland. “They’re asking: what makes it so special to have a degree anyway? They’re staying away from education to prioritise experience. That’s something they’re going to look for from their employers too.”


Matt Warnock

Written by Matt Warnock

Matt is Content Marketing Director at Speakap. He's here to help you achieve corporate greatness.