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Thinking Differently is Key to Thriving in a Volatile HR Environment

“It’s the new normal.” 

“The only constant is change.” 

We hear these phrases so often that it can be tempting to turn a deaf ear. Perhaps they’ve begun to sound trite because we know change is part of the ebbs and flows of any business and any economy. We don’t need a reminder.

Or do we?

Over the past two years, HR professionals have been hit with the kind of sea change that can only be described as transformative. From new ways of recruiting and retaining talent in an unprecedented labor market, to the complexities of return-to-work policies and the intricacies of setting pay bands for a remote workforce, what we do today sometimes bears little resemblance to what we did yesterday.

Being more agile and nimble forces HR professionals to act differently. When really, we need to think differently.

Digging Below the Surface

The exit interview is a prime example. HR professionals have always found value in understanding why a key employee is leaving and applying those learnings to improve the culture and reduce turnover. Now, more HR teams are conducting “stay interviews” aimed at getting ahead of retention problems. 

The stay interview is a great way to act differently in this new environment. But to be effective, it demands thinking differently about who and how we engage in these conversations. That means not making assumptions about who is/isn’t a flight risk (which has blindsided some companies), avoiding surface-level questions that don’t get at the heart of issues, going beyond surveys that have limited utility, and showing authenticity in asking how someone is truly doing. 

My father was CEO of a family-owned telecom company, and he instinctively conducted his own version of the stay interview before it became vogue. He was known for cutting through the superficial, digging deep to learn what was really on the minds of employees. That kind of thinking differentiates companies that stagnate from those that thrive, even in a challenging labor market.

Modeling the Behavior

Most successful companies have leadership development programs that build the competencies managers need to motivate, coach, and lead teams, focusing on skills like communication, influence, and resilience.

But in a volatile world, what those leaders may need most is a framework and a model for how to build greater intimacy within teams—equipping them to engage in more intentional conversations, understand employee pain points and goals, spot brewing problems, and improve the employee’s experience and the company’s retention rate. 

It may sound nuanced, but it’s a very different way of thinking about leadership development. And it demands that the C-suite is able and willing to model the behaviors themselves, showcasing how it’s done so managers can apply the concept. 

Balancing Competing Priorities

You need to get more employees in the front door. But you can’t risk losing just as many out the back door. However, that’s a very possibility in the current climate.

Balancing these competing priorities takes a more thoughtful approach. If one segment of your HR team is busily creating compelling recruitment materials and rewriting recruitment ads—but no one is working on new retention strategies—you’ll end up running in place.

Retention strategies need to go beyond the obvious, especially given that what employees value today is much different from what they valued yesterday. For example, I found that mental wellness was a major area of interest for my own team, so I partnered with a wellness company to add that benefit to our package. They’re taking full advantage of this opportunity and sharing how grateful they are.  

By thinking differently about how to balance the growing number of competing priorities your HR organization faces in these volatile times, you’ll make better progress on multiple fronts.   

Looking Around the Corner

None of us has a crystal ball, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pay close attention to trends, anticipate change, and prepare for it proactively. 

The most adaptable HR leaders think differently about change—looking around the corner to see what may be coming and embracing it as an opportunity. The shift to a remote workforce is a great example. While some organizations rigidly viewed it as a temporary, necessary move, forward-thinking companies seized on the chance to offer compensation packages that are more competitive for out-of-market candidates. 

When you think two steps ahead and welcome the change you see coming, it opens worlds of possibilities. 

Practicing Self-Care

HR professionals are operating in a pressure-cooker environment today. While it’s important to maintain high performance standards, it’s just as vital to recognize that perfection isn’t realistic when the floor is constantly shifting beneath your feet. 

What helps? Identifying what’s in your control, focusing your energies where they will yield the greatest ROI, embracing that the work you’re doing can impact the entire organization (without letting that fact overwhelm you), and practicing self-care within your HR team by celebrating small wins and picking each other up.     

Building healthier, more caring organizations is within reach, even in these fast-changing times. It just requires that we all think a little differently. 

Mary Malone McCarthy is CEO of M3 Placement & Partnership.