From economic worries and mass layoffs to fears of generative AI taking people’s jobs, there’s no shortage of insecurity at work. And when it comes to guiding employees through an environment that can seem like something out of Grimm’s fairytales these days, that task usually falls to HR leaders.
“We’re seeing a lot of chaos in HR. It seems like everything is going forward, then backward — there’s complete whiplash in the industry” explained Eric Mosley, CEO of the employee recognition and management platform Workhuman.
From quiet quitting to RTO to bare minimum Mondays, “It feels like everything everywhere all at once,” Mosley told HR people gathered for the company’s annual Workhuman Live conference in San Diego. “And at the heart of it is our disconnection from each other, and a rise in mental health issues because not as many people are connected to each other anymore. We need to bring a little humanity back to the workplace.”
Considering all the anxiety around workplace concerns, we couldn’t help but wonder: What is keeping HR people up at night?
For Robin Schooling, director of talent strategy at HR solutions and administration firm Humareso, the accelerated, relentless pace of change is a top concern. “Dealing with the pandemic put HR folks into hyperdrive as organizational norms were upended — and they still haven’t recovered,” she said. “They think if they refuse to acknowledge change, maybe it won’t happen.”
Employees continue to be in the driver’s seat, “and aren’t going to put up with bullshit jobs, horrible pay or draconian policies [like] butts in seats in the office every day,” she explained. “But rather than adjusting how she operates and wielding influence to ensure company leaders embrace change as well, Sally in HR would rather write yet another policy, complain about employee turnover, and stick her head in a benefits utilization spreadsheet.”
Meanwhile, for Sara Causey, a consultant who specializes in staffing and recruitment, it is the unwillingness of employees to face reality, especially as it relates to RTO, that’s got her worried. “I think some folks have their heads in the clouds,” she said, expressing concern for staff who continue to resist coming back to the office, particularly Gen Z workers, even as job postings for exclusively remote roles are tapering off. “The smart move is putting together an RTO survival plan rather than plugging your fingers in your ears and refusing to hear that the job market is changing,” Causey warned.
Technology’s impact on the workplace has others fretting. Dan Schawbel, managing partner of the research firm Workplace Intelligence, said that while innovations like AI and automation are setting the stage for new businesses and jobs, they also stand to hurt many working people. He pointed to McDonald’s opening its very first automated outpost in Texas earlier this year — fearing that once such technology moves beyond the experimental stage, jobs will necessarily vanish. And it’s not just fast-food workers whose livelihoods are in jeopardy. “I see this playing out in every industry, and it could happen much faster than we ever imagined,” he said.
Communicating to employees that they work in a psychologically safe space and can be their authentic self at work is a priority of Christina Atkinson, principal and HR lead at the accounting firm Durward Jones Barkwell. “There is so much backlash and negativity now in so many workplaces,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong — many are bought in. But for those who are on the edge and who refuse to suspend their distrust, how can I convince them that most employers want a happy staff, want them to succeed and have a great day at work?”
For her part, Jennifer L’Estrange, managing director of the HR and change management support firm Red Clover, is bedeviled by the possibility of still more layoffs to come. “I’m worried that we’re heading toward another season of layoffs in small and midsized businesses as the impact of budget cuts in larger organizations makes its way through the economy,” she said. Meanwhile, she fears companies will face even greater financial pressure as the interest on EIDL loans they took during the height of the pandemic comes due, leading to still more layoffs.
Ultimately, it is the litany of changes and how to navigate them that remain top of mind for most HR leaders. But workplace consultant and author Cy Wakeman reminded those attending the Workhuman conference that as change is inevitable, it is business readiness rather than change in and of itself that should be their focus. “Do you know when I gave my first talk on change? It was in 1987. What other competency do you give people 40 years to get good at?” she commented, warning managers, “We are all coddling our people in harmful ways.”