Talent   //   February 7, 2022

How CHROs, no longer ‘fighting for a seat’ in the C-suite, are reshaping workforces

The chief human resource officer may be the most important person at the (virtual) office these days.

That’s because the struggle to hire and retain workers is the biggest threat to meeting business goals in 2022, U.S. executives report. Of the 678 executives included in PwC’s recent Pulse Survey, 48% said talent acquisition and retention challenges are their biggest concerns. And 77% of those executives say hiring and retaining talent is their most critical growth driver this year. 

That’s led to CHRO’s responsibilities — and status — to rise. They’ve become partners with CEOs, implementing progressive workforce strategies previously unheard of. Aside from reimagining how we work (virtually or hybrid), they’re creating employee engagement events, designing upskilling paths and, in some cases, organizing trips to exotic locations. The unprecedented number of resignations (4.5 million in November 2021, an all-time high), the isolation of working from home and ever-shifting plans to return-to-office, mean CHROs are leading the efforts to reshape how workforces are managed.

“CHROs have spent years fighting for attention and a seat at the C-Suite’s table to push the workforce agenda,” Julia Lamm, a principal in PwC’s Workforce Transformation group, told WorkLife. “Now is the CHRO’s time. A lot of them find it refreshing that suddenly so many executives are willing to engage on that piece of the agenda.”

Driving business by improving culture

When Gia Ganesh joined Florence Healthcare, an Atlanta-based developer of software that manages workflow and documentation of clinical trials, she was the first HR hire. Its co-founders split the HR duties for the four previous years. Ganesh, Florence’s vp of people and culture, was hired in 2019, and has helped Florence grow from 22 to 155 employees. She was an integral part of the strategy that doubled revenue and the number of trial sites the company supports. 

She recently started reporting directly to Florence’s CEO after years reporting to its COO. When the COO left, CEO Ryan Jones decided to test the impact of coupling overall corporate strategy from the CEO with our people strategy. “We haven’t looked back,” he said.

“Could we survive without Gia and the chief people officer function? Yes. Could we grow and have our business aspirations met? And our employees’ aspirations met? No. 100% no,” Jones told WorkLife.

Throughout the last two years Ganesh’s role has expanded from operational to strategic. She has four direct reports; two dedicated to recruiting. There are 44 open roles, compared to about 10 during typical times. She’s had to become a brand specialist who actively sells candidates on why they should join Florence. She recently revamped the incentive policy for employees who refer candidates that are hired — $2,000 for most and $4,000 for positions deemed hard to fill. 

There’s endless brainstorming on how to keep employees engaged. They’ve had a Zoom magic show, virtual cooking competitions and karaoke. There are sessions with the oncologists from clinical trials who share their medical breakthroughs. There are campfire chats, where employees explain an area of expertise or passion project they have outside of work. 

A large chunk of her time is spent thinking about how to spot and prevent burnout. They recently introduced three “recharge days,” for employees who feel exhausted to take off, in addition to their unlimited vacation policy. And they’re coaching employees on how to work more efficiently, particularly when it comes to meetings. 

She makes sure to share all of that with prospective employees to market Florence as an employer.

“When the CEO is setting the business goals, the people part of that is equally important,” Ganesh said. “That strategy can’t be achieved without the people who work for you.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates that better than the challenge Ganesh and another C-suite executive announced in June: If they reach a predetermined business target, they’ll be rewarded with a trip to the Caribbean. The incentive worked. Ganesh is in the final throes of organizing next week’s three-day, all-expense-paid getaway for employees and their families to Costa Rica.

“You can’t pay your way out of this great resignation. You've got to innovate and be really focused on the experience.”
Mike Fenlon
PwC chief people officer

Chain of command

Rustin Richburg, chief people officer at dog-product subscription service BarkBox, says his background as a business consultant has been an invaluable tool as he works directly with the CEO to strategize about the company’s business goals and how to create culture to meet those objectives.

“How are we thinking about our mission and connecting people to that? And what are the right structures, skills and capabilities that we need to bring that vision to life,” said Richburg.

CHROs reporting directly to the CEO is a growing phenomenon. When CEOs were asked if their CHRO is viewed as a strategic advisor and member of the executive management team, 84% said yes, in a 2021 report from the Society for Human Resources Management and Chief Executive Group.

That relationship has created an opportunity for CHROs to rethink how they manage the workforce. 

Mike Fenlon, PwC’s U.S. chief people officer, put it this way to WorkLife: “This is an opportunity to fundamentally reimagine how we work, where we work, and how we build a trust-based culture.” 

3 Questions with Julia Lamm, partner in PwC’s Workforce Transformation Practice

PwC recently published its survey on executive outlook for business in 2022. What were the big takeaways when it comes to the workplace?

We’re seeing how big of an issue talent retention is for our clients. They’re starting to be very reactive about how they respond. You see it in the compensation moves they’re making and they’re revisiting the recruiting process, trying to make it quicker so you just get [the best] people in the door. 

What are your recommendations to clients on how they can hire the best employees?

They need to address the root cause [of employees resigning]. Why does someone come to your organization and stay there? Compensation is definitely a factor, I’m not saying it isn’t. But I think a big, big factor is creating meaningful work. People want to feel like what they’re doing day-to-day matters. That doesn’t have to mean they’re saving the world. It means they can see where their work has an impact and feel appreciated by co-workers. 

What about retaining talent — how can companies stop their best people from leaving?

They need to improve their career advancement options. Almost half the CHROs surveyed said they’re thinking differently about how they move people within an organization. Traditionally, it’s been really hard for people to move across an organization, especially good people because their managers want to keep them. You’ve got to have a manager who is ready to let people go.

By the numbers

  • 61% of 700 executives (directors and C-Suite) across 7 industries and 6 countries including the U.S. and U.K., said their work-life balance has improved since the onset of the pandemic, while 41% of 4,000 employees (managers and below) said it’s gotten worse. [Source of data: Economist Impact’s Work-life Balance Barometer.]
  • 95% of 400 HR professionals polled, agree that investing in employee connection at work helps drive employee retention, but only 31% believe they’ve addressed connection challenges. [Blueboard’s Connected Workplace survey.]
  • 44% of 2,000 employers believe that employee turnover is hindering their companies’ ability to achieve goals. [Udacity’s Talent Gap report.]

What else we’ve covered:

  • Ignoring staff worries over the rising cost of living could impact employee relations, productivity and even raise employment law issues.
  • Creating a happy workplace is not only good for keeping employees from quitting — it’s also good for profits.
  • Remote managers are killing culture new evidence suggests. To ensure hybrid-working models work, and employees don’t quit, managers need to up their game. Here, experts spoke to WorkLife about what methods managers can use to ensure they do a better job in hybrid setups.
  • Employers are going all out to attract and retain talent, and for many, that means upping perks and benefits. Whether it’s delivering birthday cakes to employees’ houses, sending Rolex watches, free Botox, haircuts and in-office massages — some bosses are getting seriously creative about incentivizing.
  • More companies are hosting events, like team happy hours, in the metaverse to build connections between colleagues. Though many remain unconvinced of the merits of VR company cocktail parties.
  • Throughout the pandemic, the importance of pet companionship has reached new levels. We spoke to a range of vets and other pet owners about the realities of having our furry friends play a more prominent role in workplaces.
  • To future-proof against the monotony of office life, many businesses are getting serious about widening their outdoor working options for employees.
  • Increasingly, the lobby has moved from bit player to the starring role of the workplace experience.