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Until recently, human resources was largely dedicated to administrative tasks. Today, however, the department is core to business operations, as teams add new positions, adopt new skills and use new technologies to meet the needs of a rapidly changing work force.

Prior to the pandemic, HR was primarily responsible for hiring and onboarding, setting and enforcing employee policies, managing payroll and benefits, and mediating conflicts between staff members.

“HR was in a place of complacency,” said Janet Candido, the founder and principal of Candido Consulting Group, an HR practice based in Toronto. “It’s certainly gotten a lot more interesting.”

Ms. Candido explains that during the initial pandemic-caused transition to remote work, there was a general sense that such changes would be temporary. As restrictions eased and resignation rates skyrocketed, employee management, flexible work policies and recruiting became a top priority for organizations in Canada and around the world, she says.

“We have a labour shortage. Right now employees want what they want, and if you’re not prepared to give it to them they will go somewhere that will.”

Employees, who have spent much of the past two years under lockdown restrictions, are looking for more freedom, flexibility and greater mental health support. They also expect their employers to address pressing social issues head on.

The transition to hybrid work, a widespread mental health crisis, a reckoning on racial injustice, and the “Great Resignation” each brought significant challenges to HR practitioners, as well as opportunities. Meeting these moments, however, would have been nearly impossible with the resources, processes and tools that had historically been allocated to the department, according to Ms. Candido. Now, business leaders are making changes on several fronts for practitioners within HR. Many relate to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG).

“Five years ago, how many organizations had somebody responsible for diversity, equity and inclusion?” asked Leagh Turner, the co-chief executive officer of Ceridian, a Toronto-based global payroll and HR software company. “How many tied DEI to their ESG goals? And how many organizations had great ESG leaders? How many organizations had somebody responsible for employee experience? How many even defined their employee experience? I could keep going, because there’s a lot of them.”

Ms. Turner says there were some high-level conversations at many organizations about employee experience management, mental health and DEI prior to the pandemic, but that recent events have served as an “accelerant” to those trends. Now, she says, every organization needs to engage in high-level conversations about a range of new HR related issues, or risk losing talent.

“The seat at the table just got a lot bigger,” she said. “HR used to be seen as a support function. It’s not a support function any more, it’s a leadership function, and HR leaders need to be strategists.”

Organizations are not only adding more positions dedicated to managing the employee experience, addressing DEI and developing a hybrid or remote work strategy. They’re also utilizing more technology to accomplish these aims, Ms. Turner said.

“Data allows us to be objective about the decisions we make about who we put in jobs. It allows us to drive consistency of expectations and it means that we can do things that we couldn’t do before. Technology has played a major role in enabling this change, and I think it will play a bigger role as time goes on.”

These dramatic shifts have also resulted in new requirements for HR professionals as a whole. For example, while there may be a dedicated staff member managing new priorities such as hybrid work, DEI and the employee experience, all team members are now typically expected to have a robust understanding of each. They are also increasingly required to stay up-to-date with the latest tools and technologies available to assist with people management.

“As an HR professional there’s a different way we have to show up that we didn’t necessarily have to before,” said Bernard Coleman, the chief diversity and engagement officer at Gusto, a payroll and HR software provider. “Now you’re really looking at the full needs of the employee, and the business, and trying to balance those two things.”

Mr. Coleman said HR professionals are being looked upon to help solve a wide range of complex issues that are directly tied to the organization’s high-level goals – and ultimately its ability to succeed in the face of new challenges.

He acknowledges that such a dramatic transition can be intimidating, but adds that many are embracing the opportunity to reinvent the department’s function, and in doing so elevate its place within the organization.

“It’s really exciting – you’re designing a new experience, and you’re the lead architect,” he said. “The pandemic has created that opportunity, and for those who are prepared for it, they can step into a role and add an immense amount of value.”

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