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What the Heck is Strategic Human Resources??

A little over 10 years ago I attended a SHRM conference and one of the speakers talked about how their HR team went 100% remote and it was mind-blowing to me. I spoke to them after their presentation and asked how they managed it; I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The answer that they kept saying was that they moved to be more strategic. When I asked what they meant by that, they said that they weren’t doing tactical work anymore. I was a bit put off by this answer, it felt like me saying that I started driving because I stopped taking the bus. Because they kept saying over and over again that they could make that shift because they were more strategic, I thought for sure I was doing something wrong and that I was not moving my career in the right direction. Surely, they knew something that I didn’t, and I was miles away from doing this elusive strategic HR work that they could do from home and was stuck doing the tactical work at my desk.

I put a lot of time and energy into determining what strategic looked like and what I needed to do to get there. The more I researched, the more I realized that I was doing strategic work, I just didn’t recognize it as that. I just saw it as the fun stuff, and I didn’t understand how I could do any of the fun work outside of the office.

The not fun stuff, the tactical work, I felt like I could do from home. Running payroll, keeping files updated, recruiting, managing benefits, employee relations investigations, and policy updates. This was all work that was done online for the most part or I could do with a phone call. I have mostly worked for companies with multiple locations so face-to-face interaction wasn’t always doable so moving things towards employee self-service and paperless files was always a priority. So, I could wrap my head around those things being done from anywhere that had internet access.

The pieces of work that I loved like talent management, leadership development, organization design, succession planning, and process improvement I didn’t understand how to do from home. I saw these as highly collaborative tasks that needed face-to-face interaction between me and the leaders that I supported. I also didn’t see these as strategic because this was work that I’d done for most of my career. Turns out, I was wrong with both conclusions. So, what does strategic HR work really mean?

Let’s first look at some of the tasks that are generally seen as “tactical”, the day-to-day HR tasks that keep things running smoothly:

  • Payroll Processing: Making sure everyone gets paid correctly and on time, including handling deductions, taxes, and other adjustments.
  • Benefits Administration: Managing the organization’s employee benefits programs, such as health insurance, retirement plans, and paid time off.
  • Recruiting: Posting job ads, reviewing applications, conducting initial interviews, and coordinating hiring processes with department managers.
  • Onboarding New Employees: Arranging for the induction and training of new employees to get them acquainted with company policies and procedures.
  • Maintaining Employee Files: Keeping up-to-date records on all employees, including their personal information, job roles, performance evaluations, training completed, and more.
  • Compliance Management: Ensuring the company is in compliance with all labor laws and regulations, which may include reporting and maintaining necessary certifications.
  • Time and Attendance Tracking: Keeping track of employee’s working hours, absences, leave requests, and overtime.
  • Performance Management: Coordinating performance reviews, providing feedback forms, and helping managers deliver evaluations.
  • Employee Relations: Addressing employee grievances, conflicts, or complaints, and providing necessary resolutions.
  • Offboarding: Managing the process when employees leave the company, which can include conducting exit interviews, retrieving company property, and finalizing last payments.
  • Training and Development: Organizing regular training programs to enhance employees’ skills and capabilities.
  • Workplace Safety: Ensuring the organization adheres to occupational health and safety regulations, and employees have a safe and comfortable work environment.
  • Policy Administration: Creating, updating, and communicating HR policies in line with legal requirements and company values.
  • Reporting: Generating regular reports on HR metrics like turnover rate, time to fill a vacancy, or cost per hire.
  • Employee Recognition: Managing employee recognition programs, such as employee of the month or service awards.

What was tripping me up was that I was already doing all these tactical things. The difference that I didn’t understand was that I was taking them a step further, which made them a bit more strategic. By turning each of these tasks into an opportunity to contribute to the company’s strategic objectives, enhance the employee experience, and drive organizational success I was already doing strategic work as well.

Let’s take a look at the difference:

  • Payroll Processing: On a strategic level, this could involve analyzing compensation data to ensure the organization’s pay structure is competitive and aligns with the company’s objectives as well as creating ways to leverage payroll and benefits as a tool to attract and retain top talent.
  • Benefits Administration: Strategically, this might mean evaluating the effectiveness of the benefits package in attracting and retaining employees, and ensuring it aligns with the workforce’s changing needs. It could also involve benchmarking the benefits package against industry standards to maintain competitiveness.
  • Recruiting: Strategic HR shifts recruiting from simply filling vacancies to strategic workforce planning. This includes anticipating future talent needs that align with the skills needed for long-term company success, proactively sourcing top talent, developing employer branding, and creating strategic talent pipelines. For instance, if the company is planning to expand its software development department, HR proactively strategizes on sourcing and retaining tech talent.
  • Onboarding New Employees: A strategic approach to onboarding includes designing comprehensive onboarding programs that not only introduce company policies but also align new hires with the company culture and business objectives from day one and programs that create feedback loops to ensure the continuous improvement of the onboarding process.
  • Maintaining Employee Files: Beyond just record-keeping, strategic HR uses this information to analyze workforce trends, identify patterns, and make informed decisions about managing and developing talent as well as using this information to better understand employee demographics for diversity and inclusion purposes.
  • Compliance Management: Strategically, compliance management involves proactively staying ahead of legal changes and understanding the impact of these changes on business operations and strategy. For example, taking action because the changes in pay transparency laws may impact the company’s overall compensation strategy. This would also include using change management skills to anticipate and manage changes in the organization, whether it’s implementing a new process or guiding the company through a merger.
  • Time and Attendance Tracking: On a strategic level, analyzing this data can lead to insights about workforce productivity and efficiency, and inform decisions about flexible work arrangements, leadership effectiveness, or workforce planning.
  • Performance Management: Strategic HR involves creating a performance management system and creating a talent management process that aligns with business goals, motivates employees, and fosters a diverse, high-performance, and inclusive culture. This includes tying performance management with talent management, identifying and cultivating top talent, as well as identifying potential leaders, providing them with growth opportunities, and planning for seamless transitions in leadership roles.
  • Employee Relations: A strategic approach includes fostering a positive employee relations strategy, promoting a culture of transparency and engagement, and resolving issues in ways that enhance the overall employee experience and engagement. Proactively looking at trends in complaints and resolutions is a great example of this.
  • Offboarding: Strategically, this includes using exit interviews to gain insights about the employee experience, job satisfaction, and reasons for leaving, which can be used to improve retention strategies.
  • Training and Development: In strategic HR, this task shifts from organizing occasional training programs to creating comprehensive learning and development strategies that align with the company’s goals, foster talent growth, align with succession planning, and ensure future skill needs. Strategic HR maps out comprehensive employee development plans and invests in building skillsets that will be crucial for the organization’s future.
  • Workplace Safety: Strategic HR takes a proactive approach to creating a safe and healthy work environment that supports employee well-being and productivity, including initiatives like wellness programs, leave programs, and developing leadership competence in these areas. This also grows into organizational risk management. Strategic HR plays a crucial role in managing various organizational risks. This includes compliance risks (by ensuring adherence to labor laws and regulations), reputational risks (by promoting ethical behavior and fair treatment of employees), and operational risks (by implementing effective hiring practices and performance management systems).
  • Policy Administration: Strategic HR creates policies that not only comply with legal requirements but also align with the company’s culture, values, and strategic objectives. This includes keeping track of trends and identifying and eliminating bias in policies, processes, and procedures.
  • Reporting: Beyond generating regular reports, strategic HR uses analytics to drive HR strategy, make informed decisions, predict trends, and measure the impact of HR initiatives on business outcomes. Using data to help leaders make strong business decisions is a key part of this.
  • Employee Recognition: Strategic HR designs recognition programs that align with the company’s values, promote the desired behaviors, and contribute to a positive and engaging work environment. Strategic recognition programs work towards fostering a culture that aligns with the company’s values and objectives, knowing that a positive culture leads to increased productivity and employee retention.

So, as you can see, the overall “task” can be the same but the way that it’s done, the impact of what is being done, and the depth of the work really determines how strategic it is. Strategic HR is the shift from focusing solely on the HR processes to integrating those processes with broader business strategies. It’s like going from seeing in black and white to seeing in full color – suddenly, every decision and action taken by HR is viewed in light of how it impacts the company’s overall goals.

It wasn’t until COVID that I really took a hard look at how this work could be done effectively in a remote setting. Over the years I began to understand that with each advancement in technology, it became easier and easier to get work done without being in the same room as the leader I was working with. Even back when I thought that it couldn’t be done, I was actually already doing it. I worked with leaders at multiple locations, so my location didn’t really matter. What it boiled down to was I was the only thing standing in the way of the work being done successfully in the virtual world. And as someone who strives for HR not to be the roadblock or obstacle, that was a hard pill to swallow.  I was in need of a significant mindset shift and thankfully, I was able to begin to see things a lot differently and now I am a huge remote work champion.

Getting back to HR, it is important to remember that strategic HR is all about playing the long game. It’s about seeing the big picture, planning for the future, and aligning human resources practices with the strategic objectives of the organization. When done right, strategic HR can drive business success, foster innovation, improve employee satisfaction, and much more. So, if you are still in the tactical world, how do you move forward? Here are 5 steps to take.

  1. Leverage HR Tech: Consider technology your partner in this journey. There is a myriad of HR tools that can handle routine tasks more efficiently, from processing payroll to tracking employee time off. By automating these processes, your HR team can save a lot of time and focus more on strategic initiatives. Research different HR software and see which one best fits your organization’s needs. If you need some recommendations, let me know.
  2. Develop Strategic HR Skills: Expand your skills beyond the traditional HR scope. This might involve training in areas like business strategy, change management, financial analysis, and data-driven decision-making. The goal here is to equip HR professionals with the tools they need to understand and contribute to the company’s strategic planning. This is a key part of the work that I do when working with HR teams.
  3. Cultivate a Culture of Continuous Learning: To stay ahead, HR professionals need to keep learning and evolving. This might involve attending industry conferences, participating in webinars, or even pursuing further education. By fostering a culture of continuous learning, you’re investing in your organization’s growth and equipping yourself to help them to navigate the ever-changing business landscape.
  4. Secure Executive Buy-In: For HR to truly be strategic, it needs to have a seat at the decision-making table. This might involve getting executives onboard with this shift, and showing them how HR can add value to strategic discussions. This might mean highlighting the benefits of strategic HR, such as improved talent management, increased employee engagement, and better alignment of HR initiatives with business goals. Remember, money talks. The more you can show how HR can increase the bottom line, the easier it will be for you to get buy-in.
  5. Adopt Data-Driven Decision Making: Strategic HR relies heavily on data. By gathering and analyzing relevant data, you can make informed decisions about hiring, talent management, employee development, and more. This could involve conducting regular employee surveys, tracking key HR metrics, and using data analysis tools. This is a key area where most HR professionals need significant growth and development so if you don’t do this yet, you’re not alone. Luckily, you can learn this in no time!

Remember, this transition won’t happen overnight, and that’s okay. It’s about gradually integrating more strategic thinking into the HR function, and over time, you will become a strategic HR powerhouse, driving your company toward its goals. It’s a journey worth taking, so don’t be afraid to take that first step. If you or your team needs some help along the way, let’s chat! https://links.searscoaching.com/15min




Written by Tamica Sears

June 12, 2023

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