HR’s Evolving Approach Toward Employee Engagement [Insights by HR Expert, Debra Corey]

The role of Human Resources has undergone a significant transformation, particularly in how HR views and interacts with employees. Gone are the days of top-down, one-size-fits-all management; today’s HR is about partnership, empowerment, and embracing change.

Debra Corey, a seasoned HR consultant and six-time author with extensive international experience, provides invaluable insights into the evolution of employee engagement strategies. Her perspective is enriched by her own career, spanning various roles and countries. During this time, she observed firsthand the shift from traditional, administrative HR functions to more dynamic, strategic approaches focused on innovative employee engagement.

The Modern HR Professional: From Paternalism to Partnership

The journey begins with the transformation of the HR role from that of a paternalistic leader—once a common perspective in traditional HR practices—to a facilitator of empowerment and autonomy. Initially, HR’s role was predominantly seen as nurturing and protecting, much like a caregiver to young children. This approach was characterized by making decisions for employees, often without their input, under the guise of acting in their best interest.

However, as the workplace evolved, so did the understanding of employee capabilities. “As we shifted to seeing employees as fully-formed adults, I saw the importance of trusting and embracing their decision-making abilities,” shares Corey. This marked a pivotal shift toward viewing employees as partners rather than dependents needing guidance at every turn.

Ultimately, the goal of HR should not be to win a popularity contest or to be seen merely as a parent or friend. Instead, HR’s aim is to ensure that the organization operates smoothly, prioritizing the well-being of employees while also driving organizational success. This involves being a trusted advisor, a mentor, and a staunch advocate for both employees and the business.

The modern HR professional stands at the crossroads of compassion and corporate efficacy, embodying the role of a strategic partner who facilitates a respectful workplace environment. This new paradigm not only enhances employee satisfaction and productivity but also contributes significantly to the overarching success of the organization.

Shift to Personalized Employee Engagement Strategies

The dynamic nature of today’s work environment, with its mix of remote and hybrid structures, also calls for innovative engagement strategies. Corey highlights the importance of a personalized approach to engagement, tailored to individual preferences and needs.

During the pandemic, she noted how successful companies maintained engagement by aligning activities with employee values and preferences. An example is a company who held a virtual cleaning competition which was designed and led by their employees. It was a huge success, with employees engaging with this unique, fun and meaningful initiative.

“This highlights the importance of thinking creatively and tailoring engagement efforts to suit diverse preferences,” Corey points out. Instead of relying on a universal approach, she advocates for varying methods that cater to individual needs, ensuring that it resonates with each team member.

1. Employee Benefits: From Standard Offerings to Personalized Wellness Allowances

Corey shares her review of employee benefits, which highlights a significant shift in how benefits are designed. Initially inclined towards standard well-being benefits, she discovered through direct engagement with employees that these did not cater to the diverse needs and preferences of the workforce. This insight led her to rethink her strategy profoundly.

“I found that the standard offerings weren’t meeting the wide range of needs and preferences that employees had for their well-being,” Corey explains. Instead of continuing with a one-size-fits-all approach, she decided to implement a well-being allowance, giving employees the freedom to choose how they wanted to prioritize their well-being. This could include anything from fitness activities and mental health resources to hobbies and other personal interests.

This move towards a more personalized approach was not just about offering flexibility; it was about demonstrating trust in employees’ judgement and autonomy. “My decision to trust employees with this allowance was driven by a desire to demonstrate confidence in their judgement and autonomy,” she states. By doing so, she aimed to show that she valued their input and believed in their ability to make informed decisions about their own well-being.

2. Generational Dynamics and Engaging Gen Z

The entrance of Generation Z into the workforce marks a big shift in employee engagement strategies. This comes from their distinct expectations shaped by growing up in a digital, fast-paced environment. Corey emphasizes the need for HR to be proactive in exploring innovative strategies to engage this demographic.

What’s In It For Me?

This generation demands immediate and transparent communication, valuing a clear understanding of the reasons behind their tasks—the ‘What’s In It For Me?’ (WIIFM) factor.”

“It’s crucial to provide them with compelling reasons as to what they’ll get out of what you’re providing,” Corey explains. This could differ from opportunities to learn new skills, engaging in team activities, or understanding how any workplace initiatives can directly benefit them. Making outcomes clear and tangible is essential for boosting engagement among Gen Z employees.

This generation’s preference for a transparent and inclusive work environment necessitates HR practices that are both informative and participatory. Gen Z thrives in settings where they can see the impact of their work and feel that their opinions are valued. This calls for a shift from traditional top-down communication to a more collaborative and interactive approach. Creating opportunities for them to contribute to discussions, voice their ideas, and feel genuinely heard is key to engaging them. Leveraging HR tools to optimize your work for both you and your employees is essential.

The Risks of AI and Looking Forward

Corey believes strongly in the potential of AI to save time and effort, enabling HR teams to focus on more complex aspects of their roles.

However, Corey also cautions against over-reliance on AI for interpersonal interactions. While AI-driven tools can enhance efficiency and process vast amounts of data with ease, they lack the ability to replicate empathy that human interactions provide.

“AI may efficiently remind employees about deadlines, but it can’t replace the empathetic conversation a human HR professional can have when addressing an employee’s personal challenges or career aspirations,” Corey notes. Thus, the optimal use of AI in HR should complement rather than supplement the human touch. This ensures that technology works as an enabler, without diluting the essential human elements of trust, empathy, and understanding.

“My hope is that we continue to be brave, to challenge outdated norms and ways of working, and come up with new ways that will meet the needs of our diverse workforce,”

Debra Corey

Looking forward, Corey is optimistic about the continued evolution of HR, spurred by innovations during the COVID-19 pandemic. This period has proven pivotal for HR, pushing the boundaries of traditional work settings and introducing new ways to engage employees.

Mariam Mushtaq

I'm a Content Writer at Springworks. Drawing from my early career experience in HR, I bring a unique, insider's perspective. Driven by a passion for the People and HR function, I research and write about topics such as employee engagement and the future of work.

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