The increasing influence of the Chief People Officer

How Chief People Officers continue to bring attention to ways of working, employee well-being and organisational culture is critically important.

The pandemic has given Chief People Officers a voice of influence like never before. Over the last few years, HR has become, quite rightly, more and more about people and culture, and the people agenda is finally being put on the top table rather than discussed in the margins. This strategic focus on people’s experience and wellbeing within an organisation has only been accelerated over the past 12 months due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was paramount that organisations paid attention to how their employees and communities were being affected by the consequences of the pandemic, from health to economic welfare; those that did are seeing positive return; those that didn’t have struggled with retention, burnout, and engagement. As organisations prepare to adapt once again to new rules and different restrictions, how CPOs continue to bring attention to ways of working, employee well-being, and organisational culture are critically important.

Ways of Working

Over the last 12 months, we have found so many of our conversations referring to ‘wanting to get back to normal’ or ‘getting used to the new normal.’ In fact, we see it as supporting people to adjust to the ever-evolving state of how we live and work. Whilst some periods can feel particularly disruptive, the way we work is always changing and adapting to circumstances; new technologies, new business opportunities, new people, and of course external factors such as social, economic, and environmental influences (enter COVID-19). Some questions for consideration:

  1. How do organisations integrate their increased ability to work remotely and virtually whilst also bringing people back to the office? We’re hearing the term ‘blended working’ a lot - but what does this actually mean? How will this impact interpersonal relationships, collaboration, and ongoing working practices?
  2. If people have the option to work flexibly, how does this impact the reasons to go into the office? How might the purpose of an office space shift?
  3. What are the lessons you have learned around how the pandemic has impacted or influenced flexible working practices for employees? And given employees may have more choice on location-free work patterns, how do build coherence across your work community?
  4. How are organisations learning and reflecting on their experiences of particularly disruptive periods to better inform future ways of working?

Employee Wellbeing

The humanitarian nature of the pandemic has reminded many organisations that people are human beings rather than just employees. From the increase in community volunteerism to gaining an insight into people’s home lives through the endless zoom meetings, it has enabled a coming together and increased sense of community. The crisis however continues to have a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing; in addition to mourning those we have lost and supporting those that have been sick, people have lost their jobs, many have had to manage the stresses of working from home and so many have been working tirelessly as essential workers in service of us all. How CPOs and HR leaders pay attention to how people are in their organisations and create opportunities for ongoing support and connection feels vitally important. Some questions for consideration:

  1. How can we make employees well being a supportive and ongoing process rather than a series of short-lived initiatives? For example, does offering company yoga or initiating ‘no-zoom Friday's a sustainable solution to employee wellbeing? While these initiatives may be honorable in intention, we may elicit the opposite effect. The ‘encouragement’ to take the company yoga class to relax may leave participants more anxious and stressed as they juggle to squeeze in meetings and navigate commitments around this prescribed time of disconnect. This is taking place while not providing space to talk about said meetings or actual work constraints.
  2. How are people being supported in processing the past 12 months and the different, often conflicting, emotions that they feel and have felt? 
  3. How are we able to work with stress, overwhelm, and burnout as ongoing pressures that will continually ebb and flow for everyone rather than create an environment that sees these responses as bad, and therefore discourages people from speaking up. 
  4. How can we create spaces where people feel safe enough to share what’s going on for them in the moment, and access peer support where needed. 

Organisational Culture

Organisations are more aware than ever of the importance of their people and the correlation between organisational culture and business performance. Culture has often been traditionally seen as something that can be mandated or enforced by agreeing on a set of aspirational values and behaviours, yet what we are noticing is a greater realisation that culture is shaped by the ongoing experience of how people talk, feel and act within the organisation. 

A person's experiences and opportunities to connect, share and learn with others will impact trust, collaboration, and a shared sense of purpose across the organisation. How a CPO pays attention to the ongoing experience of their people and creates spaces for interaction, learning and engagement will directly influence the organisation's culture. Some questions for consideration:

  1. How is culture understood and acknowledged by the whole organisation and not seen as the responsibility of one or two key individuals?
  2. How can we create spaces for ongoing exploration and reflection of culture and encourage experimentation across the organisation?
  3. What is really required to support the development of a diverse and inclusive culture?

It feels like there is a real opportunity for CPOs to take their increased presence and influence in organisations and create lasting change. CEOs are looking more and more to their CPOs to support them in paying attention to the strategic people agenda and we are hearing increased evidence for how culture, employee well-being, and adaptive ways of working impact the bottom line.

If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, you might be interested in: