The world of work is changing— but we don’t yet know entirely into what. There has been disruption. This is well documented. Now in 2021, we’re seeing an increased desire for people to work for an organization that has true purpose and meaning, and one that operates with high environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) standards.

It’s good news then that the recent KPMG Future of HR : Lessons from the Pathfinders research is showing that more organizations are driving toward a purpose-driven culture and aiming to create a more positive employee experience to attract and retain the best talent. And with good reason. We’re also in the midst of the 'Great Resignation', with many organizations experiencing above normal turnover and inability to fill open positions so the focus on the workforce has become paramount.

Putting the ‘human’ in human resources

In our research we heard from global HR leaders that they’re putting great focus on employee centricity. The modern HR function links everything, including culture, back to the employee experience.

Don’t guess — ask

Rather than looking for external generic practices, Pathfinding HR leaders are directly engaging with their workforce to determine what they need (and why) and crowdsourcing ideas. “We need to keep having conversations with workers, asking them what they need to be their best,” says Laurie Ruettimann, HR Blogger and Author. “That feedback will inform whatever it is that we build.”

Alexandra Brandao, Santander’s Global Head of HR, says it’s her function’s goal to enable employees to do their job effectively — and it takes more than guesswork. “It’s important to have a strong listening strategy with our people. It’s how we guarantee that we are always on track and aware of what is happening.”

Really listening to employees can also help everyone align with the purpose and understand what they need to be inspired, to grow and to stay with the organization.

The importance of feedback

Carman’s Kitchen asks new employees for honest feedback on their work and employee experiences every quarter during their first year on the job. “Carman’s Kitchen recognizes that it takes a year to fully induct people into the business,” Lainie Tayler, General Manager of People says. “We pride ourselves on having honest conversations every step of the way.”

Each organization should have their own approach to the kinds of questions to ask, but they should be disciplined, consistent and act on the insights. “We ask them to think about what they’ve done forever and where it could be improved,” Spectrum Health CHRO Pamela Ries says. After the ideas are submitted, employees vote on their favorites and resources are channeled into building a business plan around the top two. What’s more, feedback gathering could also extend beyond the workforce to partners, suppliers, and manufacturers, thus taking a total-system approach to feedback.

The role we play in creating a positive team member experience is getting a lot more attention now. Leaders care more about culture and the employee experience than ever before. This is an HR leader’s dream.

Pamela Ries
Spectrum Health

Genuine care matters

Since the start of the pandemic and the full-time shift to working from home for many, mental health, employee well-being and work-life balance have taken center stage. With this comes the need to be more human and genuine with employees.

Leaders should look inside themselves and reflect on the issues they may be experiencing. “To understand our employees, we should look at ourselves, too,” Ruettimann explains. “We pretend it’s a big mystery what or how we should help employees, but that’s just learned helplessness. We could instead ask, ‘What would help me right now? More affordable childcare, clearer boundaries, or technology to help communicate better?’”

Displaying genuine care can have a powerful impact on the organization, translating into more engaged employees. Corporate purpose has become the guiding framework for business decisions. In our recent KPMG 2021 CEO Outlook , 86 percent of CEOs believe that following through with corporate purpose commitments will shape their capital allocation and inorganic growth strategy. Global executives also recognize how corporate purpose is central to building their brand reputation. It’s critical, therefore, for leadership to “walk the talk” and truly invest and believe in the organization’s higher purpose. Doing anything else would have the opposite effect.

Doing good for humanity

This is also a generational shift in what millennials and Gen Z employees want from their employers, and that includes the desire to work for an organization with a purpose and that takes ESG seriously. There’s a strong movement to ensure we all build back better and don’t go back to business-as-usual.

Gaya Herrington, Author and Sustainability Director at KPMG in the US, says we can’t afford to return to the way things used to be “for the sake of the planet and for the societies we live in. Current ESG challenges demand we change almost everything about how we meet our needs today. This then requires enormous levels of innovation, which humans are in fact quite capable of delivering. That is, if we set up our work environments in a conducive way.

Sustainability thus touches the world of work just as much as other aspects of the ESG agenda. Innovation won’t come from a top-down instruction but from collaboration: engaging the ideas and creativity of the entire workforce in new forms of dialogue. This will not only help society address its current sustainability problems, it will engage and invigorate us at work more than ever before.”

On the social side, the pandemic has caused HR teams to focus on inclusion, diversity, and equity. Spectrum Health’s Ries explored health inequity, examining how members of the community interact with their health system. “What we learned during COVID-19 is we were not reaching everyone that we thought we were reaching. We learned a lot about what we needed to change in our complex health system that was creating barriers for people. We also needed to identify policies or behaviors within our people practices that could unintentionally contribute to these inequities.” Additionally, Spectrum Health launched a multipronged diverse-hiring strategy and is partnering with universities to build a broader talent pool.

With today’s employees pushing their leaders to tackle ESG and wishing to ‘build back better’, there’s hope that organizations are being transformed and building even greater resilience for the future. It will require an employee-centric, purpose-driven culture, underpinned by ESG values for organizations to continue to thrive in such a dynamic environment. It’s clear that good intentions abound. These intentions need to stick for the sake of our workforces’ well-being, diversity, and society at large.

Returning to the world of 2019 and earlier is simply not an option.