Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Exploring the Future of the HR Profession: A Q&A With Jacky Cohen

As the world of work becomes more complicated, the role of the Human Resources professional has expanded and evolved. Much like workers in many of today’s professions, the skills, and qualities required to be successful look nothing like they did 10 or 20 years ago. Today’s HR professionals, representing what is increasingly recognized as a company’s most valuable asset, must know how to talk the language of the C-suite. They must also know how to deftly navigate human capital management platforms, payroll issues, benefits administration, and so much more. And, of course, there’s the not-so-simple matter of employee recruitment and engagement.

Throughout the coming months, BenefitsPRO will be spotlighting these changes and more than are reshaping the HR profession, and in turn, the nature of work and the benefits experience.

In our latest chat, BenefitsPRO caught up with Jacky Cohen, vice president, people, and culture at Topia, a San Francisco-based company that provides a global talent mobility platform.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert: How has the role of HR professionals changed in recent years, and what’s driving it?

Historically, HR was viewed as a reactive administrative function. However, in recent years and especially throughout 2020, we have seen the industry morph into a strategic partner within any business. This change is primarily being driven by a few noteworthy shifts that are fundamentally altering how people work and what they expect from their employers.

The traditional 9-to-5 job has gone away in many sectors and the line between work and life continues to get increasingly blurry. According to a recent Topia Adapt Survey, 93% of employees said it was very or somewhat important to them to have a flexible work arrangement. HR plays a critical role in developing forward-thinking working arrangements and benefits that meet the evolving needs of individuals and companies.

People have high expectations about the employee experience and aren’t afraid to leave jobs or companies if they aren’t getting what they want. HR is responsible for deploying strategies to attract, engage, motivate and retain talent in an increasingly competitive market.

KKH: How has this shift impacted the relationship between the C-Suite, HR, and employee benefits consultants?
These shifts have highlighted the need for HR professionals to have strong relationships throughout their C-Suite and with external partners, such as their benefits consultants. The evolving needs of both employees and companies require HR to have established trust and credibility with their C-Suite to garner leadership support for innovative strategies and initiatives. Similarly, HR professionals must have external partners whom they view as an extension of their team. That level of trust and partnership is imperative to support ongoing needs and to anticipate future trends.

KKH: How has technology changed the way you work? How has it changed your role in the company?
Having the right technology in place is a game-changer because it unlocks time to focus on higher-impact work. I’ve played an active role at several companies now in the shift away from spreadsheet tracking and manual reporting to workflow automation and having data at my fingertips. What’s amazing is the Topia Adapt Survey shows that 40 percent of HR professionals still today don’t feel that they have the right data and insights for decision-making. Investing in technology is the key to decreasing this number and empowering HR with more data, which ultimately drives more internal credibility and influence. By having the right tools in place, I’ve been able to focus on building strategic relationships with C-Suites, use data to develop creative strategies for employee engagement, and focus on building our company culture. Looking forward, there will be a continued need for new technology solutions to support the distributed workforce and flexible working arrangements.

KKH: Do you see an increasing need for specialization within the field (talent management, compliance, diversity & inclusion, etc.)?
I think there will always be a need for both generalists and specialists within the field. The needs of a company will evolve and may require generalists and specialists at different points in time. As an example, our People & Culture team at Topia consists of generalists who manage a broad scope of HR functions. We leverage a network of specialists, such as benefits and recruiting partners, who can add value to a company in different capacities.

I also think it’s important to consider alternate strategies in emerging specialized fields. For example, a function like compliance may be something that can be managed with the right tools in place.

KKH: What skills will be most important to HR professionals in the future?
Adaptability, business acumen, and emotional intelligence.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be able to adjust and reprioritize to meet the needs of our employees and the business. While none of us could have anticipated the sudden shift to a fully remote workforce, the successful HR professionals are those who have been able to embrace it and support their company through it.

Business acumen remains of the utmost importance as HR continues the journey from an administrative function to a strategic partner. It’s impossible to build credibility and trust with the C-Suite and leaders without understanding their business priorities, obstacles, concerns, and motivations.

Emotional intelligence should forever be on this list. We are in the business of human resources and it’s our job to always embody and demonstrate behaviors that remind us that humans are the core of every organization.

KKH: What trends, challenges or issues do you see most affecting your profession?
The distributed workforce is here to stay. Many employees have demonstrated their ability to work from anywhere and it’s now up to companies and HR to determine their strategy to manage and track the various complexities including tax compliance, compensation strategies, and the remote employee experience. I expect many companies to invest in new solutions to help track where employees are working from as well as to manage engagement – ensuring employees feel they’re connected as part of the team. The right tools will be important for HR professionals to continue on the trajectory of utilizing data to make strategic business decisions.

Mental health and burnout is the challenge keeping me up at night right now. I’m hopeful that we have a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but I’m constantly thinking about how we can support our people while recognizing that everyone’s circumstances and needs are extremely unique.