Jacinda Ardern is often hailed as one of the great leaders of the 21st century. She helped guide New Zealand through several crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, she’s become a source of inspiration not only for young women and girls but for leaders everywhere. Many believe that her empathy, kindness, and humanity were key traits that contributed to this success. I believe leaders everywhere have a lot to learn from Jacinda particularly the modern Human Resources (HR) leader.
Remote and hybrid-work has significantly redefined employees’ relationships with their jobs. From where they work, how they carry out their tasks, and even the mindset they now hold towards their careers – the blueprint for what it means to work in the hybrid era looks very different to ten years ago.
Traditionally, HR leaders have been able to have an overarching view of employees: able to identify who needs care and react accordingly. Now, they face a tougher job – needing to spread their care and services across multiple spaces, whilst still ensuring employees are happy, their work-life split is balanced, and their sense of belonging is intact.
So, what can the modern HR leader learn from Jacinda? And how can they reshape their leadership practices to positively influence employee experiences in 2023 and beyond?
Ironically, hybrid work – and its increasingly digitalized landscape – has consolidated the value of human connection. Employees crave human interaction and need to feel a sense of belonging not just in their immediate teams but in the wider organization too. To achieve this, leaders must adopt a communicative, employee-centric approach in everything they do – understanding and addressing employees’ unique needs and challenges to foster a culture of care and support.
This requires a shift in mindset: pivoting away from listening to respond, and instead listening to understand. Simple as this may sound, it requires a recalibration for leaders. Organizations must invest heavily in training their leaders to develop and build emotional intelligence, demonstrate genuine empathy, and attentively listen to employees’ needs.
For so long we’ve been taught that to be a successful leader you must be strong and emotionless. But Ardern herself put it well when she said: “I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong”. I fully concur. Leaders should bake this mantra into their management styles as leading with empathy, authenticity, and transparency will increase team cohesion and trust, and ultimately improve employee experiences. In the last year, I’ve found that leading with emotional intelligence can not only help curate a more compassionate work environment, but it can also unlock productivity and performance gains too.
For many leaders, hybrid work has become synonymous with flexibility. It’s worth noting that this isn’t always the case.
What may work for one person, may not work for another, meaning blanket hybrid work structures can be ill-fitting. Organizations need to recognize this, supporting their people when it comes to when and where they get their work done – to achieve a more meaningful, better work-life balance that works for them.
A great example of this is programs that allow staff to travel internationally and work from other countries for periods of time. The benefits are manifold – from facilitating cohesion between international teams, to gaining exposure to new experiences or different perspectives.
Technology should be seen as an enabler here. Facilitating transparent communication – via internal surveys, online resources, or even regular touch points – can encourage a feedback-driven culture that continually ensures needs are being heard and met.
Champion your people
People should sit firmly at the center of leadership values and HR leaders should actively work to create an inclusive and diverse workplace that values a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds.
While this is an essential ethos for HR leaders and, I would argue, all business leaders to hold – it’s important that we truly believe in this principle instead of considering it as a tick-box KPI to deliver on.
This isn’t an easy undertaking. It requires challenging predetermined and sometimes unconscious biases, opening oneself up to new experiences, and having an increasingly reflective awareness of the people around you. Only then can one embrace the value of diversity: mobilizing this mindset in onboarding, training, and day-to-day management. In turn, this creates a natural path towards achieving boardroom objectives.
Hybrid work also offers a unique opportunity for leaders to enrich talent pools and tackle thorny issues such as proximity bias, for example. Creating safe spaces for both personal and professional growth will foster an inclusive atmosphere that challenges the conventional way of doing things, bolsters a vibrant corporate culture, and supports the mental well-being of employees.
Facilitate growth and progression
Tech or digital-based skills are the new currency of the hybrid labor market. Leaders need to acknowledge this and equip their employees with the digital skills needed to thrive in today’s workforce. Leaders must facilitate a continuous learning environment – upskilling existing talent by implementing internal learning resources and training where necessary.
At every stage, leaders should connect the desire of employees for a clear understanding of their role, with a transparent path for career progression, and a vision of how they fit into the bigger picture.
It’s integral to have a company-wide development structure, but a one-size-fits-all approach won’t suffice. Real career coaching requires a dialogue. This should be based on honesty and openness and involve careful consideration of each team member’s goals and developmental needs. From there, leaders can more accurately match employees with organization capabilities, to truly support each individual’s growth.
While on the surface the role of an HR leader in the post-pandemic workplace looks very different, at its core the same principles apply. HR leaders need to ensure they put these principles into action: re-centering people firmly at the heart of everything they do. Hybrid working offers a multitude of opportunities for HR and beyond. To achieve these and ensure employees are happy and healthy, HR leaders would be wise to take a leaf out of Jacinda’s book and approach their roles with a touch more humanity.
About the Author
Arancha Torres Gonzalez, Head of Human Resources for Central and Southern Europe for Capgemini Group, has around 30 years of experience in Human Resources in multinational companies with extensive knowledge in managing and transforming large companies.
Throughout her career, she has received several awards including the 2023 WeQual award and the 2019 HR Director Award. She is also an author of several books on human resources.