Fundamental Uncertainty | 5 strategic HR & people priorities for 2024

In an era of fundamental uncertainty, what should you prioritize in your HR and people 2024 strategy?

It’s that time when many HR commentators and thought leaders make predictions based on trends reshaping the world of work. But in 2024 is it still realistic to make predictions amidst constant change and uncertainty?
That’s why this year we’re taking a different approach. We’ve reviewed all the recent trend reports and assessed these against longer-term workplace megatrends. We examined predictions from various sources, including Gartner, Bersin, the WEF (World Economic Forum), and Deloitte’s human capital report.

Based on our analysis, we’ve identified five strategic priority areas for HR and people teams in 2024.

Why is the HR Trend Institute adopting this fresh approach?

Well, in an environment of constant change, you can’t blueprint. Instead, you need to build a strategy that can adapt and respond throughout the year. Rather than just stating predictions, we think it’s more useful to highlight priority areas that help you in one or more of the following ways:

  • Gain a competitive edge or opportunity to take advantage of a trend.
  • Manage the potential risk to your business that a trend might represent.
  • Use the latest thinking to co-create real time solutions for your people and organization.

As you read this article, we recommend you assess how each priority area links to the business challenges you need to solve. For example, in 2024, the long-term trends of digitalization and rapid tech change mean HR & people professionals must focus on:

  • Practical realities of AI.
  • Upskilling, reskilling, and sourcing digital capabilities.
  • Continued evolution of hybrid working.

2024 theme – Fundamental Uncertainty

In 2024, we’ve witnessed a shift in discourse around the ongoing concepts of complexity, uncertainty, and change. The concept of a VUCA (Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous) world has been a subject of discussion for many years. Now it’s suggested we have moved into a state of fundamental uncertainty. So, how is fundamental uncertainty different from VUCA?

In the past, our environment may have areas of ambiguity, but it was generally suggested that missing information may become known. However, in a state of fundamental uncertainty you must make decisions without all the necessary information, not because the data isn’t available to you yet, but because it doesn’t exist yet.

There are additional factors that further amplify this feeling of fundamental uncertainty. This year, the world will be affected by several significant elections in influential countries including India, the USA, United Kingdom, and Taiwan (which has already occurred). In addition, there are growing geo-political tensions such as war in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa to consider. When we add in other significant factors like de-globalization, shifting demographics, climate emergency, cost-of-living crisis, and the influence of AI on society, it can feel overwhelming.

Let’s look at the five strategic priorities we’ve highlighted.

5 HR and people priorities to guide you in a year of fundamental uncertainty

#1 AI and AHAH principle

The WEF highlighted AI misinformation as the second biggest global risk for 2024. AI plays a significant role in workplace discussions because of digitalization and the fourth industrial revolution. We’ll help you cut through all the noise and get practical by introducing the AHAH principle – AI-assisted, Human-led, AI-resourced, Human-checked.

#2 Climate emergency and EVP (Employee Value Proposition)

Extreme weather from climate change is becoming commonplace and cited as the main global risk in 2024 by the WEF. But with this threat comes great opportunities, especially if you’re ready and willing to lead the market in a purpose-driven and sustainable EVP.

#3 T-shaped people in T-shaped teams

A focus on skills-based talent, recruitment, and workforce planning is reshaping the way we design organizations. This megatrend shift from jobs and functions to skills and roles reflects a need for greater business agility. As part of these developments, HR and people professionals are using the T-shape framework to break the ‘paper ceiling’ and guide modern career development.

#4 Define what you stand for

Interestingly, a key trend highlighted across most 2024 reports is a growing need for trust in the workplace. This strongly relates to other longer-term trends, like hybrid working, growing inequality, and increased polarization on politics and social issues within society. In such an environment, it’s critical to define what you stand for as an organization.

#5 Product-led

HR and people teams now see the employee experience as a customer journey full of moments that matter, leading to significant operational changes. This shift reflects trends in marketing, customer experience and digital product design. HR and people teams must align with the business’s go-to-market strategy and embrace a product-led approach.

#1 AI and AHAH principle

One of the overarching issues with AI is whether it’s friend or foe, though making this assessment is not a simple matter.

AI is when the machine makes decisions like a human brain and automated systems perform tasks that usually require human intelligence. The impact on workplace productivity is potentially staggering. Experts predict that AI will profoundly impact HR, with people professionals playing a vital role in shaping workplace implementation, including ethical and legal considerations, AI’s role in recruitment, training, and more.

In the broader conversation about digitalization in HR, we touch on topics like hybrid work, hiring, onboarding, and enhancing employee experience. AI is at the forefront of enabling digital transformation. AI companies worldwide are investing heavily in this area, aiming to train models with 100 times more computation power than currently available. At these advanced levels, even the creators can’t comprehend the true power of these systems.

According to the WEF, AI-generated fake news is the second biggest global risk in 2024, right after climate change. The risk is increased because over 40% of the world’s population, including India, the USA, and the UK, will vote in national elections.

What impact does AI have on the workplace, HR, and people teams?

A survey of 1,700 HR managers in the UK, Germany, and Ireland showed that AI adoption is widespread, with 89% using AI tools, and 69% using them frequently. Goldman Sachs predicts AI could replace up to 300 million full-time jobs within the next 15 years. However, AI has the potential to create jobs. According to the report a quarter of jobs are likely to change in the next five years and 69 million new jobs are likely to be created within that time horizon. According to the report, experts forecast that global AI investment will approach $200 billion by 2025, and the technology could support humans in unforeseen ways.

Most HR and people systems now contain some element of AI, including Workday, HiBob and Microsoft Teams. While working with HR and people professionals, we have discovered some excellent use cases. For example, one company used ChatGPT to rewrite employee letters in a more human-centric way. Another global organization rapidly translated HR policy into other languages to improve support for their people and managers.

Many AI recruitment software tools are being introduced to the market. They claim to automate CV screening, candidate sourcing, and recruitment administration. These services include setting up interviews, using chatbots to answer basic questions, and creating job ads and descriptions. Such products include Paradox, Manatal, Textio and Fetcher.

However, the adage, “garbage in, garbage out”, applies equally to machine learning algorithms as it does to any other system or process. As the recent Post Office scandal in the UK shows, we blindly trust the algorithm at our peril.

Another important aspect of AI is bias. Historical and institutional bias can easily become coded into the system. There is a danger is that the influence of these biases on an algorithm may become increasingly less apparent as system complexity increases, as mentioned earlier. In the report above, HR and people professionals have expressed concerns about potential bias introduced by AI. 40% of respondents believe AI discriminates against under-represented groups, and many have mentioned incorrect decisions as a problem. For instance, 35% reported wrong candidate choices. It’s crucial to have humans involved in critical decisions made by technology, like in the hiring process.

The AHAH principle

HR and people professionals are new to understanding algorithmic biases and discrimination. What is the process of fact-checking data? How do we check the source? How can we guarantee transparency and the right to question algorithmic decisions?
AHAH is a successful principle to help you combat these sorts of issues. AHAH stands for:

  • AI-assisted
  • Human-led
  • AI-resourced
  • Human-checked

We’ve borrowed AHAH from the talented team at Hive Learning, who have applied this approach to supercharge their learning platform.

Gartner’s 2024 HR future of work trends report also states a case for increased “data governance, quality control and good employee judgment” to manage the introduction of GenAI (Generative AI) in the workplace. The report cautions that rushing to experiment with GenAI hoping to boost productivity without appropriate risk management, will lead to “hard lessons and painful costs”.

Johannes Sundlo a leading thinker on AI and HR claims there is the potential to increase HR efficiency by 30% with AI. However, doing so relies on several factors:

  • Time – taking time to practice using AI to understand its possibilities.
  • Transparency – be open that you are using AI and how you’re using it.
  • Together – investigate and implement AI as a team.

Let’s overcome fears of AI and embrace the AHAH principle.

#2 Climate emergency and EVP (Employee Value Proposition)

Reducing emissions and limiting global warming constitute the most pressing and perhaps most formidable socio-economic challenges yet faced by humanity. As a result, organizations across the globe are pledging net-zero targets. These targets have significant implications and pose enormous challenges for L&D, OD and people strategy.

The WEF states extreme weather as the top risk faced by the world in 2024. Climate change is no longer a far-off concept yet to impact our lives. Last year “smashed” global heating records by a large margin, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. The planet was, on average, 1.48C hotter than during the pre-industrial era. Many countries have agreed to limit warming to 1.5C above the pre-industrial average, to avoid the worst affects of climate change. The warming is due to continued, record carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and the El Niño climate event, which raises ocean temperatures. It led to extreme weather around the world in 2023, including flooding and heat waves.

In 2023, Cop28 officially recognized the imperative to transition from fossil fuels. This has made net-zero targets a genuine priority and progressively harder for organizations to engage in ‘greenwashing’.

The University of Reading’s ShowYourStripes project (showyourstripes.info) has made available simple charts created by Professor Ed Hawkins that vividly show the increase in global temperature. They are also available for smaller regions and biodiversity.

The University of Reading’s ShowYourStripes project (showyourstripes.info) has made available simple charts created by Professor Ed Hawkins that vividly show the increase in global temperature. They are also available for smaller regions and biodiversity.

Impact on HR and people strategy of the climate emergency and EVP

Climate emergency is not just a trend. HR and people teams will face both challenges and opportunities because of an inevitable socio-economic structural transformation. The challenges are about giving people a sense of purpose and helping them deal with eco-despair and eco-anxiety through their employer. The opportunity is to become a market leader by filling the green skills gap.

Solastalgia is an Australian word that describes a mix of homesickness, sadness over environmental destruction, and feeling powerless against change.

L&D and people strategy is impacted in two significant areas.

The first priority is to develop green skills. LinkedIn describes these skills as important for making economic activities environmentally sustainable (LinkedIn Learning, 2022). Sustainability Manager tops this year’s LinkedIn Jobs on the Rise list in the UK, which is a data-backed ranking of the 25 fastest-growing jobs in the UK over the past five years.

The world of work is rapidly evolving, with skill sets for jobs changing 24% since 2015. In a recent conversation at a leading government agency in Australia, an HR Director shared an interesting change they’ve noticed. When they started offering carbon literacy and green skills as part of employee development, their organization saw a big increase in applications from recent graduates and early-career professionals.

The second area where the climate emergency affects people strategy is an opportunity to attract and retain great people by aligning your EVP (Employee Value Proposition) with a purpose-driven mission linked to net-zero targets. According to a 2021 IBM survey, 70%+ of people now seek employment with sustainable companies. Studies also show that younger generations have a higher level of eco-anxiety and are more likely to seek employment with a brand committed to sustainable business practices (Ro, 2022).

Interestingly, Gartner predicts companies will start offering climate change disaster response and protection as a trendy employee benefit. Such benefits include explicit commitments to physical safety (such as plans to offer shelter or energy provisions when natural disasters arrive), compensation to impacted employees, and mental health support. To be clear, the implied flip-side is that you won’t receive such benefit packages if you’re not considered important enough to the organization.

However, despite the potential financial upside of adopting environmentally friendly practices, it’s often customers and employees who are forcing businesses to adapt. Ultimately, people are voting with their feet and becoming more inclined to base consumer and employment decisions on the sustainability actions of companies. It’s time to leverage this advantage by clearly articulating your green and purpose-driven EVP.

#3 T-shaped people in T-shaped teams

Invariably, in our work with clients, we introduce the concept of moving away from thinking in terms of jobs and functions and instead move towards skills and roles. Gartner calls this ending the ‘paper ceiling’, where we hire for skills and experience rather than just qualifications.

Today’s young people will have the longest careers of any generation yet and move the most between different jobs. According to the WEF, workers are projected to experience a change in 44% of core skills over the next five years. It’s clear that we need a new career framework to help us stay relevant to the job market.

A T-shaped person has a combination of specialist skills (the vertical part of the T) and generalist skills (the horizontal).

The shift towards skills-based talent and workforce planning closely links to the business agility megatrends and the necessity to restructure organizational operating models. To respond and adapt as a business, you need a workforce that can quickly scale up or down based on the most pressing organizational challenge or the latest product to deliver. Developing teams of multi-disciplinary people, which are better able to self-organize and flex as needed, can support this need for rapid adaptation.

Frequently, the HR function cannot facilitate this wider organizational design unless it looks at how we change our own structure and operations. Perhaps even more significant HR’s traditional structure limiting our ability to even recognize these pressing organizational challenges and the need to make these employee and team changes. You need to restructure your own model to be more collective, to prioritize strategically and be product-led.

When employees’ abilities are represented through the skills they possess and the roles they’ve had, it becomes easier to see how to deploy them, instead of relying on a list of job titles and functions they’ve held. Josh Bersin calls this ‘systemic HR’, Gartner labels it a new HR operating model based on a pool of multi-skilled problem solvers and Perry Timms calls it HR.3. Whatever the name, it’s clear that HR and people require a new collective, strategic and ruthlessly prioritized approach that moves beyond traditional job titles and the functional silos of L&D, OD, talent, recruitment and reward. This is a transformation that demands new skills, roles and working methods underpinned by a product and experimental mindset.

Example of a T-shaped people professional.

Our clients love the T-shaped people in T-shaped teams approach. This framework helps you focus on the specialist and generalist skills individuals possess and how they can combine those skills and areas of experience to perform well in roles. The T-shape approach helps HR and people professionals understand how to develop their career in a modern, more zig-zag way, constantly strengthening their skill set to meet the demands of their organization and business environment.
You can apply this approach to form teams with a good balance of general and specialized skills. A team like this can solve any problem you throw at them.

 

Example T-shaped team

Impact on HR and people strategy of T-shaped people in T-shaped teams.

The key is to link any effort in mapping and understanding skills to the urgent business problems faced by an organization. Simply conducting a skills mapping project in isolation or building a static skills inventory won’t work. By aligning your efforts with the problems to solve in the business, you make any skills-based and T-shape approach tangible and practical.

Example of a T-shaped team. A team like this could tackle any problem.

For example, a good starting point is to assess whether you’re missing certain capabilities to execute your business strategy effectively. If you are, what skills are needed for those capabilities? Can you find them internally or must you seek externally?
Many of our clients actively plan the desired T-shape for their team. Using a traffic light system, they track current skills (green), alongside the skills that are developing (amber) and where they have skill gaps (red). They can fill these skill gaps in multiple ways. For example, by borrowing people from other parts of the business or broader market.

#4 Define what you stand for

Most of the trend commentators we’ve mentioned have highlighted trust in the workplace as a key theme for 2024. This topic is strongly associated with many people feeling stressed and burnt out from the sheer information overload that modern and digital work represents. Another key aspect is the tension that persists around defining flexible or hybrid working. Microsoft’s work trend index pulse report 2022 refers to what they call ‘productivity paranoia’. While 87% of employees feel they’re productive while working at home, only 12% of senior leaders are confident remote working is productive.

Whether we call it the great resignation, the great reshuffle or quiet quitting, the overriding theme is the desire from employees for a more human employment deal and a re-evaluation of jobs, careers and our relationship with work.

Bruce Daisley’s 2024 trend report emphasizes that trust and autonomy drive better business results. A recent trust barometer report by Edelman also found that 53% of respondents thought their countries were more divided and polarized than in the past. Moreover, people’s lack of faith in societal institutions, such as the government and media, stemmed from economic concerns, disinformation, a significant class divide, and poor leadership. Intriguingly, business was the only institution seen as competent and ethical. Individuals want their organization to represent a cause.

We must also recognize the significant changes in the workforce’s composition. For example, 52% of the global population is under 30 and Gen Z is fluent in digital skills since birth.

Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever, encompassing a wide range of ages, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicity, and neurodiversity. Combine this with other factors such as longevity and it’s clear that our lives are less likely to be divided into the conventional youth, middle-age, and golden years. Furthermore, we’re less likely to follow a traditional career progression, climbing the job ladder.

These factors are especially relevant to Gen Z. Boomers and Gen X often accuse Gen Z of not wanting to work, but the reality is that they do what to work, just not the way you think they should. Previous generations of workers accepted that to keep in the manager’s good books, you put in extra hours by getting into the office early and leaving late, essentially doing unpaid overtime. This resulted in a culture of presenteeism (at your desk but not working) and ‘giving 110%’ to show you’re a ‘team player’.

There has been some interesting reframing of scenarios, especially since the COVID pandemic and the rapid rise of remote working. For example, if an organization can’t pay employees enough to live nearby and avoid commuting, should they have offices in such a location? If an employee has proven their ability to work productively from home, shouldn’t they receive direct compensation for commuting costs if they are required to return to the office?

Impact on HR and people strategy of defining what you stand for

Two key areas stand out.

The first is to assess and potentially limit the growing pay gap between CEO pay and everyone else. For example, in the UK, work by the High Pay Centre shows that median FTSE 100 CEO pay (excluding pension) currently stands at 109 times the median of full-time worker’s pay. Josh Bersin also highlighted pay equity and employee activism as key predictions for 2024. Peer-reviewed research suggests lavishly compensated CEOs find it harder to connect with, and consequently lead, their employees.

The second area that stands out is co-creating a better definition of the workplace for your organization. This may be a 4-day working week, agreed days in the office or warehouse to better facilitate collaboration or a remote workforce enabled by great tech. What’s important is that whatever approach the organization chooses, it cannot be defined in a top-down way or be a one-size-fits-all policy. Trust must sit at the heart of any solution. Organizations that view hybrid working as a complex problem have better results when they either experiment with different approaches or let teams create their own workplace policies.

#5 Product-led

In the realm of business, there is an evident movement towards defining a go-to-market strategy with a product-led approach, a concept that reflects the massive growth of online digital products and businesses over the last decade. As a consequence, product management is now a standard role in most companies, despite its novelty compared to marketing and sales. Melissa Perri (2018) explains that the product-led approach is a way to avoid the ‘build trap’, where businesses become too fixated on meeting product requirements instead of understanding the problems customers need solutions for.

To be product-led is to focus 100% on the value you deliver to your customer. In this sense, it becomes more than just building products people love. Instead, it’s an overarching organizational strategy and structure that integrates and organizes every component part around delivering delightful product experiences. To do this, organizations require deep knowledge and ongoing communication with the customer to anticipate and respond to their ever-changing needs.

We’re now witnessing this same product-led vision impact the HR and People profession. To be product-led is to view the employee experience as a product. Prominent commentators, including Josh Bersin and Jessica Zwaan, are now highlighting HR’s function as a product manager, responsible for delivering an exceptional employee experience product. This lens helps us understand the employee experience as a whole, including attraction, recruitment, onboarding, facilities, career progression, reward, team performance, feedback, exit, and alumni.

Impact on HR and people strategy of being product-led

Products deliver value by solving a shared problem for the customer, so you must identify and prioritize the problems your people experience product will solve.

If it’s a commercial product, then it focuses on selling something and realizes value through outcomes such as revenue, loyalty, or generating sales for a related product. Conversely, if it’s an internal organizational product, such as an L&D solution, the organization realizes value by achieving outcomes like increased productivity, cost reduction, or talent retention. By seeing the people experience as your product and understanding the problems you must address, you can improve how you define, measure, and provide value as an HR and people function.
The benefits of this approach are huge:

  • The quality of your people experience product sets you apart in the market and shows how you attract, keep, and develop your employees.
  • The people experience product reflects the abilities of individuals and how an organization acquires, develops, or uses skills to achieve desired results.
  • The people experience product represents a sense of purpose and engagement.

Your goal is to foster an environment that motivates individuals to deliver their best work, assessed using EXO metrics. EXO are a combination of:

  • employee experience data, such as engagement scores or retention.
  • operational and business data, such as customer NPS (Net Promoter Score) or CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) ratio.

By working product-led HR and people teams can move beyond the legacy of being seen as a cost to the business and instead partner as a value-driven function.

Conclusion

The world is entering a period of what has been termed fundamental uncertainty. The multitude of global fundamental changes makes predicting future events with any useful accuracy extremely difficult.
Nonetheless, it is feasible to analyze the overarching trends and perceive their short-term manifestations with some degree of confidence. By embracing business agility your organization can be ready and able to identify, respond and adapt (or even pivot) to these changes.
In this climate we recommend focusing on 5 areas strategic priorities to co-create an adaptive and responsive people strategy in 2024:

  1. Use the AHAH principle to exploit AI while recognizing its built-in biases.
  2. Make your response to climate change part of your EVP (Employee Value Proposition).
  3. Build T-shaped teams of T-shaped people that can tackle any problem.
  4. Define what your organization stands for in order to attract and keep great talent.
  5. Be product-led, treating the employee experience as a product you’re delivering.

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