January is traditionally the time when HR commentators look ahead at the challenges likely to be facing the profession in the coming year. 

Increasing digitisation and further advances in Artificial Intelligence feature heavily in the predictions that have hit the pages of the sector press so far. There are likely to be ongoing employment law related challenges too, with the first fines for non-compliance with the GDPR likely to land this year, and the next set of gender pay gap reporting deadlines set to hit in the Spring.

But the one confident prediction we can all make about 2019 is that thanks to Brexit, it’s going to be characterised by uncertainty – with both concern and confusion about how leaving the EU (or not) will affect organisations on many fronts, not least when it comes to labour supply.

The British Chambers of Commerce has today released a survey showing that more companies than ever before are finding it hard to recruit staff. The greatest challenge is in manufacturing, where employers say they are facing the biggest shortage of skilled labour in 30 years, with 81 per cent struggling to find the right people. HR Magazine reports a similar situation in the services sector, where 70 per cent of firms are reporting difficulties finding people with the right skills and qualifications.

Recruitment and workforce planning, clearly, are going to be right at the top of the HR agenda. But research from Forrester predicts that employee engagement is set to take centre stage too, as companies battle to keep hold of their best people and keep them focused and productive amidst the inevitable turmoil.

So what can HR do on a practical level to help organisations build the resilience and agility they need to negotiate the minefield ahead?

Take a fresh look at the employee experience

If good new recruits are going to be hard to find, it becomes increasingly important to look after the talented staff you already have. People are naturally worried about what Brexit will mean for the economy, for the business they work in and for their jobs and future financial security. They may be under more pressure at work as vacancies go unfilled, key staff depart and there are an increasing number of new and unfamiliar technologies to get to grips with. Organisations cannot provide certainty, but they can ensure employees are kept informed, supported and that steps are taken to minimise stress wherever possible.

The New Year is a good opportunity for HR to take a step back and assess whether the business is doing all it can to provide an all-round, positive working experience for its people.  Are the organisation’s values being reflected in the way line managers are leading their people?  Are employee well-being programmes hitting the mark and addressing both physical and mental health? Is it time for a fresh look at reward and recognition? Asking these questions will provide valuable data to inform employee engagement strategies and make sure key staff don’t head out of the door at the time when they are needed the most.

Focus on training and development

At a time when skills are at a premium, pushing training and development to the back of the queue simply isn’t an option. If there’s no external talent available to support growth (or indeed even keep operations running), upskilling existing employees is the only answer. The key is to make sure the business is training the right people for the right things – and this is where your HR software system is your friend.  It can help you map existing staff capabilities against current and future skills gaps – you may be surprised at some of the ‘hidden’ skills already present in the business, not being used because they are not relevant to the post-holder’s current job. Data from performance reviews can also be extracted to help highlight those with the energy, enthusiasm and potential to develop and progress. Training doesn’t have to mean sending people on lengthy and expensive courses at a time when you really can’t spare them.  Thanks to advances in technology, there is now a wide range of easy to access, bite sized training available on line. Mentoring is also a cost effective, highly pragmatic way to help employees develop their skills. Don’t overlook soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, collaboration and relationship building, which are set to become increasingly important in the future workplace.  A recent article in Forbes points to a widening soft skills gap, as technologically savvy but soft skills poor Gen Z employees start to play a more influential role at work.

Streamline core processes

Research company Forrester has also predicted that 2019 will be the year when organisations start to use automation to address talent scarcity. This is likely to happen on two fronts. As AI becomes increasingly sophisticated and accessible, some of the predictions about the ‘robots’ taking over jobs will start to become a reality. But equally, with time at a premium, organisations will also be looking more closely at how they can digitise core processes so that employees can concentrate on more value-adding tasks. The technology to ease the HR administrative load has been available for some time now – but a surprising number of organisations are still using manual processes to manage employee data, keep track of absence and drive performance management programmes. Automating core processes and giving employees the ability to manage their own data frees up valuable HR and line management time. But a central HR system also provides the business with the high quality people-related data it needs to inform critical business decisions and plan for the future.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.