Want Strategic HRBPs? Embrace Hybrid Work. (i4cp login required)


There is an HR meme making the rounds that many of us have seen:

What makes the meme funny is that the images depicting how our work in HR is perceived are wildly different—illustrating that how we want to spend our time and how we actually spend our time at work are often at odds with one another. While this is true for nearly every job, it is most especially true for the HR business partner (HRBP) role.

Prior to joining the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), I held positions at several large manufacturing, insurance, and retail organizations, with the core of each role being an HR business partner. In every organization, much like the rest of the pre-pandemic world, I was expected to be physically present in the office five days per week. The primary impetus of this expectation had little to do with innovation, collaboration, and team building, but rather to be present when employees and managers had questions.

The net result was a highly disrupted workday for me, often derailed entirely by the constantly revolving office door flooded by managers and employees alike wanting to “just grab a minute.” This was further complicated by the expectation that HR must be “helpful” and “work as a team”—so even when I did not support an employee as their HRBP, I was expected to help them.

Being strategic and being in the office are not synonymous 

The negative downstream effects of this workstyle are innumerable, but some of the most notable included feeling punished for being present, increased workload, collaboration overload, stress caused by competing demands, lack of focus time, and challenges in meeting assigned deliverables. Suffice it to say, I did a lot of work, but rarely was it worthy of putting on my weekly items of interest list let alone my year-end performance review. The reason for this is that the expectation of being present in the office runs contrary to the expectation of being a truly strategic HRBP.

Even worse, some managers cite HRBPs as not being strategic and question their ability to be more effective at a higher level, in spite of the fact that those managers may be responsible for handcuffing HRBPs to an ineffective working model. While i4cp’s research has identified the five greatest capability gaps for HRBPs, it doesn’t make sense to consider these gaps until you are certain your HRBPs are not being pulled into tasks that are better suited for another area within the three-legged stool model.

One potential reason HR professionals have felt the need to be present is because, as one of my colleagues describes, “the HR business partner position, when done well, is a complex, relationship-intensive role.”. Pre-pandemic, we were all primed to understand relationships are built in person. While this remains to be true, we have also learned it is possible to build relationships without being physically face-to-face.

A strong HR model is one with a highly capable HR shared service center (HRSSC) and mature centers of excellence (COEs). These in turn enable HRBPs to focus their efforts on building a talent strategy and supporting leaders to provide an employee experience that attracts, retains, and engages people, not to always be available to meet with anyone simply because they may feel more comfortable talking to a person or really enjoy the face-to-face interaction.

Our research has shown that successful leaders execute through effective networks. Given the complexity of today’s often highly matrixed organizations, HRBPs are often tasked with developing networks of relationships that have very little to do with where they are physically located. As a result, requiring HRBPs to go into the office due to unfounded concerns of hybrid work such as reduced collaboration and engagement is to constrain and dilute the true purpose of the role itself.  

New ways of working require trust  

The benefits of new ways of working are highlighted in our recent study, From Cube to Cloud: The Next Era of Work. Our research found that “high-performance organizations seem to trust their remote workforces more than lower-performing organizations. They were less likely to be concerned about reduced productivity, engagement, innovation, and their ability to assess employee performance. They also were much less concerned about the cost to support hybrid employees with home office equipment and technology.” As such, to trust the HRBP to do their job remotely is to empower them fully to finally do the work they were hired to do.

What opportunities is your organization evaluating to evolve the expectations of the HRBP role? If the question of what might enable HRBPs to reach optimal performance isn’t a current topic of discussion in your organization, why not? The simple truth is that HRBPs cannot be strategic and help drive major change if they are treated like an information help desk. While we have always known this, the urgency to make this shift is increasing as we navigate this transition to new and different work models.

Not having HR physically present in the workplace forces employees to seek the appropriate (rather than the convenient) avenues to get their questions answered, and frees up lots of otherwise lost time for the HRBP. It’s incredibly exciting to consider what can be accomplished when HRBPs are empowered to focus their efforts in a planful and strategic way, through the lever of a hybrid or remote working models.

For more assistance in thinking through the role of the HRBP in the context of the employee lifecycle in a hybrid work environment, download our Getting Hybrid Work Right HRBP Guide (i4cp members only).

Lindsay Rice is a membership director at i4cp

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