In the people-centric future, CPOs must take the lead in transforming HR from a ‘soft’ department into one comfortable with data-driven decisions.


In a world roiled by a pandemic, the Great Reevaluation, political unrest and digital transformation, the role of HR and the Chief People Officer is becoming more important — and more complex — than ever.

Recently, Reshma Ramachandran, Group Senior Vice President of Transformation at The Adecco Group, held a wide-ranging discussion with Prof. Dr. Jochen Menges, Director of the Center for Leadership in the Future of Work at the University of Zurich, about the future of this crucial role.

Embracing emotion

After ticking off factors causing social, political and economic unrest worldwide, Menges says there are surely other crises to come. “If you look at these crises, there’s one common denominator: they evoke emotions in people. So one key aspect that will change the role of the CPO is that attention must be paid to emotions, and how to deal with those emotions in a business setting.”

Ramachandran agrees and notes that in the past, “we didn’t really talk about emotions.” They were viewed in a negative light; the idea was that there is a personal life and there is a professional life, and never the twain shall meet. “You rightly mention that since COVID,” she adds, “we’ve seen more companies being open to emotion. Are we there yet? Can we bring our whole selves to work?”

“We have to abandon this old belief that emotions have no place in business,” Menges says. “Indeed, emotions are central to business. They determine whether someone is attracted to a business, and whether they remain in it – staying loyal rather than resigning.”

Referring to recent Adecco Group research, he adds that “68.9% of responses about why emotions matter concerned productivity and performance. Over 50% concerned creativity and innovation. These are core aspects of business, they’re not just nice-to-haves. So the CPOs who replied to our survey already recognize that emotion is central to business.”

What those CPOs don’t know yet, Menges says, is how to turn knowledge about emotions into action.

On transformation

Ramachandran points out that “most Fortune 500 companies are going through transformation. Digital transformation, business transformation — it’s a loosely used term, but they’re transforming.” She wonders where the CPO fits during and after this transformation.

Menges believes HR and CPOs must adapt in two major ways. The first is driven by digital transformation. “We’ll be automating parts of the HR function,” he notes, “to free up our capacity to do things that are more human-centric.”

Second, he adds, “and much less noticed, we need an emotional transformation. That’s a term that’s not widely used yet, but in this era of the Great Reevaluation, as people reconsider their jobs, they may notice that their work environment isn’t quite fitting their needs. So that environment needs to change, to transform in a way that makes it more appealing to our human nature, our emotional side.”

For organizations to effect such change in a rational way, he points out, “you need data, and we’ve got lots of it — from both CPOs and other employees. We must bring the hard sciences to the question of dealing with emotions in business, even though in the past emotions have been viewed as a ‘soft’ topic.”

Chief People Officer of the Future - research from the Adecco Group and Zurich Universary

How can leaders support employees to do their best at work, while also creating a better world of work? Chief People Officers are seeing a transformation of their role in three key areas: using data and technology while remaining attuned to fundamentally human concerns; addressing employees’ emotions and wellbeing at work; and attracting skilled employees from more diverse backgrounds.

The data-driven future

Embracing data will require significant change, Ramachandran notes, as it’s “not typically seen as an HR skill set. Where do you see data in the evolving role of the CPO?”

“It’s hugely important,” Menges believes. “Decisions about people should be data driven, like any decisions in business.” He points out that data is hugely important to businesses when it comes to products and services; it’s a key element of customer-centricity. The next step, and an area in which CPOs must lead, is to extend a customer-centric mindset to employees. “If you become a people-centric business, looking at how your people feel, what decisions they take, when they feel stressed, when they thrive, you’d get a lot of hard data about putting your workers in a position to be their best at work — not only professionally but personally.”

Today, this knowledge is lacking. Referring again to Adecco Group research, he says, “We don’t see this collection of data in our survey. If the boardroom is to make smart investments, all this data needs to be there, and to be connected. So the ability to deal with big data, this is a skill set needed by all professionals, especially future CPOs.”

“I think the future of work will move from customer-centricity to employee-centricity,” Ramachandran says. “The CPO skill set will evolve to use data to make this happen.”

“Yes,” Menges agrees. “We also need to have the same ambition on innovation with respect to employees as with customers. With products and services, there’s lots of creativity, experiments, innovation. But we don’t bring that same spirit to our employees to make their lives better. There’s a void in people innovation to be filled, and that cannot be done by a particular business. We need a lot of businesses to come together, as well as universities and other stakeholders.”

The two believe this type of innovation is underway in Zurich, where the Center for Leadership in the Future of Work and Adecco Group headquarters have become the core of an “HR Valley” modeled on Silicon Valley. “We’ve really created something here,” Menges concludes. “We’re bringing in data and experimenting with solutions to foster a better understanding of how CPOs can put their businesses in a position to succeed.”

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