Look Back to Look Forward



When I teach graduate school HR classes, there is an example I always turn to that highlights just how much the workplace has changed. I show a job description for a nurse that was given to new nursing hires in 1887. It includes duties such as: “Maintain an even temperature in your ward by bringing a scuttle of coal for the day's business.” It describes that nurses, who cared for fifty patients per day, should, “lay aside from each pay day a goodly sum of her earnings for her benefit during her declining years so that she will not become a burden.” The job description also points out that any nurse who smokes, uses liquor in any form, gets her hair done at a beauty shop, or frequents dance halls will give the director of nurses good reason to suspect her worth, intentions, and integrity. The description revealed that graduate nurses in good standing with the director of nurses were given an evening off each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they went regularly to church.

After occasionally having to explain “courting” to a generation of individuals who frequent online dating mobile phone applications, the reaction I typically get from this extreme example is one of disbelief that things could have once been that way at work, and that workers would accept being treated as such. I explain that it is about changes and progression, and that the workplace continues to perpetually evolve, keeping the work of human resources professionals never-ending, and very dynamic.

That kind of job security for our profession is great, but it doesn’t make the work itself any easier!

The workplace and the way we work have come a long way from the days of nurses scuttling coal, women staying home and raising a family, and the stuffiness that came with work in corporate America’s 9-5, blue suits and conformist mentality. Work continues to transform as we move into a new decade. In my time as an HR vice president, I found that sometimes it was useful to look at where we’d been in our profession to understand more about where we are going.

So many workplace trends are due to country, region, industry, the state of the economy, and other unique qualifiers. What isn’t unique, however, are the overarching themes that begin to define work for all of us. It’s fair to say that in the past decade, work has become more important than ever, not only in terms of a means of monetary gain, but as a channel that provides meaning to employees’ lives. Purposeful, meaningful, and fulfilling work is sought out, expected, and embraced by this new generation of workers. Finding ways to ensure that work has meaning is key to recruitment and retention practices today.

A New Year is a time when it’s natural to frame things in a “fresh start” mindset. This is no different for human resources processes. Utilize this time to reflect on and better your workplace by taking inventory of the way work is done. Focusing on one or two things at a time will help keep that process from being overwhelming, as you deal with time-sensitive day to day human resources needs.

Open, honest, and trusting conversations are also key.

If you have been at your workplace since the beginning of the decade, think back to that time. What has changed over the past ten years? Has the culture changed? Has your HR technology evolved with the times? Perhaps your company’s mission, goals, or values have shifted.  If you haven’t been at your company for a long time, it might be useful to find employees who have and ask them how things have changed for better, or for the worse. Don’t hesitate to have, “I remember when” conversations with tenured employees. The information you glean from simple conversations such as these can prove to be invaluable as you look towards the future of work at your organization. Similarly, it shows that you care about your employees and the experience you are providing them.

Maybe I am a bit biased (or maybe more than a bit!), but I believe that the human resources profession is more important than ever for the success of organizations and in shaping the future of work as we move into the next decade. It’s interesting to look back to see just how far our profession has come, and exciting to recognize that moving forward, the workplace as we know it today will likely look entirely different ten years from now.

Best wishes for a prosperous New Year!



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