The task facing HR leaders amid COVID was formidable. Yet their response in handling staff illness, working from home, and the ‘pingdemic’ has been impressive, Sage’s recent research reveals. The crisis has helped to emphasise the important role of People teams, according to three in four HR leaders (72 per cent) in Sage’s latest research.

It’s a positive step forward. Sage discovered that, prior to the pandemic, worryingly, 84 per cent of c-suite leaders were unclear on the value HR brought. Today, 87 per cent of c-suite execs say the pandemic has accelerated changes in HR, such as the department having greater influence – but 52 per cent of the c-suite feel these changes are onlyb temporary.

Making an impact through insights: about the research

Sage polled 500 HR and c-suite leaders to find out more about how aligned HR are to business priorities post pandemic and what role they’re playing in them. The report, Impact through insights, is the second report in Sage’s HR in the moment research series. Overall, we found although 81 per cent c-suite leaders believe HR is aligned to business priorities, just 41 per cent think HR is playing a leading role.

On the one hand, both HR leaders and business leaders agreed on their top four business priorities. Financial performance took top place; leadership ranked second for both the c-suite and HR with a third (32 per cent) of both groups agreeing this to be a business priority; business operations and digital transformation also appeared in the top four for both HR leaders and c-suite execs.

However, being aligned on business goals is one thing, leading the delivery of them is another. Our research found that less than half of the c-suite say HR is playing a leading role in delivering business priorities, even in those areas traditionally within HR’s wheelhouse, such as skilling and upskilling.

Remarkably, HR and People leaders agree with the c-suite about this – and identify their own lack of leadership in these critically important areas. For example, less than half of HR leaders (48 per cent) and business execs (45 per cent) believe HR is playing a leading role in skilling and upskilling. Less than half (46 per cent of HR leaders and 47 per cent of c-suite execs) feel HR is playing a leading role in company culture.

Around only a third of HR leaders (31 per cent) and c-suite leaders (36 per cent) say HR are playing a leading role in scaling the business.

39 per cent of the c-suite feel that HR is leading in digital transformation, compared to just a quarter (25 per cent) of HR leaders.

C-suite leaders are expecting HR to take up the mantle

What’s clear is that c-suite leaders have a lot more confidence in HR’s leadership abilities than HR and People leaders themselves do.

When looking at these different perspectives, it’s clear that whilst HR leaders have gained influence – 59 per cent of HR leaders told us in our research that they’ve become more influential as leaders – there’s still plenty of room left for them to develop HR’s leadership and impact across the business even further.

Why then, if HR and People leaders have had more opportunity to influence and lead, is the chance not being seized? Our previous report in the HR in the moment research series, found most HR leaders (up to 60 per cent) said their workload had increased as a direct result of the pandemic, with 40 per cent of HR leaders saying they’re too focused on paperwork and admin.

The challenge then, is for HR to free up capacity within their teams so they can redirect and focus their efforts into leadership and driving change. Automation and self-service play a vital role in this. Another way is by providing business leaders with more meaningful and actionable insights, and more useful recommendations for the business.

The vital role of People analytics

Businesses have an abundance of HR and People data at their fingertips, and HR leaders are in prime position to provide insights that drive real and measurable business impact. Yet our research findings show that despite 94 per cent of the c-suite receiving data from HR, more than half (68 per cent) are not heavily reliant on it.

What we discovered was a gap between the type of metrics c-suite want, and what HR is actually providing. Our c-suite respondents told us that ‘leading metrics’ such as employee satisfaction rates and cost per hire data would be invaluable, but in many instances, HR and People teams are not providing this.

The role of HR tech in helping organisations achieve their business priorities must not be underestimated either. Our research identified a need for more investment in training and technology for HR, so that data can be accurately interpreted to make inferences about the future and provide the kind of insightful recommendations that improve strategic decision making.

Though the c-suite expects HR leaders to increase their voice across organisations, this can only happen if HR leaders are able to free up their own precious time. Their enabler will be HR technology and automation, which can hand day-to-day admin and analysis. Meanwhile, the HR leader can deliver their experience, strategy and insights to the wider business, making a difference to the entire organisation and, by extension, every one of its customers.

The focus is on HR. Are People leaders ready to make a difference while they have their time in the spotlight?