Redefining the role of HR in an Agile workplace

From time to time I get a question about the ratio of our HRs- to- employees, the number of HR/no of full-time employees in the organization. In Titansoft’s Singapore headquarters, the figure is 6.25% about 4 times higher compared to the median of 1.5% stated in the Bloomberg Law’s 2018 HR Benchmarks Report. 

“I was quite surprised to know that there are 4 HRs to support a headcount of 80, but I soon realised the reasons after I joined”- Rui Min, Sr HR Generalist.  

Commonly viewed as an efficiency metric, a high HR ratio could on the surface indicate low efficiency in the delivery of HR services. However, take a look beneath and a high ratio can be influenced by multiple factors including Technology (HRIS, process digitalization), the role of HR, Budget, Industry, Organizational size, etc. 

As a central pillar supporting organization strategy, the role of HR varies and grows along with the organization. In an Agile workplace, the HR team has grown beyond traditional functions. 

The roles we play:

  • Full spectrum of HR services: Each member in the HR team provides end- to- end HR services in their core functions, from administrative operations to strategic planning. Take talent acquisition as an example. A HR generalist whose core function is talent acquisition would be in charge of the full process – from interviewing hiring managers to understand specific roles, requirements, to creating accurate and appealing job posts, sourcing for candidates, filtering CVs, conducting telephone screening, making interview arrangements and every other step all the way to onboarding. As for strategic planning, he/she would provide monthly recruitment dashboard and staffing analysis reports on channel effectiveness, hiring status and areas of improvements if we experience difficulties in hiring for a specific role or designing ways to improve candidates’ application experience at each touch point.
  • HRBP (Human Resource Business Partners) liked HR buddy: In Titansoft, unlike the typical structure of having dedicated HRBP roles supporting individual business units with HR services, we have one HR team supporting a workforce of 80-90 employees across all departments. Such structure, however, creates limitations in terms of knowledge of what is happening on the ground in each department. When there is a lack of context and information from the ground, the HR team is effectively working in a silo, causing problems to arise as new initiatives might not reflect real problems and consequently be less effective.

    One of the core principles of the Agile methodology stresses the importance of working closely with customers so as to better understand their needs and pain points in order to provide valuable products or services. In practice, at the beginning of the year, we carried out a small experiment in which we set up a “HR Buddy system”. By attaching an individual HR member to each department with the objective of understanding ground sentiments, we are able to create an alignment between company objectives and employees, and provide advice or facilitate interventions to improve people related challenges or issues.

    In weekly meetings, each HR would then share relevant information or concerns which might require the involvement of other stakeholders, such as bringing feedback to the attention of relevant team leads or department managers. This initiative is particularly important during the current COVID-19 situation when everyone is working from home and HR comes in to engage employees virtually, helping to communicate areas of concern such as long working hours and the difficulty of creating a clear boundary between work and personal life. 

    With this experiment, we were able to reap the benefits of addressing concerns or problems at an earlier stage, and take necessary actions to effectively improve overall employee relations and engagement.
  • Internal Facilitator: Our talent development strategy focuses on encouraging employees to become T-Shaped talents. Facilitation is one of the highly useful skills for HRs to develop as part of lateral skill development. Some members of our HR team together with Scrum Masters form the Internal Facilitator Team. In the absence of Scrum Master in certain functional teams, we help to facilitate conversations and discussions such as monthly peer feedback sessions, regular retrospective meetings, post self-nominated promotion review meetings, conflict mitigation meetings, and book club sharing sessions. Having HR members function as internal facilitators not only helps teams to have meaningful conversations, but also serves as additional avenues to access challenges or problems teams might experience.
  • Culture Ambassador: Apart from primary HR functions, we also focus on Organizational Development. In recent years, we have grown from 200 to 300 employees across offices and similar to many other companies, we have faced a ‘happy’ problem in the form of culture dilution as a result of rapid expansion. In 2019, we launched the V-CEPAT (an acronym from our 6 core values) culture project through 6 consecutive monthly workshops facilitated by the Internal Facilitator Team with the objective of improving alignment on shared understanding of the company’s core values and encouraging Titaners to translate the values into actions. The HR team continues to facilitate newcomers’ workshops every quarter and interview employees about their experiences of active embracing of the company values in their day to day work. 

To support an Agile work environment, our people’s policies and processes are constantly reviewed and improved after a certain period of time to maintain their relevance. As an example, we hold a retrospective meeting after each self-nominated promotion exercise which takes place every 6 months. HR will incorporate feedback collected from the past meeting to adjust and improve the process for the next cycle. Some might argue that this is not really a job for HR in the traditional HR functional setup, but what really is HR’s job? I believe that we ought to define our own role, instead of allowing the job description to limit what we do. If something is important and it matters to you, just do it. This is also the meaning behind our core value of Emergent leadership – see a need, do the need.  

So, what’s the best ratio of HRs to employees?

There really is no one-size-fits-all or ideal ratio of HR- to- employees. Recent industry data shows this benchmark to be on the rise with the current war for talents. Talent attraction and retention has become a critical business challenge for employers. A better question to ask therefore, might be how HR practitioners can continue to learn and expand our capacity to stay relevant and provide value to the organization moving forward.