HR Professional Magazine
April/May 2004

Cover Story

By Sharda Prashad
The Top Four Trends of 2004

One of our best barometers for knowing the future is our neighbours across the border

Imagine how useful you would be to your organization if you could predict the upcoming trends in human resources. After all, when you know what to expect, you can equip yourself with the tools and strategies necessary to meet and even exceed expectations.

While none of us can see the future, there are ways to track trends. For example, while we often lament the huge influence of our American neighbour on everything from our culture to our economy, this also provides us with a ready glimpse of what’s coming our way.

When it comes to identifying HR trends, the U.S. tends to be ahead of Canada by about three years, says Monica Belcourt, director of the International Alliance for Human Resources Research at York University. “Trends start in the U.S. because there are more head offices. This is different from Canada, which has a branch plant economy.”
So, assuming that an examination of recent trends in the U.S. will turn up what’s coming our way, what are the HR issues we should be prepared for in 2004?

First, says Belcourt, disengaged workers will continue to be a challenge. These workers are currently costing U.S. employers billions of dollars in lost productivity every year because they are underperforming in their jobs. “It’s a reflection of the labour market,” she says. “There are too many jobs and not enough people, so companies will take anyone.”
This means organizations will need to conduct an analysis of their labour needs and re-assess workflow. It also means hiring employees for their potential over the next five years, versus just their current skills. The end result of this process might mean hiring 50 full-time staff and 50 part-time staff rather than 100 full-time staff. Essentially, it will mean changing how HR professionals think about staffing positions.

A second trend we will see in 2004 will be a focus on implementing wellness programs. A study released by the Canadian Policy Research Networks in December 2003, entitled “How Canada Stacks Up: The Quality of Work—An International Perspective,” rated how Canadian workplaces compared to those in the U.S. and 15 other European countries in terms of job quality. Job quality was assessed on work/life balance, health and well-being, skills development and career and employment security. Of the 17 countries surveyed, we ranked fourth for concern of health and safety on the job. We also topped the list for working at high speeds “all the time.”

This is important, as research has shown that workers are more than twice as likely to report problems such as muscular pains in the neck and shoulders, backache and stress if they work continuously at high speeds. In addition, the study reports that stress-related absences cost Canadian employers between $3 billion to $5 billion annually.

One way to improve this is for HR professionals to first be aware of the concern employees have in this area and, second, work to reduce this concern. In 2004, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PWC) is doing just that.

“Wellness is definitely an important area for most organizations to look at and focus on,” says Wayne McFarlane, human capital leader for PWC. The firm conducted a comprehensive study during 2002 and 2003 to determine how it could improve wellness and how best to design its wellness program. The study included examining trends in short-term and long-term disability programs, drug plan utilization and employee absenteeism. It also interviewed both employees and clients using both one-on-one interviews and focus groups. 

“We realized that we had to make a clear statement that personal well-being is the employee’s responsibility,” says McFarlane. “PWC’s role is to educate and make people aware of the importance of a sound body and mind.” This includes providing employees with tools to support stress, both at work and at home.

One tool PWC used was an online software program called the Warren Shepell Compass Point. After employees complete 40 questions, they are provided with a confidential wellness strategy, including daily actions they should undertake. When a trend occurs with 50 or more respondents, PWC is made aware of it, and can use the results to determine further programs.
Although PWC has provided senior staff with subsidies and allowances for health club memberships over the last several years, the new wellness and fitness allowance program is more far-reaching. All employees will be eligible. In addition to using the allowance for a health-club membership, employees will also be able to apply it to a home gym and/or to see a dietician. To raise awareness, PWC will continue to hold a national wellness week where various aspects of fitness and wellness such as high blood pressure, diet and physical fitness are discussed in workshops and seminars across the country.

A third continuing trend we will see in 2004 is the saga of the baby boomers. “It’s not unfolding as we expected,” says Belcourt. “Before, we believed in ‘Freedom 55.’” But then a number of employees were outsourced or downsized before they reached 55 and expected to retire. Employees are also choosing to work longer due to financial considerations. For instance, choosing to have children later in life means baby boomers may have to work longer to support financially dependent children. Another factor is that the average life expectancy has increased, so people need to work longer in order to afford living expenses for both themselves, and possibly for their parents.

Belcourt says we will see the baby boomers continue to influence HR policies. This will include baby boomers lobbying for elder care to look after their parents, enhanced health benefits and different retirement policies. In addition, the baby boomers will also affect staffing decisions. For instance, in the Ontario Public Service, 70% of the employees are baby boomers, while only 5% are under 30. This is a similar phenomenon in several organizations in that more people will be leaving an organization than joining.

To deal with a problematic shortage of chartered accountants, PWC is looking to re-vitalize its alumni program. If employees left the firm because they were denied the promotion to partnership, positions will be created for them that are equally rewarding to the partnership level. The firm also wants to have a pool of semi-retired chartered accountants available to work on short-term projects to deal with the skills shortage.

Amy Kates, co-author of Designing Dynamic Organizations and principal at Downey Kates Associates, which provides organizational design consulting in New York, says that the fourth and final trend will require change from within. That trend is the increase in skills HR professionals will be expected to possess.

“We have to demonstrate facilitative leadership now that we have a seat at the table,” says Kates. “We have to be the technical expert, help develop a good team and do the facilitative role.”

Susan Parsons, leader of Canadian HR technology and operations advisory services at Mercer Human Resources Consulting, agrees. She also believes that HR has to align itself with the business needs of the organization. “We have to use technology for succession planning and for workforce planning. We have to be more analytical about mining data and using it. It’s not just about reporting on turnover.”

Kates says that a lot of HR generalists struggle with this enhanced role, partly because of being expected to do more with less, and partly because of the need for more training. However, in her experience in the U.S., she says it’s clear that the role of human resources is being elevated, through initiatives by upper management and also by human resources itself.

Now, that’s something to look forward to.

Sharda Prashad (, M.Ed, CA, is a freelance writer specializing in work issues, who is completing her EMBA at the Kellogg-Schulich joint program.