Navigating the new normal — a conversation with Tracy Burns, CEO of the Northeast HR Association

The Northeast HR Association has over 2400 members on the East coast. In a recent conversation with our academic community of HR students, faculty, and alumni, Tracy Burns, the organization’s CEO, shared observations about the HR profession and the emerging trends we have to pay attention to.

Tracy has served as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer since November of 2010 and, prior to that, she spent nearly 20 years working in corporate HR, holding leadership positions across various industries, including financial services, higher education, healthcare, and publishing.

Carl Zangerl (CZ): Tracy, as you know, we encourage our students to get involved in professional associations. Like other associations, NEHRA offers students special membership rates. That provides access to wide range of programs, resources, job listings, and networking opportunities. During this terrible Covid-19 pandemic, you’ve witnessed another benefit of membership haven’t you?

Tracy Burns (TB): Yes, absolutely! A major benefit of being part of a professional association is just the sense of belonging. The pandemic has been stressful for everyone, but HR professionals have been in the thick of it. Sudden disruptions of the workplace, tough organizational decisions, caring for the well-being of employees – taken together, there has been so much to do and a lot of burnout. That’s when having a network of colleagues to talk to and share experiences with makes a big difference in our ability to cope.

I think too that all of us rely on previous experience to make judgments about what actions to take. But we’ve never encountered anything like this. Entire sectors of the economy, like the airline and tourism industries, have been devastated. Millions of employees are working remotely for the first time. What to do in these entirely new situations? What is the new normal? That’s the time when learning what others are doing can make all the difference. We don’t have to feel like we’re reinventing the wheel all the time or operating in a vacuum.

CZ: As we consider the impact of the pandemic, one trend really stands out, and that is the shift to remote work by many organizations. Do you think this is a permanent trend, or simply a response to a one-time situation?

TB:  You know, if I had a crystal ball, I think we’re going to land somewhere in a hybrid model. There will be more flexible arrangements for employees who can do their work remotely. We’ve learned that it can be done and done well!

I’ve always applauded millennials for pushing for change in how we do work. They’ve been the most vocal generation in saying, “Look, I don’t need to commute to an office five days a week to be productive.” At the same time, we have to recognize that flexible work arrangements are not a matter of a one size fits all policy.

The key for HR professionals is to listen to what employees are saying and feeling. This subject gets personal very quickly! In the engagement surveys we’ve been a part or have discussed with our Board members, we’re learning that there are many variations in how people want or need to get work done. We have to look at new and different ways to keep people engaged and that gets back to being more focused on tailoring our approach to work.

CZ: And this also underscores the critical role of middle managers and supervisors, doesn’t it?

TB: No question. The last few months have certainly shown what it takes to be an effective manager. It’s about having really good conversations with people about their professional development goals and about how they are doing.

For example, in my own organization, we sometimes have team meetings with no agenda. We just do a check-in and take the pulse of the organization. It’s a time when we have to lean into those things that we took for granted in the past, like the informal ‘water cooler’ conversations. We have to find new ways to make people feel connected and feel that they are valued members of the organizations.

CZ: Another trend that’s been accelerated by the pandemic is the increasingly consequential role of HR in many organizations. What are you hearing?

TB:  Over the past few months, HR has definitely been thrust really front and center. HR professionals have had learn about things like facility planning and personal protective equipment…and how to help people deal with fear and uncertainty. In a growing number of organizations, HR leaders are now expected to be active participants in executive decision-making. As one of our Board members said: “My CEO told me, I’m not making a move without you at the table.”

CZ: In this kind of environment, lifelong learning is more imperative than ever. That’s a mission of both the Northeast HR Association and the College of Professional Studies. What’s your advice to HR professional, regardless of the stage in their careers?

TB: I’m a little bit biased because I went back to graduate school. And it was such an invaluable experience for me!  Not only in terms of what I learned, but also the opportunity to build professional relationships. So, my advice is to go for it.

If you do, you will grow as a professional. And you will become more marketable. We are seeing the call for an advanced degree and professional certifications in more job listings than we did ten years ago in the HR space.

At the very least, be curious! If you’re not passionate about the industry that you’re working in, you shouldn’t be in that industry. Learn as much as you can about the business and the competencies you need to be an organizational leader, not just a functional expert.

To learn more about the Northeast HR Association, visit their website.

Posted by Carl Zangerl, Faculty

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