Adapting to Change in the Workplace as an HR Department of One

17 Aug 2022

Being a Human Resources professional has never been easy. Yet, when you're an HR department of one, things can very often feel more than just difficult: they can be downright overwhelming.

How to fly solo as an HR pro? And even more importantly, how to adapt to unavoidable change when you're the only HR person in your company?

In this article, we take a closer look at what is expected from Human Resources in modern workplaces, as well as how HR departments of one can adjust to shifting situations.

The Role of Human Resources in Modern Workplaces

The term "Human Resources" is often used interchangeably with "personnel", yet the role of HR in contemporary organizations has become much more strategic. What used to be a department mostly connected to hiring (and the paperwork associated with it), legal matters regarding employees, and sometimes handling payroll, is now expected to contribute to an organization's business strategy.

In order for this to happen, Human Resources departments must move beyond their traditional functions and embrace a more proactive stance when it comes to talent management, employee engagement, and leadership development.

More specifically, Human Resources professionals are now responsible for:

  • Creating a positive workplace culture
  • Identifying future leaders in the organization
  • Improving employee satisfaction and retention
  • Supporting employees through change
  • Attracting talent (sometimes from a global pool of candidates)
  • Ensuring compliance with employment laws
  • Developing and implementing employee benefit programs
  • Ensuring your workplace environment is agile and that it stimulates productivity
  • ...And more

As you can see, the role of Human Resources has changed dramatically in recent years. And while this expanded set of responsibilities offers HR professionals more opportunities to make a real difference in their organizations, it also means that they often have to buckle up and handle a lot of tasks all on their own.

This is especially true in startup environments, where most departments are in an incipient phase and clear organizational structures aren't properly defined yet. However, it can happen in medium and even large-sized companies, depending on the specific situation.

What Is an HR Department of One?

In short, an HR department of one is exactly what it sounds like: a company's Human Resources department that consists of a single professional.

As shown in the previous section, all of the things the Human Resources department has to handle are, well, a lot. They're a lot for one full department -- not to mention a single person that has to juggle everything (plus whatever emergencies land on their plate.)

Of course, this doesn't mean that this person has to do everything on their own from start to finish. A big part of their job is delegating tasks and projects to different members of the organization, as well as freelancers they might be working with.

Even so, things can very easily spin out of control if you don't pay attention.

hr team having an interview

Challenges of Being an HR Department of One 

The challenges of being the only HR professional in your company are numerous and, unfortunately, they're not always foreseeable. However, there are some common issues a lot of solo HRs have to face:

You Might Have to Put Out Fires Instead of Working on Long-Term Projects

Since you're the only person in charge of Human Resources, you're also the one that has to take care of any emergencies that might come up.

For example, imagine one of your employees comes to you and tells you they're being harassed by a coworker. Of course, you can't just ignore this -- you have to take action immediately to stop the harassment and make sure your employee feels safe at work. This means that, unfortunately, any

You Will Have to Wear Many Hats

In most cases, being the only HR professional in your company also means you'll have to take on many different roles and responsibilities.

For example, you might be in charge of hiring new employees, but you'll also be the one conducting their onboarding process and training them on company culture and values.

Likewise, you might be in charge of creating and implementing employee benefit programs, but you'll also be the one managing payroll and keeping track of vacation days.

The list goes on and on. And while it's certainly not impossible to juggle all of these different tasks, it can be difficult to stay on top of everything -- especially if you're not used to handling so many different responsibilities.

You Might Feel Isolated

Another common challenge of being an HR department of one is feeling isolated from the rest of the company. After all, you're the only person in your department, which means you might not have anyone to bounce ideas off of or talk to about your work.

This can be a big problem, especially if you're facing a difficult situation at work and you need some guidance.

Of course, there are ways to overcome this feeling of isolation (which we'll discuss in more detail below,) but it's still something that solo HR professionals have to deal with on a regular basis.

You Will Have to Manage Change

The last couple of years have reinforced the importance of being able to manage change effectively in the workplace. After all, we've seen firsthand how quickly things can change -- and how difficult it can be for organizations to keep up.

This is a challenge for HR departments of all sizes, but it can be especially difficult for those that consist of a single professional.

After all, you'll be the one responsible for leading your company through any changes that come up, whether it's a new employee benefits program or a complete rebranding of the company.

colleagues working together

Managing Change in the Workplace as an HR Department of One

Of all the challenges an HR person has to handle, change is frequently seen as the hardest. Even as a department of one, things can go smoothly when you have a solid plan on what to do next -- but when everything is flipped upside down, it can be tough to maintain composure and manage the situation effectively.

Here are a few tips on how you can manage change in your workplace as an HR department of one:

Be Proactive Instead of Reactive

When it comes to managing change in the workplace, it's important to be proactive instead of reactive. This means that you should always be on the lookout for any changes that might be coming down the pipeline, and you should start preparing for them as soon as possible.

For example, let's say you know your company is going to be downsizing in the near future. Instead of waiting until the layoffs are announced to start working on a plan, you should start thinking about how you're going to handle the situation right away.

This way, you can be ready with a plan of action as soon as the news is announced, and you won't have to scramble to figure out what to do next.

Communicate Early and Often

Another important tip for managing change in the workplace is to communicate early and often with your employees. This is vital for two reasons: first, it will help ensure that everyone is on the same page about what's happening; and second, it will give people a chance to voice any concerns they might have.

For example, let's say you're planning on implementing a new employee benefits program. If you wait until the last minute to tell your employees about it, they might not have enough time to understand all of the details -- and they might be less likely to participate.

On the other hand, if you start communicating the details of the program well in advance, you'll give your employees a chance to ask questions and learn more about what's happening.

Get Input From Others

When you're the only person in your department, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut and only rely on your own opinion. However, it's important to get input from others when you're managing change in the workplace.

For example, if you're considering implementing a new employee tracking system, it might be a good idea to get input from the people who will be using it on a daily basis.

They might have some valuable insights that you didn't consider, and they can help you make sure that the system is as user-friendly as possible.

Ask For Help

As mentioned before, you really don't have to go through the process of managing change in the workplace alone. In fact, it's often a good idea to ask for help from others, whether it's your boss or a trusted colleague. 

Also, keep in mind that technology can really be your best friend, as it can help you automate manual tasks, bring some order into your life (and that of your organization), and provide you with the workplace analytics you need to make solid decisions henceforth.

For example, if you're feeling overwhelmed by an upcoming change, it might be helpful to sit down with your boss and discuss the situation. They might be able to provide you with some valuable insights, or they might even be able to help you delegate some of the tasks involved.

team cheering and encouraging themselves

Tips for the Management: How to Support a One-Person HR Department

As a founder, CEO, or COO, you want to make sure your team succeeds. Their wins are your wins (and the other way around). So you'll want to do everything in your power to give your employees the support they need to make things happen.

For instance, if you only have one Human Resources person in your company, you will have to understand that their jobs are different from everyone else's.

The one-person HR department is responsible for everything from hiring and onboarding to benefits and compliance. They wear many hats, and they have a lot on their plate. Here are a few tips on how you can support your one-person HR team:

Make Sure They Have the Resources They Need

One of the most important things you can do to support your one-person HR team is to make sure they have the resources they need to do their job. This includes things like a budget for office supplies, access to the latest HR software, and a dedicated workspace.

In addition, you'll want to make sure they have enough time to do their job. This means giving them the flexibility to work from home when they need to, and making sure they're not being pulled into too many meetings.

Studies show that ignoring HR (or, more specifically, their involvement in making sure you have the right team) is one of the leading causes of failure for startups. So even if you run a small business right now, make sure you do invest in your HR department and give them all the resources they need – it might make the biggest difference down the road. 

Encourage Them to Automate Repetitive Tasks

Some tools can make an HR's life easier. For instance, an applicant tracking system or an employee self-service portal can save them precious time, so they can focus on other elements of their job (such as building the organizational culture).

Be Understanding

Since the one-person HR department has a lot on their plate, it's important that you're understanding when things come up. For example, if they're dealing with a complex benefits issue, they might need some extra time to resolve it. Or if they're in the middle of onboarding a new hire, they might not be able to respond to your questions as quickly as you'd like.

It's important to be understanding and patient, as this will show that you trust and respect the work they're doing.

Be Available

While it's important to give your one-person HR team the space they need to do their jobs, it's also important that you're available when they need you. This might mean sitting down with them on a regular basis to discuss the progress of various projects or being available to answer questions as they come up.

Final Thoughts: Is There an Ideal Size for an HR Department?

Managing change in the workplace is as far from easy as anything could be. The stress, the (often sudden) shifting directions, the uncertainty -- they can put a toll on anyone. Human Resources pros tend to find themselves in the eye of the storm whenever major changes occur, so things can be even more difficult for them -- and even more so if they're a one person department.

If you find yourself in this situation, you should buckle up for the ride. The downside is that even with all the planning in the world, you will still have to be ready to hop over a few bumps in the road. The upside is that you will gain a lot of experience and grow a lot as a professional.

At the end of the day, your mindset can make a huge difference in how you perceive your position as an HR department of one. Understanding that you play a vital role in the success of your company can help you see things in a different light. And while it's not always easy, remember that you have the power to make a real difference in the lives of your employees.

Don't get stuck on the idea that you're just one person. Push through, learn as much as you can, and be the best HR professional you can be. Yes, ideally, HR departments need more people (and the number depends on how many employees there are.) But getting stuck on the fact that, at least for now, you're dancing solo will only deter you from doing all the amazing things you can do.

Because, yes, even as the only HR person in your organization, you can make a huge difference!

Topics: Human resources

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