The client’s perspective

Faced with recent high turnover of staff and a change in leadership, the Human Resources Office (HRO) of a federal program office was challenged with reassessing its organization in order to best serve its customers and keep its employees happy.

HRO is a small but essential group, with 12 employees managing HR functions for approximately 500 staff. HRO’s tasks include managing pay and benefits issues, performance-based actions, and employee grievances and appeals. Recently, however, it had experienced a high turnover of staff, including—critically—the position of HRO Director.

To keep serving its customers, HRO had been obliged to patch empty positions with temporary contractors and shift responsibilities among people. Over time, the stopgap measures had resulted in an unclear organizational structure and role discontinuity. As people left HRO, those who remained faced uncertainty and fluctuating workloads.

HRO recognized that its internal organizational struggles were beginning to have an impact not only on its own employees’ satisfaction, but also on how well they could serve customers within the program office. Specifically, customers did not know who the proper points of contact were for different needs, and responsiveness slowed while requests were rerouted. HRO sought a fresh take on solving their challenges, and decided to bring Eagle Hill aboard to explore new organizational design options that would address current structural challenges and better position HRO for the future.

A new view

The organization wanted to move quickly in order to provide the next director with a more solid organizational footing when he or she came aboard. With just seven weeks from project start to finish, Eagle Hill had little time to acclimate. Getting to informed analysis and final product in the required timeframe would require us to move forward with discipline and energy.

Our work was structured in three phases: Discovery, Assess, and Recommend. The Discovery phase gave us a handle on the “as-is” situation. In a series of interviews with leadership of both HRO and the program office, we began to break apart the challenges. We baselined the current state of the organization, then refined our understanding of how the division was actually structured under normal operating conditions, including defining the proper responsibilities of each HRO role.

During the Assess phase, we analyzed the current-state structure and staff work drivers, quantifying how many tasks each role controlled and how much time was spent on each. During this phase, we knew that the opportunity for staff to provide feedback was critical, but also that we needed to corral that feedback into constructive channels. Interviewing a few key personnel and surveying the larger staff allowed us to extract significant insights.

For example, we found that in the absence of consistent HRO leadership, a flat organizational structure had grown. This lack of a reporting hierarchy was at the heart of many of the organizational challenges. We also found an overly heavy emphasis on HR specialists, rather than generalists, meaning that when employees left, other employees did not always have the necessary understanding of the full spectrum of HR processes to effectively fill in. We benchmarked our findings against both published metrics and information we had gathered on successful practices in human resources offices in other parent agencies.

Finally, the Recommend phase channeled these key findings into two proposed organizational designs—one immediately practicable, the other more forward-reaching. To provide choice and flexibility, both designs had elements that could be taken and combined in different ways. Common to both approaches was the need for a more explicit hierarchy and delineated responsibilities, improved generalization of roles through cross-training, and full leverage of all 12 positions to lessen reliance on contractors. In addition to the designs and functional details of each model, Eagle Hill summarized key recommendations and next steps to prepare HRO for future success.

An unconventional approach—and breakthrough results

Eagle Hill brought an unconventional lens to the problem, and was able to present options that HRO had never considered. For example, one innovative option divided the organization into small “core service teams” along natural points of coordination, which would help to build collaboration and cross-training organically. People on teams would get to share skills, which in turn would lead to a stronger system of backups for key functions.

Eagle Hill’s iterative approach, which built upon weekly meetings with HRO leadership, built consensus for the proposed models as they developed. We refined as we went along to ensure no surprises (and no budget overruns) at the end of the very tight 7-week turnaround. The right amount of communication meant leadership always knew where we were in the project and what was happening next. Moreover, our smooth progress on the main task also freed Eagle Hill to create additional unexpected value for the client in the form of benchmarking studies against three peer organizations. The client cited these studies as a unique and unexpected value add.

HRO was also impressed by recommendations we made for the future—namely, improving documentation of standard operating procedures and processes for its HR group as a springboard for process improvement. Other recommendations included a customer service survey and other performance management improvements, and new training for staff that would prepare HRO well in advance for both anticipated surges in demand and unexpected future gaps. We also suggested ways to engage HRO staff more fully through short “pulse” surveys that would allow staff to provide feedback to leadership more often.

Finally, we added a follow-up meeting after the conclusion of our work, and after a new director was hired. While not required, we felt it was important for the new director to hear our recommendations firsthand and be given the opportunity to ask questions on her final organizational design choice.

HRO valued the Eagle Hill team’s organization, thoughtfulness, proactivity, and interpersonal skills. We exceeded expectations, providing a highly regarded end result after just seven weeks. As a result, HRO is now in a strong position to move forward with a more effective organizational design.