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7 ways HR will look different in 2021

’Tis the season for predictions on the future. But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that predictions don’t always come true. 

7 ways HR will look different in 2021
[Photos: SeventyFour/iStock; Bogdan Todoran/Unsplash]
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No one in HR had “guide my company through a global pandemic” on their 2020 roadmap. Yet, that’s been the dominant driver for our year. 

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The events of 2020 laid bare the capabilities gap between best-in-class people teams and those still oriented around the legacy models. This year shattered the “future of work” prognostications and accelerated what were once future-oriented concepts to tangible tactics and approaches we’re implementing. 

The reality is our future is here now. It’s up to us, our executives, and our teams to embrace the new realities and possibilities and build anew for our present and future.

I’ve spent the last year researching, interviewing, and evaluating progressive HR and people teams for an upcoming book I’m publishing next month on Redefining HR. The reality is they think and operate very differently than their legacy-oriented contemporaries. These are some of the ways we can count on HR in these next-generation functions looking different as we enter the new year:

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1. HR will be broadly seen as a business function

The legacy stigmas of HR often pegged us as administrators, more focused on reactive transactional support then driving value for the business. 2020 shattered that stigma and elevated the function to one of the pivotal reasons companies floundered or flourished this year. 

For business with employees capable of working remotely, the early days of the pandemic saw many companies shift to distributed models, seemingly overnight. The logistics involved in pulling that off in the initial surge, then recalibrating all your employee programs to adapt for the long(er) haul is no small task. 

No one working in HR had faced anything like this before. There was no playbook or precedent at this scale. Yet, they found a way to pull it off. That’s not an administrative capability—that’s business continuity. 

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Many companies had to shift their very business models to account for our new pandemic reality. HR was called upon to ensure the organization’s talent capabilities and skills supported those shifts and enabled the pivots to help their businesses survive. 

In the early days of the pandemic there was a significant impact to businesses—most negative, but some positive. For instance, in March, CVS’s business was booming and they added 60,000 full and part-time employees. The talent team saw an opportunity to form unique partnerships and collaborated with over 60 companies who were laying off or furloughing employees. They built co-branded dedicated job boards so that impacted employees could retain income by taking advantage of the hiring boom at CVS.

The ability to stand up a massive program like this, including external partnerships, required a business acumen and ability to execute that far exceeds traditional views of what HR can bring to the business. 

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2. HR is now distributed by default

This only applies to companies with employees in roles suitable for remote work, but for those companies that are: Distributed is now your base state. Yes, offices will open again. No, they will not look like they did in January. 

Most of you will end up with hybrid models. You’ll have real estate, but your physical footprints will be smaller and their purpose will change. The challenge for HR is that of the three models (co-located, distributed, and hybrid), hybrid is the most difficult to successfully manage. But that’s where most companies with the ability to have remote employees will land in 2021 and beyond. 

To successfully support hybrid structures, you have to be really good at documentation and asynchronous communication so that every is operating on even terms. “Even though we don’t know when offices will be safe at high occupancies, what we do know is many people want to return to an office at some point.” says Dashlane Chief People Officer Ciara Lakhani. “Working in a hybrid remote and office fashion within teams is more challenging than the level playing field of everyone being remote.” 

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When we shifted to remote in the early days of the pandemic, most companies ported their “office” programs, procedures, etc. to remote. It was mostly cosmetic to account for the lack of office, as the systems remain rooted in their “in office” designs. 2020 will see us continue to redesign those systems with a more default distributed orientation so that employee experience is optimized regardless of location. 

3. Our employee wellness and benefits must now fully embrace mental health support

The emotional burden of 2020 will persist beyond the pandemic. Our employees will bear the invisible scars of this year spanning stress, loneliness, childcare and education struggles, depression, and addiction for years to come.

Companies will need to address this by offering employees benefits to ensure they’re supporting employees in these areas. Previously stigmas and silence typically left these benefits as a footnote, but HR leaders will need to prioritize ease of access and reinforce these benefits and resources beyond open enrollment. Some will even role model the support by sharing their own mental health struggles, like Mai Ton. A veteran CHRO of Silicon Valley, Ton stepped away after the stress of her role became too much. She shared her experience on Medium and is now writing a book detailing the unique stress and challenges of working in these fast-paced cultures.

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Effective HR departments will also invest more in manager training to ensure managers are better equipped to support their employees and advocate for their wellness. 

4. HR is becoming an agile function

Whether you’re practicing true agile methodologies with daily standups and the like, or engineering your systems and processes to be less rigid and more adaptable, the companies who best navigated 2020 were able to nimbly shift their priorities and programs to the volatile times they faced. 

The days of tried and true HR playbooks are done. They just weren’t built for the rapid changes and shifts we see today. Abandoning dogma is hard, but it’s much harder to rapidly reengineer massive embedded systems and structures. 

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Philz Coffee saw their business massively impacted during the pandemic. They had to quickly pivot their business strategy to account for the shutdowns and lack of traffic. Their Chief People Officer, Carolyn Frey, embraced agile approaches to overcome these challenges. “Our business was heavily and immediately impacted by COVID-19. Unlike other companies where the impact was felt weeks or months later, we felt the impact to our revenue on day one and were thrust into navigating uncharted waters to not only survive, but thrive. Out of this came quick adoption of agile practices up and down Philz. From our OKR process, budgeting, decision making, we are truly a better company that can flex quickly.”

5. Our thinking regarding diversity has broadened to inclusion, belonging, equity, and acknowledging systemic inequity 

George Floyd’s murder ignited a conversations within our society and our workplaces about racism, social justice, and systemic inequity. In a field where 67% of practitioners are white, HR must do a better job of being consciously focused on broadening their views on inclusion and representation to all aspects of the employee journey—not just hiring. Education and commitment is key to understanding, identifying, and addressing root causes of systemic inequity within their operations. 

This won’t be easy, but it must be a focus for HR in 2021 (and beyond) for the entire HR organization—not just the heads of diversity and inclusion. Box’s Chief Talent and Inclusion Officer Tiffany Stevenson recently shared her view on the moments of 2020 in the context of the broader social justice movement with me on my Redefining HR podcast. “A lot of the conversation within the DEI community is recognizing that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Nothing about this work is ever going to feel like a moment. Even though there have been some lightning rod moments this year, this is truly a movement.”

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While some companies have committed to real change in support of building more representative organizations, others have pushed back and committed to an apolitical approach, causing some past employees to speak out on discriminatory practices.

6. Our shift from silos to open-source is complete

Navigating your company through a once-in-a-generation pandemic is a lonely endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Last year, when I predicted how HR would look different in 2020, I spotlighted the shift from black box thinking to open-source collaboration. The early days of the pandemic illustrated the power of collaboration, as dozens of HR leaders shared their pandemic response plans and opened their templates, research, and thinking to each other. 

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The collective intellect HR leaders could now tap into significantly impacted their ability to make informed decisions for their businesses—quickly. The value and benefit of open-source practices have been proven and validated. Zero-sum, proprietary mindsets are now relegated to the dustbin of HR’s past.

7. We’ve retired the idea of separate “work/life” personas

Some companies saw the events of 2020 as a catalyst to lean into their humanity. Chime’s VP People and Talent explains. “One of Chime’s values is to be human. This has served us well during a difficult year and has shown the company that leading with empathy and vulnerability not only drive a good culture, but also produce business results. In the days following George Floyd’s murder we created an open space for our Black employees to meet privately with a facilitator, and if they chose to, share with the company how violence against Black people has impacted their lives. The understanding, empathy, and compassion from those personal stories brought us together and helped us better understand how they were experiencing the trauma of these events.”

It wasn’t long ago that “work life balance” was the buzzword du jour for HR. This outdated notion implies that our employees had two selves that they’d toggle between the moment they walked into our offices. 

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Last year as our thinking on diversity broadened to inclusion and belonging we began focusing more on the concept of employees bringing their “whole self” to work. This year, we actually experienced that. 

It’s hard to maintain the myth of work/life separation when they’re blended in a mashup of spotty wifi, barking dogs, and home school. 2020 shattered those legacy norms forever. We’ve seen our employees and leaders cry. We’ve curled up in a ball as we fought off our own burnout to try and support our executive peers, teams, and employees—often supporting our own needs last, if at all. 

This year showed us that leadership isn’t a persona, but a person. Flawed, vulnerable, messy, and real. Great leaders didn’t have all the answers and weren’t afraid to admit that.  

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As the field of HR navigates what’s to come it will do so with renewed clarity and focus on inventiveness and impact. We don’t know what 2021 has in store for us, but whatever it is, the lessons and lumps from 2020 will have us better positioned to meet those moments. 

About the author

Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify, an HR executive search and consulting firm that helps companies like Hootsuite, NPR, and SpaceX navigate the future of work. He is also the cofounder of the HR Open Source initiative.

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