Two years ago, as I was wrapping up a year-long Fast Company series on 21st century HR, I closed the year by writing about how the world of HR would change in 2020. Then came the global pandemic, renewed conversations on racial equity and social justice, and a massive shift toward the digitization of work that accelerated many of those predictions.
The past two years have been a rollercoaster for the field of HR. We’ve been tasked with leading our organizations through a once-in-a-generation pandemic, designing and modifying (and modifying again) return-to-workplace plans, creating new “people ops in the cloud” remote models of working, and more.
The duality of this era of transition is profound. HR and people functions have been elevated to a status we’ve long sought, as we’ve been essential to navigating all of the turmoil of the past year. That’s led to an 87% increase in demand, according to Indeed. On the other side, the emotional toll this centrality is taking has led to high levels of burnout, and experienced executives transitioning out of operator roles. The weight of these responsibilities—plus the stress and uncertainty of their leaders, teams, and employees—is a counterweight to this increase in status and demand.
Listen to HR practitioners’ stories about navigating their role in the pandemic here.
As the field of HR and people operations looks ahead to 2022 we do so with a clearer focus on the changes we face and our role in driving this continued evolution in the world of work. We’ve grown more comfortable with the ambiguity that permeates the pandemic and understand the need for agile approaches that can adapt to our new constantly evolving world of work.
The field of HR is a spectrum with some still operating in legacy environments that are largely transactional and others with more progressive and proactive practices. These are some of the ways HR will begin to look different in 2022 for that latter group:
When the pandemic swept the globe in March of 2020 the world of work went remote overnight, porting their office-based communications and collaboration systems to digital ones. It wasn’t pretty, but we figured it out. 2021 brought hope of a “return to workplace” as vaccines rolled out and visions of pre-pandemic offices seemed to be on the horizon. Then new variants emerged and postponed those plans sending us back into cycles of uncertainty.
The working models of remote and hybrid we’ve been reliant on for the past two years have largely been office-centric frameworks ported to digital. Meetings remain the core way work gets done. Our efforts to create equity and parity for those coming into an office and their remote colleagues have been largely inconsistent.
As we move into 2022, the companies that successfully navigate this new work landscape will be much more intentional about re-engineering their HR operating systems and structures to be more cloud-based. We’ll get better at moving away from synchronous work and be more intentional in re-orienting to asynchronous as a default operating model. The “meetings that should have been emails” cliché will actually lead to more emails. We’ll use tools like Loom to send video messages that describe in 5 minutes what usually takes a 30-minute meeting. When we have meetings they’ll be thoughtfully structured, with agendas, pre-read materials sent in advance, and include only those who are necessary to move that project forward.
HR used to follow a one-size-fits-all approach. Not anymore. Over the last two years, we’ve done a lot of listening to our employees to better understand how they’re doing, what they need, and more. This awareness has refocused the field of HR toward employee experience and is allowing us to co-create programs with employees—not just for them.
Working through the pandemic reinforced the reality that different employees have different needs. Some are desperate to return to the office. Some will never return. Some want the power to choose when and where they work. Companies that empower employees with the autonomy to make decisions that best suit them will have a clear advantage.
Equity, Inclusion, and Access
The past decade has seen our approach broaden beyond “diversity” to include equity, inclusion, belonging, and access. Following George Floyd’s murder, Tech giants committed $3.8 billion dollars toward racial equity initiatives. But has this had a meaningful impact on driving change?
The field of HR still has a lot of work to do in uprooting the systems of inequity that permeate our companies—from pay equity to board representation. While some companies have made antiracist commitments, others seem to have settled back into past habits.
The shift to remote and hybrid work is also impacting our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Removing geographic constraints opens the talent pool and creates more access to talent and that’s having a positive impact on hiring. As more companies embrace remote constructs, HR teams must be more mindful and intentional about maintaining equity within these new distributed teams.
Talent Mobility Continues
We’ve spilled plenty of ink covering the Great Resignation and have felt the pain of the spiking attrition within our companies. Underneath the tumult what’s really happening is a “great migration” as industry analyst and writer Josh Bersin effectively frames it.
The current job market is white-hot. Recruiter jobs postings are outpacing software engineers, as companies battle for an edge in this hyper-competitive hiring market. The “war for talent” now transcends technology and is expanding to fields including retail, where employers are offering previously rare perks, like signing bonuses. According to the U.S. Labor Department job openings have topped 10 million for five straight months.
Today, 45% of full-time U.S. employees are working partly or fully remotely. While that number may drop as more companies implement return to workplace plans in 2022, it will remain a significant portion of our workforce. The percentage of employers offering remote or hybrid work significantly reduces the hiring friction. The ease of virtual interviews and hiring will continue to fuel talent migration in 2022. To offset this, companies must double down on building great places to work—prioritizing career growth, flexibility, learning & development, and total rewards programs that attract and retain talent.
The Metaverse is Coming
Facebook made waves earlier this year when they changed their name to Meta, a nod to their plans to invest in expanding into the metaverse. While virtual reality isn’t new, the barriers of access (mostly hardware) continue to lower, opening up more use cases for HR and people operations.
As companies who’ve migrated to remote and hybrid struggle to fill the void of watercooler moments and live meetings, the metaverse will help bridge that analog-digital divide. Companies like Remote and Accenture are sending new hires Oculus VR headsets for a range of uses from onboarding, training, meetings; to more casual always-on spaces where employees can connect, play games, and watch live events together.
Web3 On Our Radar
The metaverse is often bundled with the nascent world of web3. While we won’t see widespread implications for HR yet, we should be paying attention as this develops. Collectively, web3 includes a mix of technology, open standards, cryptocurrency, blockchain, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), Decentralized Finance (DeFi) communities, and a new creator economy.
You may have learned about DAOs several months ago when ConstitutionDao, a “financial flash mob”, was narrowly outbid to purchase a copy of the constitution. In terms of HR implications, the shared ownership and transparency of DAOs could have broader implications including narrowing the pay gap.
Crypto is already in play for some companies including Airbnb, Uber, Facebook, and others who offer employees cryptocurrencies as an option for wages or bonuses. HR needs to navigate the legal and tax complexities when offering crypto as wages, including a mix of state and federal guidelines on how wages must be paid.
The Great Reset
The pandemic has upended many of the long-held industrial era constructs of work itself. The when, where, and how work happens has evolved beyond those limited legacy views of 9-5’s in the office. Sure, there will always be traditionalists who want to return to a pre-pandemic era of work that no longer exists. They will be at the companies struggling to attract and retain talent in 2022 and beyond.
The great reset requires HR to examine our practices, shed the ones that no longer serve our companies and employees, and build anew for some of the new constructs of work detailed above. It requires a shift away from prescribed playbooks of HR programs and a willingness to pilot and adopt new practices. It will be centered on employee experience and co-created with our employees.
The days of HR being a back-office function are over. Our generational opportunity to redefine work itself is directly in front of us. Can we meet this moment? I believe we can. We’ll see how far we’ve come in next year’s post.