Five HR trends to watch in 2021

Deb Muller outlines the part that HR will play this year and beyond.

2020 was a tough year for everyone, including HR, employee relations and training professionals. As the pandemic spread across the planet, taking an incalculable toll on people’s lives and health, the economic impact forced companies to make massive operational changes to keep employees and customers safe and ensure business continuity.

So what will 2021 look like for HR professionals? Of course, none of us know the answer, and if there’s anything 2020 taught us, it’s to expect the unexpected. One key theme we’re certain will continue is the leading role HR will play in guiding our teams and organisations through what’s sure to be more change. Here’s a look at this and other trends we see for next year:

  1. The strategic elevation of HR and employee relations will continue. 2020 and the pandemic put HR and employee relations professionals front and centre with the management of remote workers suddenly, dealing with new health policies and managing unprecedented workplace change.

They’ll be leading the post-pandemic recovery too, making crucial decisions on who returns to the office while also creating strategies to protect employees’ mental and physical health. But COVID-19 only partly explains why employee relations became more strategically important in 2020 and will remain so in the years to come.

Employee activism connected with movements to counter racial injustice, eliminate harassment and advocate for diversity, equity and equality also require proactive leadership from HR and employee relations. Companies that get it right can strengthen employee loyalty, improve retention rates and create solid brand reputations. Strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs can help (more on that below).

  1. Community and collaboration will become even more critical. HR and employee relations professionals leaned on each other to help their companies manage the pandemic, sharing COVID-19 policies and playbooks. This trend will continue as we head into an uncertain new year that will require a strong community to share knowledge and work together on a cross-functional basis.

With events and in-person gatherings off the table until vaccines are widely distributed, HR and employee relations professionals will need to continue to actively network through virtual channels to share best practices, stay connected and continue moving forward.

  1. Communication will be vital. To counter the uncertainty and misinformation swirling around during 2020, the best HR and employee relations teams stepped up with frequent communication to keep employees informed and ensure safety. Communication also played a key role in HR’s work to address the mental health issues that spiked during the pandemic, which some experts have named the ‘second wave‘ of the public health crisis.

Though vaccine distribution is now underway, analysts say we’re months away from fully returning to ‘normal’, so communication will remain critical into the new year. Successful HR teams will use data-driven insights to identify at-risk employees who may need extra attention and support, ensure fairness and facilitate consistent dialogue to maximise organisational transparency. Leaders will need to be intentional, proactive and overcommunicate since most of the workforce is virtual. They should have regular check-ins with the entire team as well as individuals to make sure employees are okay.

  1. Data will drive greater accountability: Data has played an increasingly important role in driving business decision-making over the last several years, including in HR and that will continue in 2021. The pandemic accelerated digital transformation across the board, and HR teams will adopt new solutions to generate the data they need to deliver an outstanding employee experience based on fairness and trust.

HR leaders are looking for data that helps them identify positive or negative results linked to individual leaders, regions or initiatives, such as performance issues, diversity challenges and opportunities, etc. Data can help HR provide coaching where needed and expand or adjust programs. HR and employee relations professionals will also increasingly gather data on trends and patterns in employee behaviour to identify and address issues proactively. Predictive analytics can assist HR with identifying issues before they become widespread, improving accountability and consistency.

  1. Companies will move from commitment to action on DE&I: Related to the first point, success in the post-pandemic economy will require a strong, cohesive culture, which depends on employee trust and the company’s commitment to fairness. That’s why DE&I programs remain a priority for boards and the C-suite, which understand DE&I’s value in terms of productivity and brand equity. Now they’ll need to follow through on commitments and action plans made in 2020. They’ll need to benchmark where they stand today and measure progress going forward, making data-driven decisions that result in real change.

Companies can’t just be race-neutral today. They need to be anti-racist and actively engaged in rooting out discrimination of all types. To achieve that goal, companies will need to review their values, training, policies, vendor relationships, messaging and actions to ensure they actively address inequality. Moving into an active phase will require anti-racism and discrimination training for leaders so they have the knowledge and tools to handle allegations and lead by example. Training will be needed at all levels so that messaging is consistent across the organisation.

Driving change will require experienced HR and training personnel who can successfully lead discussions on difficult topics, including racial discrimination, harassment and unconscious bias. To support these professionals, companies can consider providing recognition, extra compensation and benefits.

It’s 2021, but flipping a page on the calendar won’t change anything by itself. At businesses around the world, it’s the HR, employee relations and training and development professionals who are driving real change, and they’ll continue to do so next year.

A common thread in these trends is the importance of data and analytics. HR leaders will rely on data to make strategic decisions, develop recovery policies, craft targeted communication, identify and address problems and create more equitable workplaces.

Next year will be pivotal, and HR leaders who have accurate data will be in a better position to build a strong workforce that can help the company meet the challenges and opportunities in the years to come.


About the author

Deb Muller is Founder & CEO of HR Acuity



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