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Future of work: what are the priorities for HR leaders in 2021?

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As we wave goodbye to one of the most challenging working years on record for HR professionals, what can we expect from the year ahead? Here, we talk to Ania Krasniewska Shahidi, Head of Global Advisory for HR, Gartner, about how the HR landscape is likely to change in 2021.

31st Dec 2020
Editor HRZone
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Ania Krasniewska Shahidi leads Gartner’s advisory team for CHRO and HR clients, serving over 1,200 large company HR functions and over 1,600 mid-sized organisations. This year, Gartner surveyed more than 800 human resources leaders across 60 countries and all major industries to identify HR trends and assess HR priorities and expected challenges for 2021.

The biggest transformation we are likely to see as a result of the pandemic is companies finally breaking with traditional work models.

The results indicate a profession that is in the midst of rapid transformation, as we collectively try to envision what the future workplace will look like and maintain a positive employee experience throughout. So what do we have to plan for this year, and how can we keep the course steady for our employees during these turbulent times?

The survey reveals that HR leaders’ number one priority in 2021 is building critical skills and competencies. In a period of uncertainty and rapid change, how can HR leaders build an effective approach to upskilling and reskilling their people?

Most organisations find that less than half of the skills they train for ever actually get applied on the job, and that many skills requirements for a role will change over the coming years. We find that learning departments are spinning their wheels, spending their budgets but not achieving the impact they need.

In many cases, companies will make bold predictions on the ‘skills of the future’ and find that they don’t materialise. While it’s positive that businesses are planning for the future, we believe these organisations would be better served by adopting a ‘dynamic’ approach to identifying future skills. We find they can ensure up to 75% of the skills they train for are applied when doing so.

A dynamic approach involves:

  • Setting up a skills network to understand how skills needs are changing and what adjacent skills are available.
  • Using skills accelerators to develop skills at the time of need.
  • Empower employees to make informed skills decisions dynamically, i.e. finding opportunities to learn from each other rather than relying on traditional training.

Comparing this year’s results with 2019, are there any standout differences in priorities that can be attributed to the pandemic?

There are three main differences from 2019 that we can attribute to the pandemic in many organisations:

  • Growing the business continues to be important but we see it accelerating throughout the year, along with an equivalent emphasis on containing costs – this is reflective of financial positions companies are facing and the desire to be as judicious as possible with resources given the length of the pandemic.
     
  • Reactions and concerns about change are front and centre as well – again in a much more concentrated way than before. This manifests itself with organisations being concerned that their manager bench might not be prepared to lead through this kind of change – transformation really – and worry about employees being able to absorb much more change of this magnitude, especially given that the pandemic impacts our personal lives as well as our professional lives.
     
  • We have a significant rise of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) concerns across the board, but it manifests itself most clearly in the high-ranking category around leadership and future leadership.  Organisations are committing or recommitting to DEI efforts, and yet only 12% are confident that they know how to increase representation well. Organisations are often putting much of their DEI efforts into programmes aimed at ‘fixing’ individuals, rather than rebuilding systems that perpetuate DEI shortcomings.

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Next year, people and OD teams will be heavily focused on redesigning the way teams function and collaborate to flex and remain resilient. Can you share any insights on what these new approaches/models could look like?

The biggest transformation we are likely to see as a result of the pandemic is companies finally breaking with traditional work models in terms of where, when and how much work gets done by an employee.  

Employees are experiencing much more autonomy in these decisions during the remote work era, and are unlikely to give it up once the pandemic concludes. Businesses can use this to their advantage, however. When radical flexibility occurs, they can grow their high performing employee populations from about 36% to 55%.  

What this means in terms of design is that post pandemic, not all work will be mandated in the office. There will likely be more flexibility in work shifts or ‘work blocks’ so that working hours can be matched up with highest quality output, and employee expectations are changing around the idea of working a standard week for standard pay – some will do less for less and some might do more for more. Breaking the traditional schedule gives companies flexibility to have workflow match up with actual needs.

The Black Lives Matter movement this year has sparked a renewed focus on workplace diversity and inclusion. How are CHROs planning to tackle the lack of D&I in their organisations?

We have definitely seen companies prioritise diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) unlike ever before in the last 12 months. In most cases, however, this has been in the form of public statements rather than any kind of action. This lack of action is actively disengaging employees, and it is therefore imperative that companies show some form of measurement or accountability.  

Right now, almost every major talent process system – covering everything from promotions, succession planning, recruiting, performance management and pay equity – has been reported to have significant bias. CHROs should prioritise tackling these systems to progress on DEI goals.

Many organisations will be formulating plans for a new hybrid model of working as they come out of the pandemic. How can HR ensure this new way of working enhances the employee experience?

We have an opportunity to redefine work in a way that benefits both employees and employers, increasing the quality of that experience for both. We can build deeper connections with our employees, by realising that their work and life experiences are intertwined. One directly impacts the other, and we should be thinking about how we can help employees in their personal lives, including their families and communities, as well as helping them in work.

Not only are you going to improve the mental, physical and financial health of employees, but you’ll also reward the business with happier and higher performing employees, whilst improving overall prospects within the job market – our employees are better off. By building this better, more humanised employee experience, you can shift from moving along a static line over who's winning in the deal between employees and employers, and move to a new frontier where we're all better off.

Finally, what three helpful tips would you give to people leaders as they continue to grapple with ongoing change whilst planning and designing new ways of working?

For those grappling with change, we would offer the following three tips:

  1. Recognise that speed of change is real, and that as we evaluate its impact on ourselves and our employees, we must be mindful of volume, disruption and exertion. By keeping all categories top of mind, organisations will have a better view into how employees are likely to accept, implement and adapt to change.
     
  2. Involve your employees in change planning – many companies make the mistake of incorporating employees too late into the process, only to find that solutions don’t match the problem or that solutions are obsolete because things have yet again changed.  Those closest to the work are best positioned to craft new processes; additionally, leaders can build in buy in and ownership through the iteration process.
     
  3. Support employees through change. Communication and transparency help in these efforts. Often, leaders are hesitant to communicate as they don’t have all answers, however, that doesn’t mean employees aren’t already taking about it. Make it ok to discuss change, to air frustration productively, and to ask questions.  Be prepared to support employees with additional services without stigma, such as in the mental and financial wellbeing space.  

So it seems that, as we enter 2021, we’ll all still be getting to grips with the state of transformation we find ourselves in and it will take all our resilience and agility to manage a smooth transition for our people. After the year we’ve just had, however, we’re all much better prepared to expect the unexpected.  

Interested in this topic? Read How can HR learn to live with Covid-19 and plan for more uncertainty in 2021?

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