The HR Opportunity for 2021

businessman facing steps to opportunity

Nobody really believed that turning the calendar page to January 1, 2021 would bring significant and immediate change to the world we found ourselves in for most of last year. If the first couple of weeks of 2021 are any indication, the first and second quarter of this year will most likely look a lot like the fourth quarter of last year.

However, we are beginning to exhale a little and make some headway. Organizations have found ways to effectively manage their remote workforce and think differently as they adjust to their new environments. COVID restrictions are slowly lifting and vaccines are beginning to be distributed―although it may take longer than anticipated. These steps forward may be incremental, but they are heading in the right direction.

At the beginning of the crisis, HR played a critical role in many organizations by helping to manage the immediate COVID-19 response and keeping the workforce and organization engaged and productive. As difficult as this situation was for many companies, it did provide HR with an opportunity to demonstrate its value and the importance of investing in robust HR talent, processes and structures.

But now that we have moved away from crisis mode, we still see many of the pre-COVID issues HR has wrestled with in the past. More specifically, the disconnect between how HR perceives its own performance and the role it plays in an organization and what the role of HR should actually be. This can be exacerbated as we look toward charting a course for recovery coming out of 2020.

Bridging the Gaps

According to a recent Oracle survey, most HR professionals view their function as highly productive while fewer than half of the respondents believe that HR function boosts employee performance. So, the key question is how can a function that is perceived as doing little to boost employee performance actually be seen as productive, especially when it is largely responsible for people initiatives?

Many will say two of HR’s biggest gaps are leveraging HR analytics and improving the overall employee experience. This is nothing new, but the sense of urgency to address these gaps has increased significantly as more organizations scramble to contain costs, retain talent and survive the pandemic’s impact in the long term. These critical competencies enable business leaders to make better informed decisions in areas such as talent acquisition process, workforce planning, compensation, internal movement, and promotions. Done correctly, they also mitigate risks, ensure compliance, enhance competitive advantage, and inspire innovation. And during a pandemic crisis, they give organizational leadership the ability to quickly react and keep employees safe, engaged, and retained.

Critical Skill Sets

Business acumen and basic execution skills also need to be further enhanced. Historically, this has been an uncomfortable place for many HR professionals. It’s getting better, but having a basic financial literacy, including an understanding of key concepts such as profit, revenue, sales, and an awareness of those factors that can impact key business metrics, is critical. An understanding of the internal and external forces (e.g. internal supply chains, industry sustainability, economic impacts) that influence company performance is also vital.

As a practical matter, these skills will come into play with workforce management and planning activities, many of which have now moved to a remote basis for the foreseeable future. HR will need to identify and develop new and more effective ways to recruit, onboard, develop, and plan for succession. These skills will become especially critical as organizations, once again, navigate many of the pre-COVID challenges such as aging workforces, change management, outsourcing opportunities, leadership development, and diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Skillsets that were once highly valued in a pre-COVID, work-in-the-office environment may not be as critical going forward. Also, given the events of the last several months, employees may feel they have been put “on hold” until the organization fought its way out of the pandemic. Now that the immediate crisis has passed, HR will need the necessary skills to help organizations navigate this changed landscape and assess how to effectively identify and address these issues – especially employee engagement and productivity.

And HR leaders must have the ability to pivot as it’s unclear what the work landscape will look like after the pandemic in the long term. Geography may no longer play a critical role in recruiting as it did before. There may be impacts on compensation. But the entire workforce will not work from home forever. In all likelihood, some type of hybrid model may emerge. HR must be prepared and flexible enough to address these changes and ensure that operating leaders have the necessary skills at effectively managing, developing, and providing performance feedback under these emerging models.

Leading the Way

As shocking as the COVID-19 crisis was, it also introduced a rare opportunity for HR to rebuild and take the lead in driving organizational stability and strength. Now that we are past the “reaction” phase, HR needs to capitalize on this opportunity and not only reimagine its own future, but also the future of the businesses it supports.

Paul Jeffers
Vice President & Practice Leader, HR Consulting
CCI Consulting

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