As we move into 2021, it’s a good time to reflect on the lessons of this past year and consider what these mean for our future. So, what were the key takeaways from this year?
1. The office doesn’t have to be the workplace
Possibly the most significant change during the year was the recognition that working from home was possible for more people than had previously been thought. At the same time, being away from the office signified freedom for some, but for others, it created tremendous strains. Many organisations were caught short with no formal policy to support remote working, and ill-equipped resources to help those who struggled with this new reality.
Given a choice, it’s unlikely that so many companies would have embraced working from home, but circumstances have meant that even the most intransigent have had to adapt and amend their working practices.
Although there have been some suggestions that working from home will be the new norm., it is more likely that we will see organisations moving back to a healthy balance over time. Companies such as Google, Twitter and Capital One have already indicated that they will be retaining work from home options, but as mentioned, working from home does not suit everyone or every organisation.
The trend is likely to be a hybrid scenario where some employees chose, and are able to, work several days from home, whilst others elect to be back in the office environment. The key is that the choice won’t be about choosing a location for convenience, it will be about shared decisions between management and employees as to when a particular place best meets the need for productivity and engagement.
2. The employee experience has changed
Remote working and social-distancing have created a very different employee experience than that experienced before the pandemic. We took it for granted that employees interacted in and around the workplace, that recruitment was necessarily a face-to-face process and that activities such as onboarding and training involved groups of people gathered in rooms sharing knowledge and experiences.
Leaders have long promoted the need for team building activities, which often involve a range of physical tasks and challenges in competitively charged atmospheres.
And relationship building between colleagues was over lunch, coffees and through the ubiquitous office gossip.
HR has now had to re-envisage employee touchpoints and seek to replace with positive virtual experiences. The focus has been on well-being, work and home balance, interpersonal connection and collaboration.
One positive impact has been to create a more even playing field for communication across diverse employee groups or locations. Head office teams have been collaborating and interacting online with front office employees. Employees of all levels within the organisation have been on the same virtual calls to address business needs and to network.
Not only do these social interactions impact employee well-being, but they are fundamental to employee attraction and retention in the long term.
Changing how people interact and communicate is something that changes company culture. Even when more people return to the workplace, it seems inevitable that some of the new and less formal ways of communicating and interacting will remain, in most cases bringing in a healthier communication culture.
3. HR can, and must be, drivers for organisational change and success
As the pandemic took hold, HR was one of the first teams called upon to be agile and respond to the changing dynamics. Indeed, HR was at the forefront of driving change and devising and implementing new working practices, not only for employees but for HR itself.
Suddenly a situation that impacted the entire workforce and took away the freedom of choice meant that HR had to be centre-stage in providing the best way forward to meet business needs and also take care of employees. More than ever before, HR teams have had to embrace not only their operational role but also the need to ensure employee well-being and to support employees through challenging and life-altering experiences.
Keeping company culture and values at the centre of all activities has been an additional challenge for organisations faced with a remote and increasingly contingent workforce. Once again, HR is at the forefront of helping ensure that company values are embedded in communication, working practices and policies, behaviours and decision-making.
Core activities such as recruitment and performance management depended upon face-to-face personal interactions; now, these activities, along with core operational tasks, rely on IT systems. Along with the change in process, this requires significant up-skilling of HR teams in a condensed timeframe.
In short, HR teams now need to have digital skills and business acumen and must be agile, empathetic, comfortable with ambiguity and be innovative.
Another core HR future work skill is the ability to analyse data that is delivered by increased digitisation to help the organisations make better-informed decisions.
4. Personalisation has become real
Personalisation in the workplace has long been a topic of conversation, but organisations have struggled with what this means in practice. Organisations considered groupings of employees in terms of their age ranges – Gen X, Gen Y, Baby Boomers and Millennials – each having a list of traits that supposedly belong to everyone in the group.
One of the impacts of the pandemic has been to bring out the fundamental truth that employees of all ages can, and do, come together to face challenges and to collaborate and cooperate when given the opportunity. All employees share the need to have a purpose, to be given opportunities for development and growth, and to experience good leadership. Diversity in the workforce is much more subtle and more critical than merely focusing on which year the employee was born.
The ongoing challenge for HR is to meet individual needs within the whole. Some ways of meeting this challenge include improving communications, recognising skills outside of job roles, developing and rewarding empathetic leadership and being willing to identify and respond to individual interests and needs, for example with flexible compensation packages, adaptable working patterns, and enabling employees to influence their job roles.
The impact of remote working has increased focus on this area, and it is likely to continue to be a theme for HR in the coming year.
5. Increased digitisation
The HR function has had to embrace technology not as a “nice to have”, but as a critical transformational driver. From automating paper-based tasks to creating efficiencies in processes to facilitating self-service for employees, the HR function has had direct exposure to the impact of digitisation and automation on its ability to service both the organisation and the employee base.
A focus on digitisation is something that needs to continue into the coming year if HR is to be able to deliver on so many needs and finally have its rightful place at the business table.