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5 HR Trends to Follow in 2021

December 15, 2020
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Last December, we published our first-ever HR predictions. But then 2020 had different things in mind.

While we predicted that remote work would inch closer to the mainstream, we didn’t expect a pandemic to force 70% of companies to send employees home overnight. We also couldn’t have predicted the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I).

So what’s in store for the year ahead? Here are five People strategy trends we expect to see in the spotlight in 2021.

1. After an emotionally exhausting year, HR teams give mental health a fresh look.

The last twelve months challenged us in ways that transcend work. This pandemic cost millions of people their livelihoods, or worse yet, loved ones. In Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report, leaders ranked “emotional exhaustion” as one of their top-three challenges this year. That collective trauma doesn’t just disappear on New Year’s Day.

“We’re seeing a shift in how employees view mental health. It’s no longer a binary category where you either have a mental illness or you don’t. Most of us went through some emotional and mental challenges this year,” said Julie Gurican, Senior Director of People at BenchPrep. In 2021, companies will reexamine their mental health offerings and pay close attention to user adoption. Employee assistance program (EAP) utilization has historically been low, so HR leaders may need to change attitudes about seeking help.

“HR leaders saw a significant change in their job descriptions in 2020... Part of that is now needing to lean in on normalizing mental health in the workforce, ensuring employees know it’s okay to not always be okay at work,” Gurican said. Companies will also need to offer employees more ways to address mental health challenges, complementing their EAPs with mindfulness initiatives, grief counseling, and additional mental health days.

2. The pandemic stalled development — so career growth initiatives go into overdrive.

If you started the year with career-oriented New Year’s resolutions, there’s a good chance those got put on hold. Furloughs and economic uncertainty made it hard to focus on anything other than keeping your head above water. Companies continued to press on with performance reviews and goal-setting to demonstrate their commitment to employees’ growth, but let’s face it: It’s hard to compete for employees’ attention amid a pandemic, historic social movement, and presidential election.

In 2021, companies will look to get career-development back on track. In the State of People Strategy Report, HR teams ranked learning and development (L&D) as one of their top four priorities. Within L&D, survey respondents listed manager enablement, career pathing, and leadership training as focus areas.

The fact that employees helped businesses survive, weathering emotional burnout and putting growth on hold, also means businesses owe them, big time. “Today’s workers expect more reciprocity. Their work is contributing to the success of the company, and they want the company to contribute to their long-term success in return,” said Matt Erhard, Managing Partner at Summit Search Group.

Use our 2021 HR Planning Calendar to stay ahead of important compliance deadlines, workplace holidays, and more.

3. Hybrid and remote work make tracking engagement even more critical. 

It’s hard to deny the upsides of remote work: It makes some individuals more productive and may have broader economic benefits. But even hybrid work’s most vocal fans can’t deny it makes it harder to read how employees are feeling. Unable to lean on in-person interaction and non-verbal cues, HR teams and managers need to take a more intentional approach to engagement and morale in 2021.

“Right now, companies are having a really difficult time getting a pulse on what’s happening within their organizations,” said Jana Morrin, CEO of Speakfully. Earlier this year, Lattice’s COVID-19 Response Research Report found that companies were increasingly relying on employee engagement and pulse surveys to track sentiment. Some even organized crisis response surveys, asking about short-term challenges relating to motivation, communication, and tech enablement.

Hybrid work isn’t going anywhere, and companies will continue investing in employee surveys, ongoing feedback, and other technology-backed solutions. They’ll also leverage manager one-on-ones to keep relationships warm and get ahead of attrition or mental health risks. “Given all that we’ve been through in the past year, it’s going to be a priority for organizations to give employees a way to speak up,” Morrin said. 

4. People and DE&I teams reach out to working mothers after a tumultuous year.

It’s not a stretch to predict that workplaces will pursue DE&I with a renewed focus in 2021. The police killing and murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans forced society and workplaces to face systemic racism and inequality. Indeed, Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report revealed that 60% of HR professionals are in the process of expanding their DE&I initiatives.

Next year, companies will continue to invest in employee resource groups (ERGs), diverse hiring, and unconscious bias training. In addition to focusing their efforts on Black employees and other underrepresented groups, they’ll hone in on another population: women and working mothers.

“One area where we need to work hard is equity and inclusion for women, especially mothers,” said Jessica Lim, HR Manager at MyPerfectResume. Unemployment among women reached record highs this year, with many having to put their careers on hold to meet childcare and schooling needs. “I believe that women took on most of the load during this pandemic as they had to quickly face the challenges of household responsibilities and childcare, all while working from home,” Lim said.

In 2021, companies will broaden paid leave benefits, expand childcare benefits, and offer more flexibility to working parents. They’ll be particularly willing to extend the latter, as most companies learned that productivity and flexibility aren’t antithetical. This is already starting to take shape, as companies including Salesforce, Cleo, and Uber have pledged to offer parents additional support and benefits during and after the pandemic. “We need to rescue some of the valuable lessons this year brought along. Flexible working hours, leave options, and daycare programs will better women’s lives and careers,” she said. 

5. Just like People teams’ job descriptions, the definition of “HR tech” gets broader.

“Tech-savvy” is quickly catching up to “people-savvy” as the must-have skill for HR leaders today. Sure, most teams already rely on HR information systems (HRIS) and people management platforms to meet employee needs, track engagement, and administer performance reviews. But at many companies this year, HR teams took ownership of business continuity, remote collaboration, and even tech enablement. As the lines between IT and HR continue to blur, it might be the technophiles who lead the conversation around People strategy in 2021.

“You’re going to see broader use of software. While there are plenty of tech options for HR professionals, I fully expect them to embrace new technologies in 2021,” said Josh Christopherson, CEO of Achieve Today. In addition to investing in software for career development, peer recognition, and other focus areas, HR leaders will look at collaboration tools with renewed focus. Slack, Asana, and Notion aren’t usually considered part of the HR tech stack, but hybrid work effectively brought them into the fold. “Remote work will continue to be prevalent in 2021, and that means HR professionals need to prepare for both in-person and virtual collaboration,” Christopherson said.



Those are just some of the HR trends and issues that will take center stage in 2021. As daunting as the next twelve months may seem, you don’t have to go it alone.

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