The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that we could work in new ways and also exposed gaps in our workforce priorities. Last year, we had to adapt quickly to entirely new circumstances. This year, we’re crystallizing pandemic-driven trends into policies and practices for the future.
Employees want to know whether they’ll be returning to the office and whether they’ll maintain flexibility in the long term. They’ll need to see you moving the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion, and they’ll want to know what steps you’re taking to protect their mental and physical health.
Answering all of these questions brings new challenges. Human resources must work alongside company leaders to thoughtfully balance the needs of the organization with those of the workforce.
Here are the long-term challenges HR is grappling with in 2021.
As vaccinations become more accessible, HR professionals are making the tough decision to bring people back, stay remote or develop a hybrid model. “HR is going to have to work very closely with leadership on return-to-work strategies,” says Kimberly Prescott, Founder and President at Prescott HR. A lack of flexibility in your work model could harm your employer brand.
Consider how continued remote work could impact DEI, another organizational imperative. Diverse employees are often less subject to hurtful statements and conversations than in office settings because remote-work interactions are more focused. And employees with disabilities have more access to the accommodations they need now that most organizations are set up to support remote work, says HR educator and thought leader Joanne Walters.
But at the same time, women and people with disabilities are more likely to remain working from home, which can aggravate gaps in opportunities when people in the office are top of mind for promotions. Be mindful of how the return-to-work decisions you make this year could impact your workforce going forward.
Creating a culture of belonging is vital for your DEI initiatives and for business success. Developing front-line managers into coaches can help connect employees to the bigger picture and create opportunities for upskilling and mobility. “Giving people skills outside of their everyday job duties will allow them to be more nimble,” Prescott says.
Create opportunities for learning and listening. “Leaders need to do more than just create safe spaces,” Walters says. “We’ve got to create brave spaces.” Create a sense of psychological safety so employees can raise issues. “There’s been an aversion to conflict, especially with people from underrepresented groups,” says LaTonya Wilkins, Founder of The Change Coaches LLC. It’s up to HR to foster healthy conflict that leads to resolution.
Health and safety continue to be workplace priorities. HR leaders are deciding whether to require vaccination or offer paid time off for employees to get the vaccine, and companies with front-line employees are dealing with new labor-driven legislation and regulation. Look to case law to see how COVID-driven laws are being interpreted, especially where new guidelines intersect with existing laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act, Prescott says.
Mental health remains a vital focus, too. Remote and hybrid workforces are dealing with employees who feel isolated, disconnected and disengaged. “Employee engagement and culture are becoming even more important,” Wilkins says. “Those relationships are even more fragile than they were before.” Train managers to use deliberate, scheduled check-ins to create a line of communication with their reports. Even if your company returns to the office, setting aside time for an intentional one-on-one strengthens your employees’ sense of connection and alignment with the business.
As you work through 2021’s HR challenges, maintain a line of communication with employees. The decisions we make this year could impact the workforce for years to come. Let your employees know what’s going on, and gather their feedback on new policies and initiatives. Take this opportunity to make work better for everyone.
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