3 things HR will need to succeed in 2021

Even prior to the events of last year, a new era was beginning to dawn for HR. Once perceived as merely a paper-pushing function, the people management profession is now blossoming into something that can have a far more profound, holistic effect on a business.

That said, the need for HR has been brought into even sharper focus due to COVID-19, with organisations having to react and pivot quickly when it comes to areas such as wellbeing, leadership, performance management and employee benefits.


With this in mind, 2021 is set to be a seismic year for people management. In order to finally attain that elusive ‘seat at the table’, the HR function must be poised to steer organisations through the remainder of the pandemic, and successfully navigate the return to work. Here’s a snapshot of what we think will be required.

1. A diversity and inclusion strategy that works

Few events managed to steal the headlines away from COVID-19 last year, but May’s explosive anti-racism movement in the United States (sparked by the murder of George Floyd) was undoubtedly one of them.

As all things do, the dialogue around this incident quickly trickled down into the world of business, prompting questions to be raised as to how the modern organisation approaches diversity and inclusion, and the bias that is still firmly woven into the fabric of the business world.

Naturally, the crux of this dialogue centres around the talent acquisition space. It’s been proven that this is a real and pervasive issue across the board, and one study even found that hiring discrimination against black Americans hasn’t declined in 25 years.

Closer to home, research by the University of Oxford found that applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin. What’s more, it concluded that discrimination against these groups has not changed in the past 50 years.

So, in 2021, the HR function must strive to reach a point where the hiring process is debiased, and thus far more equitable for marginalised demographics. Not only does this represent an essential moral and political correctness, but practically speaking, it could bolster organisational health by a number of significant metrics.

The key here is process. Numerous studies have shown that details as arbitrary as the candidate’s name can play into their likelihood of success (unsurprisingly, ‘black sounding’ names often receive the brunt of this) – this is a textbook example of the unconscious bias that must be eradicated from recruitment pipelines this year. Practising ‘name-blind’ recruitment may help to to lessen the risk of bias (whether conscious or unconscious) affecting the decision-making process.

2. A plan for the post-pandemic workplace

Though the challenge of navigating the pandemic still very much remains for now, the HR function will no doubt have one eye on what happens next.

When the time comes, the ‘return to work’ (whatever that may look like) will be a challenge that requires a precise vision and attention to detail.

Though a complex situation, this boils down to one key issue: each employee is different, and thus a one-size-fits-all solution simply won’t suffice.

What’s more, due to the precedent that has now been set by COVID-19, employers now find themselves in a tricky spot. It may be tempting to enact a blanket return to co-located working, but in doing so, they are automatically putting themselves at a disadvantage. 

Quite simply, if an employee wishes to remain ‘remote-first’ on a permanent basis – where homeworking is the default – they probably can; other employers are likely to offer that now. In fact, industry-leading organisations such as Twitter, Amazon and Adobe – to name a few – have now pivoted to remote-first models

With this becoming an increasingly common dilemma, a hybrid approach is emerging as arguably the most amenable solution. In simple terms, this would encompass both remote and office-based work, with a suitable pattern being agreed for each employee (though granted, this will create more work for HR). 

What’s more, a substantial body of evidence suggests that this may even be the most effective approach. One study even found that 67% of workers in the UK would prefer a flexible approach to working location.

However, again, this is far from a black-and-white scenario; there are countless options, and it’s down to the employer to find one that works for the entire workforce. One thing’s for sure, HR will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in assisting this process in 2021.

3. A focus on maintaining engagement

In a sense, this last one is slightly different. Though employee engagement is a crucial endeavour in and of itself, it ultimately feeds into everything we do in HR. Some may even argue that it’s the primary KPI for assessing other HR processes and initiatives.

In any case, a laser-like focus on engagement will undoubtedly be a top priority this year. Not only will it remain a central consideration as we consider issues such as wellbeing and leadership on a day-to-day basis, but perhaps more importantly, it will factor heavily into designing the post-pandemic workplace. 

Needless to say, it’ll fall within the remit of HR to ensure that engagement remains high in every instance.

Technically speaking, the importance of getting this right is irrefutable, particularly during such a turbulent period for businesses. It’s well-acknowledged that organisational change can disrupt engagement, and furthermore, it’s been extensively proven that engagement can bear profound knock-on effects for an organisation.

For instance, a study into Fortune 100 companies found a 1,000% increase in errors among disengaged employees, as opposed to those who were engaged. 

However, being such a broad subject, there is unfortunately no silver bullet when it comes to achieving high engagement. That said, there are a number of key touch points that HR leaders can focus on, and when it comes to performing a complex transformation, communication should arguably be the number one focus. 

One study even found that on average, just 40% of front-line supervisors understand the change that is taking place. Invariably, this can be at least partly remedied by clear, consistent communication. 

With yet more seismic change undoubtedly on the horizon in 2021, this will be a vital consideration for the HR function moving forward.

Experienced HR support, tailored to your needs

From an professional HR audit to expert-led training, whatever you need to become a high-performing HR function this year, Ellis Whittam’s seasoned HR specialists can help.

To find out more about how we can support your HR strategy, or assist with reactive HR tasks to help you free up time, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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