During COVID-19 Australia's workforce navigated enormous challenges - particularly in relation to Human Relations (HR). Almost overnight, HR leaders across the globe were tasked with transitioning whole offices to working remotely and managing staff workloads; whether transitioning teams to part-time or managing job-sharing and redundancies. Not to mention having a renewed focus on staff engagement and well-being as the world attempted to navigate through a pandemic.
As we look towards 2021 and try to establish a 'new normal', HR leaders are starting to anticipate the trends and challenges the year will bring for the collective workforce, particularly after the fall out from 2020. How will the shift to remote work affect the employee experience and what can HR teams do to manage these changes? What can HR leaders do to ensure the organisation maintains an office culture, even though a physical office is no longer present? Public Sector People explore the HR trends of 2021 in depth below:
Managing Organisational Change
One of the most obvious changes to the workforce since COVID-19 is business operations. Over the last year, the way a business functions day-to-day has drastically changed. There is no longer one ‘central’ location where employees conduct business, face-to-face interaction has become a welcome novelty and our reliance on cloud-based platforms to share and collaborate with colleagues has grown ten-fold. These changes had to be made swiftly, as the rapid and evolving rate at which the virus spread, meant that governments had to respond quickly, which indirectly meant businesses had to respond and pivot their operations and processes quickly. Organisations that had too rigid a structure or policy in place prior to the pandemic were exposed and struggled to function in such a volatile time, where being responsive and adaptable wasn’t just encouraged- it was demanded.
Consequently, when global research and advisory company Gartner recently conducted a survey of over 800 HR leaders to rank their top priority for 2021, 46% of respondents listed work (re)design and change management as their key focus. For years, work design has been built on efficiency; specific systems in place that allow a company to turn a profit , and turn it fast. But this focus on a regimented routine and ‘set’ workflows or role designs, doesn’t align with the fast-paced environment we’re now in. Or the changing needs of employees.
The challenge for many organisations over the next year will be how to best adapt their HR practices to the growing changes our society’s been forced to make and more importantly, how to make these processes flexible so that they can be easily adapted to further change. For example, a logical consequence of social distancing, is the that recruitment, onboarding and even firing processes have had to be changed. Traditionally, these processes relied on in-person conversations and consequently have had to be re-invented to adhere to not only current social distancing practices but to remain relevant in the digital world. For example, when managing onboarding now, HR leaders will need to consider the technology options available to allow individualised tailoring experiences for new employees, similar to what they would have once experienced when in an office with their supervisor or team leader.
Similarly, people management is changing. For HR to feel connected to the organisation’s workforce and manage employees progress and productivity, there’s going to have to be a greater reliance on technology, but also on creativity and innovation so that the way we use technology to connect with colleagues (Zoom Calls, Microsoft Teams meetings, Jira Updates) doesn’t start to feel one-dimensionally functional and task-orientated and cause employees to become disengaged.
Upskilling: Building Critical Skills & Competencies
Upskilling was already a key priority for the global workforce prior to the pandemic, however COVID-19 has heightened the reskilling challenge.While the rate at which we’re developing new technology and applying it to business processes is exciting in terms of productivity and efficiency, it also means that employees will need to develop new skills in order to properly apply these technologies. Unfortunately, this level of upskilling isn’t currently happening. Instead, changes to employee’s job responsibilities which were triggered by covid, have widened the skill gap. Over the last year, many employees were suddenly faced with tasks their skillset wasn’t equipped to handle, whether that be managing a new team remotely, gaining new responsibilities because their company was short-staffed or job sharing with another colleague to ensure all bases were covered when teams couldn’t come into the office at the same time. According to Gartner, data shows the total number of skills required for a single job is increasing year-over-year by 10%, while 33% of the skills that were present in an average job posting in 2017 won’t be needed by 2021.
To address this skill challenge, HR leaders will need to develop a dynamic approach to reskilling and redeploying talent, which involves input and collaboration from all stakeholders so that the shifting skill needs or the development of new skills can be identified ahead of time. To achieve this HR leaders will need to facilitate dynamic cross-organisational networks which encourage employees from all different departments to identify when skill requirements are shifting- for example when knowledge on data mining becomes a necessary requirement for finance managers as they incorporate more AI functionality into their role. HR leaders will then have to work together with key stakeholders to ensure their existing resources have been adapted effectively to properly address the identified knowledge gaps. This will require organisations to develop channels/systems that allow for greater collaboration and exchange of information between different departments of the business, so that HR can stay on top of all potential skill shortages across the organisation.
Another tactic to help upskill and develop an employee’s skill set is through establishing ‘opportunity-or talent-marketplaces’, which are becoming increasingly popular within the HR space. These marketplaces provide training, networking and mentorship opportunities to name a few, and encourage workers to match their interests, passions and capabilities with one or multiple of the opportunities presented. Investing in ‘passion projects’ allow workers the chance to volunteer for work they prefer and value, which helps them become more motivated and engaged. At the same time, these projects/marketplaces also reveal valuable information about workers’ interests, passions and capabilities that might have otherwise remained hidden. This in turn, allows organisations to identify and redeploy workers against critical business priorities based on their interests as well as their strengths. While organisations have always traditionally dictated what skills workers need to bring to the table, the future of work suggests a huge benefit in allowing employees to have greater agency and choice over what they do and how they develop their skills.
The Employee Experience
Needless to say, the transition to remote work and forced social distancing has drastically changed the employee experience. While stages of the employee lifecycle remain the same - an employee goes through rounds of job interviews before being accepted, completes an orientation process and then starts working and interacting with their colleagues- these processes which once were conducted ‘in-person’ are now predominantly conducted online. Which brings it’s own set of complexities, a key one being how to preserve workplace culture and ensure employees remain engaged and happy, when so much of organisational culture has been rooted in physical interactions. This will become a key focus for HR departments in 2021, as they redesign the employee journey (recruitment, onboarding, social functions and events) and adapt it to the virtual space. Elements like work-life balance, connection, collaboration and well-being will take a greater focus as the boundary between ‘work’ and ‘home’ starts to blur.
Furthermore, while we’ve already seen many organisations start to recreate social interactions online to help maintain office camaraderie and a sense of connection (office virtual happy hours and trivia sessions over zoom spread like wildfire during lockdown), many predict 2021 will also bring more formalised online connections and partnerships being piloted at organisations globally. For example, Conferences now offer networking opportunities online while other organisations have started offering virtual mentoring or job shadowing opportunities via zoom or Microsoft Teams. These initiatives can be great in helping employees feel less isolated, while offering support and a gentle reminder that they are part of a greater team.
Mental Health & Wellbeing
As part of the employee experience, COVID-19 has emphasised new dimensions of mental health that workplaces now have to consider. The stress and anxiety that many experienced last year while having to adapt to strict social distancing and come to terms with a struggling economy and potential health threat has thrust the issues of mental health and wellbeing into the spotlight, especially within the workplace. According to Linkedin Learning, 10 times as many learners watched courses on mindfulness and stress management during April, compared to February last year. Meanwhile, 69% of L&D and HR professionals said that supporting mental health and wellbeing has become a new part of their role since COVID-19. Consequently, mental health and wellbeing will become a growing priority for HR as organisations start to move forward. A greater focus will be placed on providing employees with the necessary tools and knowledge to manage stress and subject areas like mindfulness, stress management and resilience will be factored into an organisation’s L&D curriculum.
While the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on the future of work, the focus for HR Leaders moving forward is how effectively they can adapt to the trends and changes covid has caused. Whether it be developing new ways to upskill their workforce or incorporating mental health awareness into their organisation’s L&D curriculum, being able to address and effectively adapt to these HR trends, will impact their ability to thrive in a post-covid world.
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