You only need to read the news every day to know that not only has COVID-19 not gone away, but we also continue to see significant financial and economic impacts on businesses and employees alike. The prospect of a ‘post-covid’ recovery feels a long way off for many. In Australia, a survey of the top 50 companies revealed that not a single company expects staff to come back into the office 5 days per week, and just six intend to mandate a certain number of office hours each week. The implications, and the opportunities, for HR leaders are clear.

Gartner surveyed more than 800 HR Leaders across industries and regions for their 2021 HR Priorities survey. There were 5 key priorities identified:

  • 68% Building critical skills and competencies
  • 46% Organisational design and change management
  • 44% Current and future leadership bench
  • 32% Future of work
  • 28% Employee Experience

These priorities are consistent with Deloitte’s findings in their 2020 Global Human Capital Trends Report where 53% of survey respondents indicated that between half and all their workforce will need to change their skills and capabilities in the next 3 years. Concerningly only 17% said they could anticipate the skills needed and only 16% expected their organisation to make a significant investment in this area.

Whilst the media has primarily focussed on the impact to employees, including mental health, wellbeing, flexibility and remote working, the reality for HR Leaders is that this only one, albeit a very important component of the strategic priorities they must focus on to ensure their business are prepared for the future and well placed to maximise business performance and workforce effectiveness.

The Opportunity

HR has played a pivotal role during the global pandemic. The impacts on business, the economy, productivity and mental health and wellbeing have been significant, and we have seen HR step up to these challenges and support their workforces and organisations through this crisis. It has taken a pandemic for many CEOs and employers to see the value their HR leader can bring as they have navigated these challenges. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of people and leadership.

HR leaders have successfully shown they can add significant value during the crisis by demonstrating the following three characteristics.

Commitment to the business

Understanding the critical organisational drivers of success and taking swift action to address significant challenges in their business.

Delivering with integrity

Supporting employees with empathy and understanding. HR leaders acted with integrity, upholding the values of their organisations and role modelling the behaviours expected of the entire workforce. COVID-19 is fundamentally a human problem.

Taking action and accountability

Avoiding complex, over engineered solutions and being responsive to business needs.

These three important attributes will be essential for HR leaders as they turn their minds to ‘what next?’ The opportunity for HR leaders lies in their ability to address the five priorities outlined in the Gartner report in a way that is suitable and sustainable for their business. The reality is that the fifth priority, employee experience has dominated conversation and action thus far. This is a welcome step in the right direction for business and HR, but if these priorities are indeed the right ones, then the right level of focus, investment and resourcing will need to be allocated accordingly.

But is HR capable of embracing this opportunity? The Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2020 report indicated 55% of respondents believed HR will substantially change in the future, yet 26% were not confident in their ability to do so and an additional 37% were only somewhat confident.

Where to from here?

HR leaders must take the learnings from this pandemic and demonstrate the clear benefits of an engaged and productive workforce, inspired by a new vision for the future and a sense of belonging and inclusion in their workplace. This is not ‘fluffy’ HR stuff. The impacts on employees and workplaces (positive and negative) have been real. HR leaders must embrace their expanded leadership role and lead the conversation on the future of work and the workforce on behalf of their organisations.

Alex Badenoch, Group Executive Transformation, Communications and People at Telstra sums up the opportunity nicely in the article referenced earlier. “When the world gets disrupted, you have a choice to make; do you look at how you can ‘go back’ or do you actually start to imagine a new way forward?”

As the immediate pressures of the pandemic start to ease, it will be important for HR leaders to capitalise on their new-found respect and visibility. CEOs and the organisations they lead need HR, and they need it now more than ever.

Featured in theHRDIRECTOR (September, 2021), thehrdirector