HR director 2021: innovator, economist, anthropologist and politician

6 minute read

If 2020 was a transformational time for HR and business, so there is no sign this will let up in 2021. Influential global HR analyst Josh Bersin outlines 12 priorities for HR

A complete employee experience

In 2020 agile happened at scale. HR leaders told me their companies moved faster than they thought possible. Digital transformation and the redesign of performance management happened in months. We learned that a focus on helping employees be productive, safe and included is really the core of a transformation.

And we also learned how to learn. Most of us didn’t know a lot about public health, viruses, workplace hygiene, or social issues such as Black Lives Matter or mask-wearing politics. But this year we learned. This year has shown me that HR professionals are learners at heart. In fact, the learning and development market itself has exploded with growth. Most of you have seen more consumption of learning than you ever thought possible, and your employees are as engaged as they’ve ever been.

As we go into 2021 it’s important to reflect on what we learned and make sure we take it forward, while taking advantage of our newly found skills in remote work, wellbeing, empathy, and productivity.

1. There is a new war for talent

I predict this year the war will again emerge with a vengeance. New research from EMSI and LinkedIn shows that the number of open jobs is almost as high as it was 12 months ago, and economic productivity is at record levels. What this means is that for key roles and geographies, there is huge demand for people, and you will be competing for talent in every way. The pandemic has changed the workforce itself. In the United States baby boomers are retiring at a record rate, with more than 3.2 million retiring this year alone. Women and non-college educated workers have also left the workforce, making it even harder to find people to fill the service, labor and contract jobs now in high demand. Jobs for 2021 will be service roles – jobs that require technical skills and experience but are primarily driven by your candidate’s ability to learn, collaborate, and relate to your company’s purpose. Talent acquisition remains one of the most complex parts of HR, and in 2021 I think we’ll see a lot of work to make it even better.

2. Digital has become a way of life

Digital transformation is here. There’s no more reason to debate whether people are allowed to work at home; they’re now working everywhere. In fact, to me, the big trend to me is that work comes to you rather than you going to work. In HR, this means we have to push forward with the simplification, integration and design thinking of the digital work experience. We must accept that digital is the way people work and then collect the fewest and best tools for your needs and make them all work together. Hire a few people who understand data and systems; develop an architecture team that can look at how these things come together; and work very closely with IT.

3. Employee experience is now a corporate strategy

In 2021, you will need a cross-functional employee experience (EX) team that looks at employee segments, employee journeys and the role of service delivery centers responding to employee problems and needs (see picture above). Comprehensive employee experience requires re-thinking about every minute in a workday and includes considering how to handle all types of employee feedback and developing a strategy for ‘signal to action'. You need to think of EX as a company-wide initiative and leverage as much technology as you can. It includes the new workplace—a hybrid, post-COVID workplace, with a variety of spaces to collaborate and to do individual work as needed, is the future.

4. Employee listening, hearing and communications go big

Probably the biggest of lesson of 2020 is the critical importance of communication. All over the world, CEOs and other senior leaders got on Zoom calls with hundreds to thousands of employees and opened up channels to talk, share, listen and get feedback. Our 2020 research says communication, listening, authentic feedback and taking action on employee issues are perhaps the most important leadership and HR practices of all. Over recent years, we’ve moved from annual surveys to pulse surveys to analytics platforms, and now we’re entering a new world of action platforms. We are just finishing a massive study of diversity, equity and inclusion and the ability to listen, hear and act on employee concerns is by far the top driver of success

5. Wellbeing and safe workplaces land in the boardroom

The $45 billion corporate wellbeing market exploded in 2020. As we’ve talked with HR leaders we hear the same thing over and over: employee health, wellbeing, and safety are now embedded in corporate cultures. Teaching leaders how to help their people stay healthy, resilient, and productive has emerged as a priority. The key to health and wellbeing is to give employees clear direction, time to focus, and a work environment that is productive, supportive, and inclusive. Citizenship, trust and social responsibility will be a big focus too.

6. Heavy focus on skills leads to strategic focus on capabilities

The reskilling, upskilling, and skilling craze has continued. In 2020 there was renewed emphasis on automation and AI, making every job in business one of continuous learning.

Ongoing learning and development should be a strategic focus for the CEO. If a company does not have a learning culture that encourages and promotes individual learning, business will suffer. My research shows that most of the jobs of the future are in services: designing, selling, communicating, helping, caring for others. These jobs need other skills, too – listening, communicating, managing time well, prioritizing and learning to lead, collaborate, and coach many others. Such skills are going to be even hotter in 2021, so you need to put a strategy in place to develop and instil them. What most companies now need to do is create a capability taxonomy that documents the primary business capabilities needed to drive the business ahead.

7. L&D will be disrupted

The learning market will be a hot space in 2021, and I encourage you to take some time and create a project to build a solid three-to five-year roadmap for your L&D infrastructure, content and organization strategy. The demand for content will continue to explode. The more people start moving around and taking on different roles, the more content and training they want. An essential business decision you need to make is where the business rules for learning go.

8. Talent mobility Is finally a highly strategic focus

In 2021 the area of strategic and facilitated internal mobility is moving into focus. In 2016 we surveyed more than 10,000 people and found that 65% of respondents said: “It’s easier to find a new job outside the company than it is to find a new job inside the company.” Kind of insane, but it was true. The proof is now out: companies like Unilever, Schneider Electric, PepsiCo, Society Generale, and SAP are thriving on internal mobility. And new platforms are making it easier than ever. This is a transformational new strategy. And it goes far beyond HR: I think making your company an internal opportunity marketplace is really the management model for the future.

9. HR transformation is on the front burner

We’ve now reached a point where almost 90% of the companies we talk with need a refresh or new operating model for HR. Why? Because today HR has become a center of innovation. We need to reorganize HR so it can develop and deliver in an agile way, become very data driven and focus laser-like on employee experiences. And we have to do this with an efficient model that uses AI and self-service, well-defined service centers, and strategic outsourcing where needed. Many organizations are ‘halfway there' with transforming their HR operating models. I see 2021 as the year to complete the move to the new operating model for HR. This is much more than implementing a cloud-based HRS. It also requires clarifying who does what.

10. Citizenship, environment and sustainability will grow

Now that we’re working our way through the pandemic, people are thinking about their role in society as well. New Deloitte research shows that more than 70% of professionals under the age of 50 want to spend significantly more time giving back in their lives. People have to be good citizens within your company – taking care of each other, protecting company assets, acting in an ethical way – and also good citizens in the communities you serve. It’s time to bring together your diversity, equality and inclusion, sustainability and environmental programs and think about them as an integrated strategy.

11. Diversity, equality and inclusion will continue to be a major imperative

We’ve finished a massive study of DEI practices in business and the results are pretty shocking. Not only is DEI an enormous topic on the minds of CEOs but companies are hiring heads of DEI like never before. But are they moving the needle? Not as much as you’d think. The problem is truly creating an inclusive culture within a company. Our study shows that the most effective practices include listening to and acting on employee needs, giving employees an opportunity to speak up, holding HR teams accountable for DEI metrics and programs, and driving transparency and accountability into business leadership. DEI is a business strategy, not an HR initiative.

12. HR will be a center of innovation

My final prediction is something I’ve seen coming for years. You, as an HR leader, are now working in a center of innovation. Every single people-related practice – from hiring to leading to performance management, succession, career models, job architecture – is an opportunity to innovate. Every company must innovate its HR and leadership practices because the way we manage people is changing faster than ever. You, as and HR professional, have to figure out what to do about all these things – and also be a good economist, anthropologist, and politician as well.

Josh Bersin, pictured below, is  president and founder of Bersin & Associates and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy

Josh Bersin

Published 13 January 2021
Enjoyed this story?
Sign up for our newsletter here.