3 emerging technologies HR should pay attention to in 2021

This month, HRE is helping HR leaders prepare for the year ahead with a series featuring insights from industry experts, thought leaders and others about what we can learn from 2020 and the challenges coming in 2021. Read the series here.

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This year has brought HR a host of unprecedented issues to navigate: employee safety concerns, engagement in a newly remote world, legal considerations and even the reshaping of the HR role itself. With all of that change just in the last few months, many HR leaders are looking to 2021 with a bit of trepidation: What’s next?

Greg Pryor, executive director at Workday, says the toll the pandemic has taken on employees needs to be front and center in the months to come, through an increased focus on wellbeing–including on technology that can be used to support employees’ wellness–as well as more authentic and empathetic leadership.

Here’s what else Pryor thinks is coming HR’s way next year–and what can be learned from 2020:

HRE: What was HR’s shining moment in 2020? Where could HR leaders have done a better job?

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Greg Pryor, executive director at Workday

Pryor: HR really stepped up to safeguard employees, helping organizations to rally without any playbook. There was unprecedented collaboration among CHROs. Things that would normally have taken months or years were done in days and minutes. Organizations with good listening systems responded faster to support remote workers where possible. Then there was a whole series of companies with essential workers who quickly figured out how to keep workers safe while having to go to work. Overall, whether it was HR leaders or people just coming together, we saw the human enter back into human resources.

In terms of doing a better job, we were overly optimistic about how long we’d be responding to the pandemic. That’s shown us that we need to finetune our ability to appreciate the unknown, to lean into listening more and to be better prepared–not just for little pivots from the norm but for sudden and dramatic changes that are becoming more the new normal. We also need to practice more scenario-planning, dive deeper into the data, consider the unexpected and build up those planning muscles. With the right tools in place and a more agile approach, we can better prepare for an increasingly VUCA (short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world.

HRE: What should be HR’s first priority in 2021?

Pryor: Wellbeing. There is tremendous fatigue in the workforce right now and maintaining the mental health of our workers has to be the top priority. How will we address loneliness, fiscal wellbeing, belonging, inclusion, psychological safety for all?

HRE: What three emerging technologies should HR leaders have on their radar to help them meet the challenges to come in 2021?

Pryor: There’s plenty of data. The challenge is knowing what to focus on and how to understand what the data is telling you. Augmented analytics can help HR leaders go beyond a dashboard and deliver easy-to-understand insights on pressing data-related challenges faced by HR teams such as prioritization, data literacy and scalability.

We need a better handle on sensing technologies, to really know how people are doing, whether that’s aggregate sentiment data from surveys or personalized employee experience analytics powered by machine learning.

The other emerging technology critical for HR leaders will be prediction capabilities, driven by machine learning and advanced analytics. These enable greater processing and help to deliver insights that inform scenario and adaptive planning–preparing everybody to respond better to rapid change.

HRE: What will the world of work look like next year?

Pryor: The pandemic fast-forwarded us five to 10 years into the future of work. It won’t swing back. With the shift to remote work, the autonomy and empowerment of our workforce has increased. Now that we’ve seen inside each other’s houses, we’ll also see greater expectations of how an organization shows up and responds to individual employee needs. This will lead to more of a balance of empathy and equality.

HRE: What skills should HR leaders be focused on developing within themselves for 2021?

Pryor: Increasingly, whether it is a skill or an attribute, we need to continue building resilience. We need physical and mental wellbeing, including relationship wellness and having networks of positive and supportive people around us. We need to continue to be present and able to take on the work that needs to be done. We’ll need to understand technology, specifically machine learning, and, increasingly, to understand and appreciate medical privacy, and how we think about workplace safety. Finally, we need the skill of creative collaboration, the ability to be agile and engage with others. We’re in uncharted territory here, and these skills will be key.

See also: An HRE Series–Looking ahead to 2021

HRE: How will the trend toward remote work continue to evolve next year?

Pryor: We’ll see an increased appreciation for workplaces for different reasons. Once we’re able to safely go back to offices, we’ll see times when people want to be around people to do collaborative work, and then times when they want to go heads down for a couple of days perhaps better served by being remote. The in-office time will be more about creativity, collaboration and nurturing relationships. Historically, remote workers have understood this oscillation for a long time. Overall, people will be more intentional about where they work, when and what they do in that workplace, whether the office or remote.

HRE: How has the employee-employer relationship changed in 2020, and how will that shift continue?

Pryor: So much of what we thought about the future of work before the pandemic had to do with flexible and agile environments. The pandemic launched us into that world. Overnight, we moved from a mindset of “these are my assigned job responsibilities” to “this is what I know needs to get done,” and I believe we will take much of this spirit with us moving forward. There’s research showing how productive workers are with more autonomous work, and people will expect to be appreciated for how they showed up in this pandemic. The employee-employer relationship also changed because, via at-home video conferences, we met individuals where they are. We’ve seen their houses, their kids, their parents and other aspects of their lives outside of work. The historic firewalls have come down, and there’s more authenticity and empathy.

HRE: How will employee expectations when it comes to benefits differ next year?

Pryor: They’ll want organizations to continue showing responsibility for wellness across a spectrum that includes mental, physical, financial and social.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]