7 workplace realities HR needs to focus on for 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.


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?

Bhushan Sethi, partner and joint global leader of PwC’s People & Organization practice, says the mandate for HR leaders to both understand and respond to the conditions under which employees are working has never been stronger. With the pandemic dragging on and conversations around social injustice continuing, Sethi says, HR leaders should approach 2021 with a people-first focus. Here’s what else he had to say:

HRE: What were some of the mistakes HR made this year navigating the challenges of the pandemic? What did they get right?

Bhushan Sethi, partner and joint global leader of PwC’s People & Organization practice

Sethi: As the country heads into 2021, HR leaders are taking on a new, unprecedented role: moral compass. After working with and advising HR leaders across industries throughout the pandemic, I have seen that many leaders were and still are engaged in their crisis response teams. These teams have continually evolved–from health and safety teams to remote work teams and, for the past few months, they are focused on the return to the workplace.

HR leaders are influencing some of the most pressing issues of the day, from addressing employee safety and upskilling to tackling complex issues like mental health and racial intolerance. In our recent CHRO survey, 89% stated they wished to take the lead engaging with elected officials on addressing societal matters.

See also: C-suite must make social injustice a ‘standing agenda item’

As we head into month 10 of the pandemic in the U.S., “pandemic fatigue” has set in. Employees are genuinely anxious about their health and wellbeing, with nearly half (48%) of employees saying they feel forced to sacrifice their personal safety to remain employed. HR executives are taking the lead to support workers–nearly three-quarters (72%) of companies are increasing mental health support and 59% are extending new benefits, such as reduced hours and extended leaves of absence.

There’s a clear urgency for HR leaders to help other leaders understand the stresses employees are under as they navigate work and life in a pandemic and how that may be affecting their productivity, motivation and morale. Sharing employee sentiment data may help illustrate the problem and give leaders more insight into what employees need and how actions taken during the pandemic can impact a company in years to come.

HRE: What will work look like in 2021?

Sethi: As we look past the pandemic, 2021 for many will be the year they fully dive into their new future of work. We can expect that the unprecedented events that defined 2020 will likely leave a lasting mark:

  1. Essential workers will still support critical industries across health, construction, food, distribution.
  2. Hospitality, sports and travel companies will be monitoring federal, state and local guidelines and consumer preferences on how and when to safely return to business.
  3. Companies prioritizing employees’ physical health and safety, creating “good jobs,” and managing health and economic impacts given that essential workers are typically lower-paid and their roles are most vulnerable to the impacts of automation.
  4. An acceleration of upskilling and reskilling workers to improve the employability of their workforce, as well as demonstrate how they live their purpose and values. Moreover, companies looking to reinvent themselves are doing so with tech investments.
  5. As part of the growth agenda, 52% of executives are rolling out efforts to upskill their workforce during this period of accelerated automation and remote working. In 2021, 76% plan to increase resource allocation to digital transformation. Additionally, HR leaders are not the only ones that see remote collaboration and flexibility as an enduring trend post-COVID-19. Seventy-eight percent of global CEOs see remote collaboration as an enduring trend, and 76% see automation as an enduring trend as well.
  6. Remote work will continue to be the new normal for many at least in the first half of 2021.
  7. Others will turn to hybrid workplace models, where employees may come to the office two to three days per week and engage in collaboration, coaching and problem-solving as opposed to performing routine aspects of their work.

HRE: What should be HR leaders’ first priority for 2021?

Sethi: As we head into 2021, HR leaders prepare for their toughest challenges: addressing mental health and racial injustice. While there is good news about a potential vaccine for COVID-19, we are not close to returning to normal in neither our consumer nor our work lives any time soon. Companies need to examine how they can keep their workforce employed, healthy and engaged.

The pandemic and social unrest have intensified executives’ focus on the wellbeing of their employees and on inclusive leadership. Around half of business leaders say they are increasing diversity and inclusion training for employees and creating new opportunities for employees to have conversations about difficult social issues. Additionally, a third of business leaders are making a conscious effort to nurture such traits as empathy and humility in their organizational culture and are taking a public stance on societal issues. Above all, it’s important for leaders to keep a pulse on their workforce, understand their needs and continue to support efforts that matter to them most.

Click HERE to take HRE’s survey, What’s Keeping HR Up at Night?

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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 hreletters@lrp.com.