Bersin: 5 positive lessons HR learned in 2020

By: | January 13, 2021 • 4 min read
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

Many of us are happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror. But I think there are positive lessons learned that will be important to keep in mind for 2021. Following are the ones that most resonate with me.

We were reminded to be humble.

The virus is a sneaky, unpredictable enemy. The best leaders recognized early that they didn’t have all the answers and realized that “learning as we go” was the best strategy of all. I’d suggest that humility is a business strength in good times, too. Even Amazon, one of the most successful companies in the world, takes lots of time to learn from mistakes and avoids “going through doors that you can’t back out of.”

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Executive participants in our Big Reset groups shared dozens of inspiring examples of innovation, creativity and employee support. Most of you let employees work from home when possible, increased work practice flexibility, adjusted benefits and spent millions of dollars on creating safe workplaces and implementing productivity and listening tools. These are all “humble” investments, and they reflect the primary importance of meeting employee needs.

We learned to listen.

This year’s research found that listening to employees and taking action was by far the most important business practice. This lesson goes back to the fundamental idea that employees are a company’s most important asset. Employees live your brand every day, and they have a personal stake in your company. Their feedback, ideas and concerns are the most honest and important of all. In the best of times, when your company is growing and making money, employees will always tell you where to invest next. And now we have a whole industry of listening tools and crowdsourcing technology to make this easy.

We learned about human-centric leadership.

One of our most active Big Reset working groups focused on this topic. “Human-centered” leadership is different than “business-centered leadership,” which is the more traditional approach.

At its core, human-centered leadership means that supervisors, managers and executives have to sit back and listen to employees and then take the time to discuss problems and understand underlying issues. Human-centered leadership welcomes diversity and new approaches and creates growth opportunities for employees. This is not a new idea, but the fact that employers emphasized such approaches this year is why the 2021 DDI global leadership research shows the highest-ever employee rating of leadership since 2011.

See also: This compassionate leader is HRE’s HR Executive of the Year

We learned to take employee experience seriously.

All the books, articles and ideas around employee experience began to emerge around 2015 when Airbnb hired a chief employee experience officer. Next came conversations around moments that matter. We started to look at key employee experiences at work such as onboarding, the transition to a new job and relocation. As we dug in, we found out that EX is deeper and more complicated than initially realized.

I have spent hundreds of hours talking with HR leaders about EX this year. These conversations have driven home to me how expansive, important and holistic this topic actually is. I view employee experience as a company-wide initiative that touches facilities, workplace safety, HR, finance, legal, operations and business leadership. It demands a whole nest of integrated digital tools ranging from case management to knowledge management, from safe workplaces to daily productivity. Employee experience requires a focus on service delivery and HR operations and a move to what I call a continuous response model. It also requires the ability to segment employee populations in order to personalize, an emphasis on digital experience design, and leveraging a variety of self-service tools to make work easier.

Employee experience is definitely a driver of the $250 billion HR technology market. This year, you’re going to see major vendors like Microsoft, Facebook, IBM and Cisco jumping into this space.

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We learned that HR is a bold, innovative and noble profession at its core.

Last year was the most inspiring and exciting one of my career—not because I had to stay home and live on Zoom all day, but because I had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of you: the most committed, passionate and creative people in the world.

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The human resources profession came into its own last year, and it is critical to take our new roles and responsibilities forward in 2021. I believe HR is not a service delivery organization but rather a center of innovation. Not only do we have to take care of people, make work simple and help the company grow, but we also have to listen, create, experiment and adapt. And I think you all did this in amazing ways this past year.

I want to stress the importance of taking these lessons forward. Sit down with your own teams and document what other lessons you’ve learned in the past year. As I outline in my new HR Predictions for 2021 report, this may be one of the most important years of our lives—and I believe these lessons can make the year even better for everyone.