Sage-Gavin: Here are 4 reasons for optimism after a tumultuous year

By: | December 15, 2020 • 6 min read
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

Here we are at the end of an unforgettable year—to say the least. It’s been a challenging one for us all, both professionally and personally. But as I write this, I see a brighter future ahead.

As is now tradition, for my final column of the year, I’m looking back at some of the significant themes I’ve heard from my work with CXOs, HR leaders and boards over the past 12 months. Keeping with the historic nature of events in 2020, the trends impacting organizations this year are seismic. They believe these trends will profoundly impact businesses, workers, communities and the HR profession for years to come.

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Here are four themes that defined 2020—and will continue to shape HR in the years to come.

1. The year social innovation surged

Faced with record-high unemployment levels and a pandemic that hit some industries harder than others, HR leaders have come together to help workers and businesses survive and thrive. In my conversations with these leaders, I’ve heard how many are “meeting up” virtually to share best practices and learn from each other. It’s been a true cross-industry collaboration, the likes of which I’ve not seen in my 35-plus years in the C-suite.

Some of this collaboration has been through formal initiatives, such as People + Work Connect, which was launched by the chief HR officers of Lincoln Financial Group, ServiceNow, Verizon and Accenture. The employer-to-employer platform connects organizations seeking workers with companies that are either laying people off or furloughing staff. This initiative has enabled new, direct relationships among HR organizations globally, many of which would generally have little or no contact with each other.

This year, workers and business leaders needed HR, and HR professionals came together to answer their call. Out of this collaboration, I believe that new and permanent pathways for knowledge sharing will emerge to help guide HR development long-term. That’s great news for practitioners, businesses, workers and, ultimately, society.

2. The year HR leaders took the helm

Once the pandemic’s scale became apparent, it also became clear that businesses would need to take on broader responsibility in society by ensuring the safety and wellbeing of workers, customers and the communities in which they operate.

C-suites and boards quickly grasped that the people best placed to help them realize this new responsibility are HR leaders and their teams. After all, HR professionals are the experts in issues such as wellbeing, health and safety, and their skills have proved invaluable throughout the crisis.

According to one study, 47% of HR directors report a better working relationship with their CEO as a result of the pandemic, and 35% say the same of their CFO. Another study found that COVID-19 increased 70% of board member involvement in company workforce strategy.

I believe that the leadership shown by HR during the crisis has demonstrated to business leadership what HR professionals have long known: Our strategic insights can help improve business outcomes. The visibility of HR and the support provided to workers and business leaders by the HR function over the past year won’t be forgotten, and we can expect to see HR leaders at the helm of their organizations going forward.

3. The year workforce models changed … forever

One of the most significant shifts this year has been in how we work. For many people, working from home is now business as usual, as a wide range of roles have been virtualized. Many enterprises digitally transformed their operations to enable remote working at scale, and with astonishing speed.

When the history of this pandemic and the world’s response is written, the role HR played in the mobilization of remote workforces will feature heavily. Significant digital transformation requires the right technology, but it also needs digital fluency—a combination of culture, leadership and skills.

Research suggests that only 14% of companies have the digital fluency needed to make the most of technology. But thanks to the efforts of HR teams, many companies are bridging this gap. HR has been essential in managing change, equipping workers with digital skills and moving to the cloud.

In the short-term, these efforts have helped businesses survive, but in the long-term, they will help create a digital-first workforce that will underpin more agile business models and help drive innovation in the recovery. The entire C-suite will play a role in arming workers with the right digital tools, culture and skills to accelerate this change. CHROs led the effort in 2020 and will continue to do so in the years ahead.

4. The year leading companies focused on taking care of people

In 2020, companies also reoriented around workers. The pandemic brought home just how much people rely on their employers for their wellbeing and companies rely on workers for essential services.

The pandemic showed companies that they can’t navigate change and disruption without their people. Meanwhile, we as consumers came to rely on the people who provide essential services to us in new ways. Medical workers, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers and postal workers became our heroes.

As a result of this shift in contexts, we’re seeing leaders put their people at the top of the agenda and take care of their wellbeing. Fifty percent of business leaders now acknowledge responsibility for caring for their people. Workers, meanwhile, seek such care from their employers. According to one study, more than 60% of workers say senior management-worker trust is key to their satisfaction, because it allows them to be their authentic selves at work.

As part of this shift, business leaders have started to care more about what their people care about, including environmental and social justice causes. A large number of companies, for example, got behind social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter. In part, this was to align with customer expectations, but it also served to meet workers’ requests. In one survey, 69% of workers said they expect their company to speak out publicly about BLM.

See also: How #BLM has redefined D&I in the workplace

Companies care about workers and are responding to their needs. This will lead to a better experience for workers, which will likely increase their wellbeing and productivity. In the longer-term, workers will help shape the company’s activities through their interests and values.

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Welcoming in the new

This year has indeed been challenging, and our hearts go out to everyone who has been adversely affected by the pandemic and those who still face uncertainty in the months ahead.

It’s difficult to see positives from this historically challenging period, but I see signs of hope ahead. The pandemic is driving positive change in some areas. It’s causing businesses to reconsider their purpose and responsibilities. It’s transforming the nature of work to be more human-centric and better for workers and business. And it’s elevating the role of HR and leading to new and exciting collaborations. Together, these trends will help ensure that the recovery delivers for everyone—businesses, people and society.

Bring on 2021—we need a fresh start!