Top job for HR in 2021? Define ‘workplace experience’

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?

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HRE: What was HR’s shining moment in 2020? Where did HR leaders possibly make some missteps?

Nguyen: HR leaders’ shining moment in 2020 was proving their agility. At the pandemic’s onset, we had to move very quickly to keep our workforce efficient. We consulted through policies to accommodate remote work; we addressed personal time off when employees in certain locations couldn’t travel; we were swift with contact tracing if any of our employees were presumed positive; but, most importantly, we were responsive alongside our colleagues from other business areas to keep our employees safe.

If there were any missteps from HR leaders, it may have been not putting enough energy into addressing external factors that affect our employees. Rolling Stone called 2020 “The Year of the Converging Crisis,” calling out singular issues, which created a “crisis conglomeration.” If HR leaders aren’t thinking about employees’ health, safety and how best to support them, then we are a bit behind. We need to be proactive because these issues aren’t going away.

HRE: What will the world of work look like in 2021?

Nguyen: The world of work in 2021 will look a lot more human. Organizations must put people first and think about their employees’ needs in their entirety. This year placed a lot of emphasis and focus on key areas, such as mental health, diversity, inclusion and belonging, and social injustice. There are so many factors that influence how we show up to work every day. To get the most out of our workforce, we need to see, accept and support our employees for who they are. Ultimately, we need to leave this notion of how we show up for work at the door–that divide no longer exists.

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

Nguyen: In 2021, HR’s first priority should be to assess what workplace experience means to them. The physical workplace has changed, and many organizations may not go back to the “old way.” In this new age, we should think about how we can positively impact how our employees feel throughout their journey with our organization. We should consider linking the employee experience to the company culture, technology and growth. The overall concept of workplace experience starts with a people-first mindset.

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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].