Why HR will remain in the ‘front seat’ of the COVID crisis

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?

Establishing connections and showing empathy dominated 2020 for HR leaders; that won’t change in 2021 but the importance of communications and engagement will grow, says Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and chief people, place and brand officer for Lincoln Financial Group. Buckingham, who was HRE‘s HR Executive of the Year in 2017, doesn’t think work will ever be the same after this pandemic, but many of the changes will end up being good for organizations, she says. Buckingham recently shared with HRE her insights on 2020 successes and where HR leaders will spend their time in 2021.

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

Lisa Buckingham

Buckingham: I am so amazed by the incredible connections forged among the global HR community in 2020. Offering a lending hand, learnings, insights. This is just the start of a new chapter of deeper connections between companies, driven by HR, to better all of our collective workforces. We are all sharing more and learning from one another. We aren’t competing against one another; we are building vibrant and very different work environments and can help each other and our employees.

A shining example of this (from my perspective!) is the People + Work Connect platform. In April, partnering with fellow CHROs from Accenture, Verizon and ServiceNow, we launched People + Work Connect—a digital employer-to-employer platform that brings together companies laying off or furloughing people with companies in urgent need of workers. There is no cost for employers to join and participate. We developed this initiative in direct response to unemployment caused by COVID-19, but we believe it can be a much more long-term tool for companies, across countries and across industries.

Related: Coalition launches to connect unemployed with jobs

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I like to say HR has been in the “front seat” of this crisis, and we will continue to be as the working world evolves as a result of this pandemic. Our community of HR professionals has handled this challenging environment with the utmost empathy and care for our workforces, for our people, and for their families. I am so inspired by the compassion I have seen this year.

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

Buckingham: We’re all working to figure that out in this ever-changing environment. At Lincoln, we’re monitoring the progression of the virus constantly, and we’re getting real-time advice from global and domestic experts as we see progress with the vaccines. This is informing our approach as we plan for an eventual return to our offices, and each day we learn more.

Related: HR’s next big job: Convincing employees to get COVID vaccines

But beyond the pandemic, I believe 2020 has forever changed the ways we work. One of the silver linings is the learning this experience has brought us. At Lincoln, we know that work-from-home, flexible work arrangements, and physical office space are all valuable in different ways and will continue to be. We’re also factoring in feedback from our employees. This experience has been new and different for all of us, and our employees have been incredible. Because of their commitment to our customers and our focus on digital technology, we’ve been able to continue working from home, while keeping the protection of the health and safety of our people top of mind.

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Another major theme today that I see continuing as we move forward is an enhanced focus on employee communications, engagement and feedback. Yes—this was very important prior to COVID-19, but today it is absolutely pivotal. We have asked our employees for feedback every single step of the way—when COVID-19 first hit the U.S. and we wanted to learn more about what they needed to work from home, as the school year started and we gathered intel on what our working parents were struggling with and how we could help, and as we have planned for our eventual return to our offices and what that will look like. This focus on employee feedback—and robust employee communication, internal and social—will continue to be crucial moving forward.

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

Buckingham: Continuing to help our people—and the broader working world—get through this pandemic.

The pandemic is not “over” just because 2020 is over … and it’s so critical that we continue to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our workforces. And when I say wellbeing, I mean physical, emotional, financial … all of it. As employers, we must continue to look at our benefit offerings, our policies, our support tools, our capabilities with a critical eye and ensure we are helping our people as much as we possibly can.

We know 2021 will continue to pose unique challenges—and as HR professionals, we will continue to help our people navigate those challenges with compassion.

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Elizabeth Clarke
Elizabeth Clarke is executive editor of Human Resource Executive. She earned a journalism degree from the University of Florida and then spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor in South Florida before joining HRE. Elizabeth lives with her family in Palm Beach County. She can be reached at [email protected].