HR Leaders Thrust into the Spotlight Once Again in 2021

The best CHROs emerged as trusted leadership voices in navigating the pandemic last year. Odds are that they will continue to hold that elevated position in the months and possibly years ahead, according to a new report from Slayton Search Partners. “COVID-19 created a make-or-break situation for HR leaders, and those who rose to the occasion are the ones who are prepared for 2021’s HR trends,” says report author John Doyle.

March 4, 2021 – 2020 brought numerous changes during a landmark year. It began normally in the first quarter, followed by the global pandemic in the second. This immediately ushered in uncertainty, and coupled with social unrest, created one of the most tumultuous times in modern history. In the third quarter, the curve became flatter and the economy reopened, followed by a fourth quarter that brought a fresh surge of COVID, more social unrest, and more uncertainty surrounding the election. A new report by Slayton Search Partners says that these moments combined to thrust human resources into the spotlight. “After all, HR was called upon to lead in the face of the people issues that arose in 2020,” said John Doyle, the report’s author. “Tasked with going beyond traditional departmental responsibilities, CHROs had to interpret a global pandemic to determine how to keep employees safe, connected and mentally strong. More than just providing stability, these leaders took an active part in devising new company processes and high-level business strategies.”

The best CHROs emerged as trusted voices during 2020, working shoulder-to-shoulder with CEOs and other executives to navigate the effects of the pandemic. “It’s a fundamental change to the leadership dynamic in so many companies,” said Mr. Doyle. “By all accounts, CHROs are having a moment, one that elevated them last year and will keep them there for the foreseeable future. Those who communicated clearly and built trust stood out in exceptional ways, while others faltered in the spotlight. COVID-19 created a make-or-break situation for these HR leaders, and those who rose to the occasion are the ones who are prepared for 2021’s HR trends.”

Companies have been looking back on 2020 to determine which strategies and decisions worked and which didn’t. COVID-19 served as a reset button, changing the world overnight.

Brian Kropp, vice president of Gartner, said: “It’s critical for business leaders to understand that large-scale shifts are changing how people work and how business gets done. HR leaders who respond effectively can ensure their organizations stand out from competitors.”

That means it is time to rethink HR and adapt to trends in remote work, the employee experience and recruiting. The importance placed on these areas will even create brand new HR roles in 2021, such as chief remote work officer. In fact, Mr. Doyle notes that remote work represents the most sudden and significant change since the start of 2020 and into this year. Studies show that remote work is here to stay despite all the challenges it presents for employers and employees. Flexibility is crucial as 70 percent of workers desire at least one day per week with no video meetings to help alleviate Zoom fatigue. Even though some remote workers are in less-than-ideal environments, half still say they would not return to a job that lacks a remote option.

John Doyle has more than 20 years of executive search experience, specializing primarily in the human resources function. He has recruited chief human resources officers, as well as group level HR generalists and functional specialists across a wide variety of industries for companies of all sizes. As an HR professional, Mr. Doyle has directed the development of recruiting, training, and management assessment strategies for client companies coast to coast.

“With this digital shift, CHROs must also consider how organizations can be redesigned to capitalize on a remote workforce,” said Mr. Doyle. “The degree to which organizational design will look different in 2021 is unknown, but it is sure to be reinvented in some way.  At a time when employees have had to adapt to so much, so quickly and who may be tired of change, CHROs will need to plan with employee well-being at the forefront.”

As a result, CHROs are tasked with creating policies that prioritize mental health and flexibility while still maintaining productivity in a new setting. “Health will be tracked like other KPIs so that the emphasis on people matches the emphasis on profits,” Mr. Doyle said. “Fostering a healthy work-life balance to help support employees will be key. Likewise, HR will be revisiting a company’s purpose and values, helping reinvent them if they aren’t strong enough to make sure people feel good about where they work.”

Related: HR Leadership Lessons From the Early Days of the Pandemic

With an elevated employee experience and a purposeful culture of connection, recruiting is set to thrive in 2021, according to Mr. Doyle. “Candidates at every level are watching to see how businesses treat their employees during such a delicate time period,” he said. “They are scrutinizing remote-work and return-to-work plans and looking to confirm that potential employers are putting employee health first. The companies that have already been focusing on these initiatives are set for successful recruiting, but those who are still unprepared will have missed a golden opportunity, unable to get the first chance at the most talented candidates. In fact, a number of companies resumed their external hiring in the late third/early fourth quarter to get a head start on their competition. While remote work means recruiting doesn’t have to be limited to one location, opening up the talent pool, it also means there are more competitors vying for the same professionals.”

Leveraging 2021’s HR Trends

COVID-19 shifted the world overnight, but many of these shifts are here to stay even after the threat of a virus is over. People have gotten used to working remotely – Mr. Doyle says they’ll continue to look for that option more than ever before, and they’ll want to feel a connection to their employer at the same time.

The Best Ways to Foster a CEO / CHRO Relationship
Proper use of the human resources leader can produce great benefits for any chief executive and the company. It is crucial, however, to avoid misalignment or ambiguous responsibilities, which can lead to problems. Here’s a new report from Slayton Search Partners.

“The key for CHROs is to maintain a holistic view,” Mr. Doyle said. “Change isn’t easy but focusing solely on remote work and neglecting other parts of the employee experience can backfire. While it’s tempting to just try and steady the ship, successful companies are going beyond that and using a time of upheaval as a time to change for the better and stand out from the competition.”

Related: Top HR Leaders Share Transitioning Success Factors 

Change will look different for every company, and it’s HR’s role to lead the people-centric changes taking place in 2021. Mr. Doyle notes that these changes are in place to ensure the overall success of the business and to adapt to the strategic needs of the organization. “It’s imperative that HR systems, policies and practices are firmly embedded in the organization to allow CHROs to remain focused on overall business strategy,” he said. “CHROs that lose focus on the broader picture risk missing out on this ideal time solidify their status as an equal partner.”

Increased remote work, a focus on the experience, and making health a priority are not just trends that will come and go. “They are outright shifts that require permanent adaption by employers,” Mr. Doyle said. “As 2021 rolls on, companies no longer have the luxury to sit back and see what they can learn from the way others react. It’s time to embrace change, learn what works for employees, and double down on those initiatives.”

Related: Pandemic Changes CHRO Role for Good

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

Share This Article


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments