5 Changes In HR That Should Persist Through 2021
Over the past decade, human resources (HR) has evolved tremendously. Previously tasked with compensation, compliance, and benefits, today’s HR functions are charged with supporting every aspect of the success and well-being of a company’s greatest asset: its employees. This trend accelerated at breakneck speed in 2020 as People leaders were called upon to support employees in unprecedented ways.
In supporting individuals through difficult challenges for the last year, People leaders have established new ways of making the world of work welcoming and productive. As the People leader here at Udemy, where our foundation is lifelong learning, I believe in the maxim that there is something to be learned from each of life’s challenges. Understatement of the millennium, but there were no shortage of learning moments for all of us in 2020.
While there are plenty of changes that I’d rather leave behind, here are five changes from the past year that forward-thinking leaders should think about carrying with them going forward.
#1. Prioritizing employee upskilling
The surest way to promote employee success is to build a culture rooted in a growth mindset. Your employees stand little chance of flourishing in a company with a fixed mindset resistant to change, one that doesn’t allow its employees to grow and learn. 2020 forced many companies to lean into learning through change and uncertainty.
An organizational growth mindset gives employees the time, space, and empowerment to learn new skills and gain the tools needed for continual improvement. This can mean anything from making courses and learning content available to employees just when they need it to offering cross-departmental mentoring in a virtual world. And, keep in mind that relevant skills aren’t limited to the latest tech skills. Now more than ever, having employees who have mastered soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication, and creativity are critically important to an organization’s long-term success.
#2. Fostering and leading with empathy
Leading with empathy is not only the right thing to do, it may just be your smartest business strategy. The antiquated model that treating employees as cogs in a wheel can no longer afford a dispassionate “just get the job done” approach. Genuinely knowing and caring about how employees are faring makes all the difference in how they succeed in the workplace.
As part of Udemy’s focus on leading with empathy, we’ve been working with our managers to create psychologically safe spaces to work. This takes a lot of thought and is by no means an easy task. But if we don’t make this a priority, great employees leave. We’ve seen this at a national scale with women in particular.
Among other dubious distinctions, last year became notable for what’s been dubbed the great “she-cession.” In record numbers, women found it impossible to do their jobs while also caring for their children and attending to other home life pressures. Consider this telling statistic: There were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force in October 2020 than in October 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What if organizations led with empathy and helped employees manage expectations? What if they made the effort to learn what employees were experiencing during this difficult time? The answer isn’t a mystery: employees who feel understood and supported are far more likely to stay, and to thrive.
#3. Supporting mental health and wellness
In tandem with leading with empathy, I’d love to see a continued emphasis on mental health and wellness. Historically in the working world, mental health has been shrouded in secrecy. But last year we started to break through that veneer and finally get honest. The truth is that at some point, almost everyone faces emotional challenges. We saw that consumption of courses around stress management was up over 1,000%.
Good leaders understand that it’s impossible to work at your best without peace of mind. They must set up guardrails so when people are going through tough times, they will have the support they need to get back on track.
In 2020, we stepped up our game so that mental health is as equally supported as physical health. We worked to create an environment where people can easily, and without shame, ask for the support they need. We added additional mental health benefits that include free therapy and coaching sessions for employees and their dependents. We also added support so employees can plan for financial security, a factor that significantly ties into a sense of well-being.
Beyond that, when it comes to creating a support system for people’s mental health, we understand that one size doesn’t fit all. So, our managers are encouraged to address an individual’s needs: does a continued school closure mean an employee’s work schedule needs to shift? Are there more family members at home that are putting new strains on an employee’s work life? Have physical health issues chipped away at emotional well-being?
#4. Enabling remote work
“Hey Cara, when are we returning to the office?” This, so far in 2021, has been the question of the year. Fortunately, my leadership team has been thinking and planning for this. Like many, we’re thinking through when we’ll return to the workplace and what it will look like when we do.
Pre-pandemic, the default expectation for most was to be in the office nearly every day. After a year of remote-first work, company leaders understand that people can work productively remotely. They also know that employees want flexibility.
But we are also hearing that our employees crave connection and enjoy seeing coworkers. As we plan for the future, one thing is certain: widespread remote work is not going away any time soon. It’s all about having that growth mindset that allows us to adapt to the changing needs of our employees.
#5. Expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts
Companies can’t simply check the boxes when it comes to creating a culture of belonging where everyone can contribute and everyone is valued. This not only impacts how a company hires, but how it creates a place that resonates for everyone.
Leaders across the organization should be asking:
- How do we hold ourselves accountable for creating an inclusive workplace?
- How comfortable are my employees in their workplace?
Udemy instructor Ulysses Smith agrees that leaders must view DEI as a business function rather than a luxury or a moral imperative. He says that “Organizations should find ways to focus their content in a way that moves people toward behavioral change and practical application in their day-to-day. In other words, organizations should seek to equip people with the necessary skills and competencies needed to impact culture and drive change at an organization.” This transition may be challenging, cautions Smith, but enabling the workforce is critical to long-term success.
The time is now to push for a work culture that includes and celebrates our differences. What’s more, workplaces must be safe spaces for every employee. Having a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace is also good business. Anyone who wants to retain their workforce, and ensure they are thriving, will make this a priority without delay.
Let’s make work more meaningful
While 2020 was difficult in many ways, it forced many of us to question longstanding processes and question the status quo. I’m more hopeful than ever that we can move forward together to create more productive — and inclusive — workplaces in 2021 and beyond. There is a huge competitive advantage for the organizations that prioritize the success and well-being of its employees.
Want to learn how other innovative People leaders are reimagining the workplace? Check out Fast Forward 2021: Why the Future of Work Needs to Be Meaningful to find out what companies like Salesforce and Allbirds are doing.
A version of this article was originally published in Forbes on February 17, 2021.