From the Great Resignation to vaccine mandate confusion, last year was a wild ride for HR. Some things may not have cleared up much — like when the pandemic will end or when the labor market will stabilize — but HR Dive's predictions build on the learnings from the last 12 months. Nearly two years into the pandemic, here's how the continued relevance of COVID-19 is reshaping the workplace for the long term.
The key word? Flexibility
Between the remote-work revolution wrought by the pandemic and the challenges brought on by the talent shortage, even the most conventional workplaces are pivoting like never before. Employers are more confident work can get done despite drastic changes to the standard work style. That gives HR more freedom to experiment, whether that means letting employees pick their own hours, introducing a four-day workweek or following another path.
Even companies that are unable to adopt certain types of hourly changes can pursue flexibility in their own ways. "You can be really creative with scheduling shift workers and thinking innovatively about making sure someone has plenty of notice if you are going to change their shift, or creating a schedule such that if someone takes two days of vacation, then they can piece together a 10-day break or something like that," Anthony Klotz, the professor who predicted the Great Resignation, previously told HR Dive.
Employers will forge their own way on vaccine policy
Since the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, employers have been trying to decide how to approach its use in the workplace. The Biden administration seemed to clarify this with the announcement of a federal temporary emergency standard in September, which would require large employers to ensure their workforces are fully vaccinated. The ETS has been tied up in the courts, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay Jan. 13, preventing its enforcement.
The stay is "certainly not the end of the road" for the federal mandate, "but it is a significant impairment for the administration to impose a broad mandate under its current structure," Shaun Kennedy, partner at law firm Holland & Hart, told HR Dive. The Supreme Court stay means the government cannot implement the ETS in its current state, and employers will be in a holding pattern until the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issues a decision. That could take 6 to 8 months, Kennedy said — and even after that, the policy may be reviewed again by the U.S. Supreme Court, prolonging the process further.
The bottom line for employers? At this point, consider vaccine policy to be an individual company choice. "I certainly expect there will be some that just go full speed ahead on either vaccine or test requirements," Kennedy said. "And then I expect there will be some that will take shelter in the fact that these [various mandates] are stayed and relax some of those requirements. It just really comes down to a company-by-company basis, to what their culture and ethos is."
Industry responses are already taking shape — and not without pains. Citi has taken a hardline approach, for example, putting office workers who did not comply with a Jan. 14 deadline to upload their vaccination cards on unpaid leave. (The company plans to terminate them by the end of January, it said.) United Airlines, an early adopter of the vaccine mandate, faced a suit from employees who alleged the airline did not provide reasonable accommodations to its policy and retaliated against them. On the other hand, employers in the construction industry have been far less eager to adopt a mandate, with construction workers more resistant to the policy.
Pandemic stresses importance of timely care, well-being support
While questions about the COVID-19 vaccine may still be relevant in 2022, the employee benefits side of the house will need to deal with other healthcare issues. For example, observers have speculated about the role of virtual care in improving care delivery, now that patient populations have had more exposure to the concept during the pandemic. According to Adam Stavisky, senior VP of U.S. benefits at Walmart, the importance of timely care access has heightened going into next year.
"Increased interest in virtual care have spurred us to expand telehealth options to include primary care, physical therapy, and digestive health," Stavisky said in an email. "We're also making it easy for more associates to find great doctors by leveraging data to identify doctors who more consistently practice medicine according to current science."
The retailer was one of many employers to expand virtual care options in 2021, particularly for mental and emotional health. Beyond those dimensions, the company also is planning to address financial well-being next year. "So, whether someone is a technologist working on our eCommerce experience, an hourly associate stocking shelves or in any role across the enterprise, our associates have access to a host of great physical, emotional and financial well-being benefits year-round," Stavisky said.
Performance reviews increasingly continuous, informal
Managers have been exposed to a more human and casual side of their employees the past two years, from hearing dogs bark in the background of a videoconference to embracing patience as workers manage child or elder care. This evolution has helped break down hierarchical barriers and facilitated flexibility and informality in other aspects of the job, including performance management.
The conventional process for the annual performance review is, in a word, "painful," Rosette Cataldo of Workhuman told HR Dive. As vice president of performance and talent strategy for the firm, Cataldo is seeing more and more companies move away from the standard process in which managers reflect on a year's worth of performance, write up a summary, use a self-assessment and sometimes deliver a rating, a procedure Cataldo said "doesn't feel very human."
The forward-thinking approach that more and more companies are adopting involves a continuous process of providing "quick, two-minute insights," Cataldo said.
In addition, the mindset toward assessment is shifting to a more empowering strategy of coaching, which has been shown to increase engagement and productivity. "Imagine if I said to you, 'Instead of you having an assessment, I'm going to give you an opportunity to reflect, so I can coach you.' Just think about the words of that. 'And then we can collectively plan what you're going to do in 2022,'" Cataldo described of the process.
When it comes to learning, think small
These days, autonomy is everything to the workforce. Employers can lean in by embracing the "two biggest trends" Kay Green, founder of learning software company EDesign Consulting, sees in the marketplace: "micro and on-demand learning."
"The ability to engage at the employee's preferred time and location and the ability to learn in [small] 'chunks' has changed the face of training," Green told HR Dive via email. "It also changes how businesses approach training, because it opens the door to creating micro lessons on any cultural, procedural, or industrial information an organization wants employees to be aligned on."
When it comes to DEI, parental leave and pay transparency will take center stage
Mandy Price, CEO and co-founder of Kanarys, said she believes parental leave will take center stage as companies mount DEI goals for the new year. "Since January 2021, the pandemic has forced a 'shecession.' Nearly three million women have dropped out of the workforce," she wrote in an email to HR Dive.
Because the pandemic has turned a bright light on challenges faced by working parents and caregivers, Price said HR should expect ongoing conversation around parental and paid family leave, particularly following related budgetary cuts from the Build Back Better spending plan. "Workers demand better policies that put families first," Price said.
Some companies have taken the lead on parental leave; Pinterest, for example, recently rolled out a NICU benefit in addition to extending its parental leave to nearly six months for the birthing parent.
Price also believes pay transparency is on the rise. For positive change in a new year, she said, "companies need to publish pay ranges for each position; clearly define roles and responsibilities and use market data to set salary ranges to eliminate bias and create a less subjective pay structure; conduct pay equity audits to identify and resolve existing pay disparities and opportunities to improve equity; [and] train managers to have proactive salary conversations with employees." Company leaders also need to work with HR experts to understand the root cause behind the disparities, she added.
Organized labor is on the upswing
Several Starbucks locations recently unionized, and more are in line to take a vote. The National Labor Relations Board recently ordered a new election for Amazon's closely watched Bessemer, Alabama, distribution center, which is set to start next month. And Google was recently ordered by a federal judge to release documents related to an internal anti-union initiative.
In other words, workers are feeling empowered and the NLRB is paying attention. Employers may want to get a sense of worker morale and brush up on the National Labor Relations Act.
Carla Bell, Caroline Colvin and Ryan Golden contributed reporting to this piece.