Hindsight is 2020: What leaders got right in 2010 — and what they missed

Social media was mainly “for fun” and the effects of the Great Recession lingered, but some predictions of how the workplace would evolve proved to be accurate.
Adeline Kon/HR Dive

This story is part of an HR Dive series on what leading employers, analysts, consultants and other experts predict HR teams will face in the 2020s. Below are the other articles in the series.

This story is part of an HR Dive series on what leading employers, analysts, consultants and other experts predict HR teams will face in the 2020s. To see the other articles in the series, click here.

At the start of the last decade, human resource leaders faced a unique set of circumstances: The global economy was in the throes of a historic recession, leading many of the world’s largest and most prominent companies to undertake mass layoffs, downsize operations and cope with tumultuous markets. At the same time, the proliferation of internet access and advancements in personal technology made employees more tethered to work than ever before.

At the time, nobody could have guessed exactly what forms that technology would take, and it would have been nearly impossible to predict the degree to which politics and social issues would become a workplace matter.

Inside its own walls, HR was focused on managing a workforce through uncertain times and coping with rapidly evolving talent needs. The function also was beginning to gain more credibility as a strategic force rather than a necessary administrative department.

“We’ve witnessed the rise of talent as a CEO issue,” Brian Kropp, Chief of Research for Gartner’s HR practice, told HR Dive via email. “Companies are realizing the value of finding great talent and developing it.”

Here is what people were predicting 2020 would look like for HR at the turn of the last decade and how those predictions played out.

Social media

In 2010, Facebook was an ascendant platform. Companies were still very much trying to figure out how to use Twitter for their benefit. Snapchat had yet to be released and LinkedIn was gaining traction for legitimate professional uses. In a 2011 article in Entreprenur magazine, marketing expert Ann Handley said “she could not have been more wrong” about her assumption that LinkedIn had limited value to businesses.

There were rumblings that social media would play a bigger role in the future, but they probably underestimated just how much it would be ingrained into people’s everyday lives.

“Social media was for fun,” Tony Lee, VP of editorial at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) told HR Dive. “The business aspect of it was minimal. People were talking about the potential, but I don’t believe they were thinking of it that way. LinkedIn was the exception.”

A study from that time, conducted by SHRM and The Economist Group, offered similar insights: “Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents say their company will use IT and social networking tools to tap into the global talent pool over the coming decade, but it is likely they are underestimating how quickly HR will recognise collaborative technology as a key component of a global hiring strategy,” The Economist’s Gilda Stahl wrote in 2010.

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Fast forward to 2020 and social media is an invaluable tool for high-functioning HR departments. LinkedIn is widely used for candidate sourcing and engagement, and the platform now offers a suite of HR services that go well beyond the scope of job postings.

“The biggest impact has been in recruiting,” Lee said. “Social media has really been leveraged by companies to identify potential candidates. … Part two is reviewing candidates, reviewing their backgrounds.”

The rise in popularity of sites like Glassdoor and RateYourBoss have also increased transparency, creating another public forum for HR, particularly recruiting, to be concerned with. “Everybody has insights into everything about a company,” Lee said. “It’s become very difficult for a company to hide aspects that they want hidden, and seems like pretty much everything has become transparent.”

Focus on engagement, culture

Engagement was a hot buzzword at the start of the decade, especially as emerging tech titans Facebook and Google upended decades of conventional wisdom with casual work environments and office perks. But by the end of the decade, company culture became the focus of discussion and the purported answer to the talent acquisition and retention conundrum.

“As the economy improves, turnover will rise,” a trends piece in HR Specialist from January 2010 (Vol. 8, No. 1) predicted “now’s the time to crank up the retention machine.”

Today, that “retention machine” produces more than kegerators and ping-pong tables; employers instead are focused on more fulfilling benefits such as student loan repayment, flexible schedules, remote work, career development, personal wellness, productivity tools and even corporate social responsibility. The range of options for business leaders looking to improve their retention strategy has increased significantly over the past decade.

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Stahl said the 2010 survey revealed this: “While a majority of respondents expect job satisfaction to improve (39%) or remain the same (17%) over the next decade,” she wrote, “the survey reveals a disconnect between what companies offer to employees and what respondents say their direct reports actually value.”

What that in mind, compensation and benefits became more customized. Whereas before just about every employee received the same package, companies developed the ability to provide different options based on peoples’ evolving wants and needs. “Ten years ago, pretty much every company, every employee got exactly the same thing,” Lee said. “Over the course of the economic expansion, companies started paying attention… The bottom line was the company started treating employees individually, creating more flexibility in what they offered.”

Structural change

The relationship between people and companies has evolved, too. First, the Great Recession forced businesses to rethink their corporate structures and staffing needs. Second, the labor market developed a healthy skepticism toward legacy corporate powers, like GE, IBM and banks, especially as tech newcomers became the most desirable places to work and led the charge in offering flexible work arrangements.

And again, the SHRM/Economist report saw this coming: “More roles will be automated or outsourced, and more workers will be contingent (contract-based), mobile or work flexible hours: 67% of respondents expect a growing proportion of roles to be automated… 62% expect a growing proportion of workers to be contract-based… and 61% expect a growing proportion of functions to be outsourced,” Stahl wrote.

Today, freelance work is booming. Companies are more globally connected than ever. And contract-based or contingent work is more prevalent than before.

But that shift may have arrived sooner than some expected. While long used in other ways, the side-hustle came en vogue in this past decade,“[Uber] was kind of the breakthrough that got people thinking about ‘I can have this job on the side that has no impact whatsoever on a primary job,’ or ‘I can add this job to this other contract job and create enough income to live on, even though I don’t have a full time job.’ So, you know, I think it probably came about a lot faster than folks may have thought 10 years ago.”


With the evolving demographics of the nation and increasing globalization, U.S. companies knew there would be more variety among the people in the workplace.

“Workers will come from a greater range of backgrounds,” Stahl wrote, “those with local knowledge of an emerging market, a global outlook and an intuitive sense of the corporate culture will be particularly valued.”

But they may not have expected the degree to which diversity would become a hot topic in recruiting and public relations. Today, despite links to increased profitability, engagement and ability to recruit across the board, employers are still struggling with inclusion, finding diverse talent pipelines and addressing the structural problems behind the lack of diversity. Moreover, there is a diversity backlash, with one study finding that “fatigue has set in and progress has stalled.”

Beyond any moral or social benefit, the focus on diversity and diverse recruiting channels was also spurred by talent shortages and the near-dire need to fill certain roles. “It’s been a problem for a while from an employer standpoint, finding qualified candidates,” Lee said. “I think that’s why you’ve seen in the last few years, a really increased focus on trying to hire folks from the untapped talent pool, folks who wouldn’t necessarily have gotten [interviews] during a recession.”

Movements towards equitable pay also have driven diversity. “Pay equality has become, I think, the norm as opposed to pay inequality being the norm,” Lee said. “That’s a pretty dramatic change.”

And given the social and business reasons making the case for diversity, the topic has gained the attention of the C-suite and boardroom levels. “There has been a real recognition by corporate leaders that they have a responsibility to be more diverse to represent the population,” Lee said. And you’ve seen research come out that shows the companies that are more diverse are more profitable, have better customer service, have better customer retention… so there are practical aspects to it.”

Most valuable technology: The cloud, communications and collaboration

Of course, technology was bound to make an impact in HR, as it was doing for everyday life and the business world writ large. But its exact application in people management was anyone’s guess.

What ended up being game-changers for employers were cloud computing, mobile and video connectivity, and software to promote collaboration and increase productivity such as Slack and Asana.

These technologies brought people together and made remote work more feasible while allowing companies to cut travel costs, improve talent sourcing and keep employees accountable.

Recruiting has perhaps seen the most advanced and effective rise in the use of technology. From the proliferation of the ATS to artificial intelligence chatbots that can complete initial candidate screenings, to algorithms for identifying a candidates’ potential, the talent acquisition function has been one of the quickest to adopt change.

Among other benefits, experts say this technological advancement has been reducing the administrative burden on HR professionals, freeing them up to handle more strategic challenges.

Business intelligence, analytics revolution

Technology also allowed for the rise of people analytics, and a significant increase in quantitative HR roles and data analyst positions, either in-house or in consulting roles.

“HR has transformed from a qualitative discipline to a quantitative discipline,” Kropp said. “This is due to the rise of cloud-based HR systems which have made it more affordable to implement AI. Additionally, companies have dramatically increased both the amount and type of data they are collecting.” He added that Gartner research found “by 2020, 80% of businesses will be monitoring employees… an increase from 50% in 2019 and only 30% in 2015.”

A few surprises

A strategically respected function

While many successful companies saw value in treating workers well, the proliferation of knowledge work and rapidly increasing relevance of tech skills turned up the intensity of competition, particularly in urban talent markets.

Additionally, as every single company realized it needed to become a technology company, a convergence of roles developed over time. A recent Gartner study found that 41% of all job postings by FTSE 100 companies in 2018 were for just 20 roles.

This convergence forced companies to think long and hard about the cost of turnover, and find a way to genuinely support and fulfill employees’ evolving needs. This included widening the range of benefits, offering flexible and remote work programs, emphasizing and promoting wellness initiatives and comprehensively accommodating employees’ health needs — all things that called for HR’s expertise.

Ultra-competitive talent market

Following the recession and high unemployment, companies initially were cautious in their hiring. Moreover, during an the era of mass layoffs unlike the modern business world had ever seen, employees were less likely to look elsewhere, or cause any sort of stir in the workplace for better conditions, benefits or pay.

That changed rapidly as economic conditions improved; talent needs converged and shortages developed. “I don’t think anybody anticipated an economic expansion the length of this one,” Lee said. “We were having in depth discussions with specific industry folks [in] healthcare, logistics, software programming, I mean, certain fields, where they couldn’t find employees… that was years ago and it’s only become more acute.”

Workplace civility

After a divisive 2016 election, HR realized that civility in the workplace was no longer a guarantee, and that it was their responsibility to manage that problem.

Scandal beset major companies for a variety of problems including sexual harassment; CEOs and founders with “anything goes” attitudes led to a blurring of the boundary between people’s personal and professional lives. Some were venture backed, and thus protected from scrutiny over profitability — becoming a breeding ground for such environments.

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Marijuana, too, has become a bigger workplace issue than some predicted.

“Companies are not nearly as tough on drug testing as 10 years ago,” Lee said, a hand that was somewhat forced upon them by the amount of states that approved legalized marijuana over the years. This has opened up a lot of questions for companies, around topics such as drug testing and workplace safety, and also created a new work sector that has its own problems.

Over time, Lee said the business world has “seen some pretty dramatic changes and how companies look at employee marijuana use.”

Corporate activism

Finally, as the political climate shifted, employers found that a foundation or a group that enabled employees to participate in community service wasn’t enough. Employees wanted corporate leaders to take stances on political issues, finding it a point of pride if done well.

At Gartner, Kropp noticed this shift, citing a few different causes. Employees, “particularly younger employees, are more aware than ever and expect employers to notice and take action on societal issues,” he said.

Additionally, “CEOs have gotten frustrated with the inability of government to get anything done,” he said. “Companies have started leading the charge to bring about change that governments are too slow to do (increasing minimum wage, more parental leave, etc.).”

And lastly, there’s the simple fact that “companies feel like they have a moral responsibility to change these things.”