Editor’s note: This story is part of the HR Dive Outlook on 2021, a series on the trends that will shape the industry in 2021. For a look at the business trends affecting other industries, see the Dive Outlook on 2021.
Any hopes HR leaders had for thoughtful tech transformation at the beginning of 2020 may have been dashed as soon as the first lockdown orders went out. Many leaders had to figure out how to operate a digital workspace in just a few days' time, Ron Hanscome, vice president, research in the Gartner HR practice, told HR Dive.
After a potentially slapdash transformation, questions proliferated. How are employees feeling? How does HR make sure a disparate workforce feels heard? How does HR ensure people are working?
Coming face to face with technology limitations last year starkly clarified priorities for 2021 and beyond, experts said; employers are now focused on performance management and solid employee experience even while remote. But a tumultuous 2020 has also highlighted where HR still struggles, particularly data management and in the IT relationship.
Do systems support these pivots made in the wake of 2020's many changes? "I think from a performance management perspective, it's more complicated," Katy Tynan, principal analyst at Forrester, told HR Dive. "And more anxiety-inducing."
Adapting to the hybrid workplace
As companies take stock after 2020, they can largely be sorted into three buckets, Tynan said.
First are the industries in survival mode, like airlines and travel; coronavirus "changed fundamentally how they do business," Tynan said. Some are in massive growth mode, like delivery service companies. The bulk, however, are in "adapting" mode — the companies that had to do something differently, but generally feel fairly stable.
"And that's not to say none of those are stressful," Tynan said. "People universally feel they are working harder, struggling to balance home and family and struggling to understand what's expected of them."
In response, employers realized they need "a much more continuous approach to gathering employee feedback and goals management," Hanscome said. That approach extends to reward and recognition through giving kudos and supporting those who are doing well, as well as learning, which can be consumed when needed for certain tasks.
The biggest shift for employers, however, may be the actual structure of the workplace itself — one a tech shift is enabling. "There will always be a need to travel and co-locate for certain situations, but the effectiveness of tele-commuting and video conferencing is making most organizations challenge their prior travel norms," Gary Cole, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, HR transformation and digital employee experience, said in an email. Some organizations are even reevaluating their real-estate strategies thanks to the proliferation of remote work, he added.
"I think it is fair to say that organizations are going to need to plan for hybrid work environments," Hanscome said. The implications, he noted, are wide: How do you handle workspace management, like cubicle hoteling — booking space in the office, especially during times of social distancing — while also managing a disparate workforce? Finding the answers to those questions has not typically been under the HR umbrella, Hanscome said, which speaks to the rising place of tools management in the HR function.
Adjusting to this change has required employers to supplement their usual annual engagement survey with pulse surveys, Hanscome said, including surveys that take place after events like onboarding. But that leads to another problem for HR: a deluge of data.
Managing the data deluge
"I think HR recognizes data is a powerful asset," Tynan said, "and they know they are not using it well."
HR is used to maintaining databases of names, addresses and other sensitive information thanks to the requirements of payroll, but "that ecosystem has just exploded," Tynan said. Employers can now gather data about learning, engagement, wellness, benefits, how employees are working and beyond, but they "don't know how to secure or use it," Tynan said, especially because those insights tend to be spread across different tools or platforms.
"When you listen to the vendors, they sing you a beautiful song about how they have all this integrated data about how your talent is feeling at any given moment," Tynan said, "but most organizations are not able to have that level of visibility."
This problem isn't new, but employers have gotten better about their approach, Hanscome said. "More and more people are coming into the [HR] function with the ability to handle and deal with data," he said, but there is "still a long way to go."
Tech providers have recognized the problem, both Hanscome and Tynan said, including that vendors can't operate in a vacuum. "What I have heard from HCM vendors is that no one gets to be the single source of truth," Tynan said. "No one has the luxury of saying 'just buy our stuff'. Because of that, those vendors are increasingly trying to help clients navigate this data downpour."
HR and IT expertise
Thanks to all of the above, HR and IT have had to improve their relationship in 2020 — though there is still work to be done, Tynan said.
"HR and IT in most organizations are not as good friends as they need to be," she said. "Both of them think of each other as the 'party of no.'" And while both are working on a more service-oriented approach, "I still don't see enough relationship building between HR and IT," Tynan said.
While HR may have once thought it could "escape IT," Hanscome said, the proliferation of cloud solutions for the workplace has further pushed these branches together. HR's increased reliance on platforms that are based in the cloud — which are thus updated "several times a year" — only highlights the importance of an HR and IT function that oversees information management more generally.
"Part of what you're buying with the cloud is an ongoing stream of updates, but if you don't have the resources or rigor to monitor those updates and their value, you aren't getting what you paid for," Hanscome said.
To fully take advantage of the newest and shiniest HR tech, a new mindset may be needed, he added. The past year showcased the need for various workplace events, such as onboarding, to easily be performed across several functions. And employers have work to do.
"Holistic [workforce experience], when truly embraced by an organization, forces a new level of coordination, collaboration, cooperation and communication the likes of what few companies will have seen to date," Cole said.
2021: The year of cleaning up the digital experience
For the HR tech space, 2021 may be marked by attempts to "clean up" the reactive strategies put in place during 2020 and turn strategies that worked into long-term plans and processes, Tynan said. 2021 may not be the year IT and HR become best friends — both will be "busy rectifying all of what happened" in 2020 — but tides could turn in 2022, she added.
The challenge of 2021, Tynan said, is that the HR tech ecosystem is rapidly evolving and doing so in increasingly complex ways. "On the plus side, you are going to have a lot more choices and tools to do really nuanced things related to engagement, D&I, learning," she said. The bad part? "Integrating all of these is going to be hard."
But employers may have little choice in the matter. The digital experience, for remote employees, is the only experience they may receive at their companies, Cole said. "And so organizations with a larger and/or growing remote workforce need to design, deliver and evolve their digital workplace and experience that infuses well-being and organizational elements such as culture, values, connection, purpose, and even belonging."
Above all, 2021 may be about making clear that employers hear their employees, wherever they are. "Everybody talks about the future of work," Hanscome said, and for some time it has been somewhat philosophical. But this year? "The future of work gets more pragmatic in 2021," he added; supporting employees in the aftermath of one of the toughest years in recent memory will be the top priority for many.