The HR profession is ever-changing, and professionals in the field have been called upon to lead in particularly large ways during the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ve navigated their companies through the hiring challenges of a tight labor market, they’ve worked to maintain company cultures in an unprecedented era of remote work and they’ve increasingly seen their roles elevated to embody that of a strategic business partner.

But the job can be lonely: HR pros often find themselves without a peer in the workplace, instead relying on a broader network outside their companies. They also often struggle to demonstrate their value to both employees and company leadership.

To learn more about how HR pros approach their work and how they say they’re viewed, we asked practitioners about a variety of HR challenges and trends in our second annual Identity of HR Survey. We then also asked experts for actionable insight on these findings; their recommendations are included in the articles linked at the bottom of this page.

Talent acquisition, culture are top challenges

HR Dive asked respondents to identify both their priorities at work and their challenges. In our first annual survey, readers identified the same answer for both of those questions: budgetary constraints. This year, the answers shifted to hiring.

After being in survival mode for years, many employers are looking to grow again, sources told us. Couple that with a tight labor market, and it may be no surprise that hiring is a top challenge. Respondents indicated that they’ve turned to a variety of strategies on that front, including sign-on bonuses and student loan repayment.

But when it comes to challenges driven exclusively by the pandemic, culture topped respondents’ lists. Employers of all sizes have embraced flexible work arrangements, according to our findings, leaving HR to figure out how to create and maintain a positive culture when employees are working asynchronously around the globe. 

Outsourcing makes room for strategy

With HR pros increasingly being called to the table to serve as strategic partners — especially in the war for talent — something had to give. For many, that appears to be payroll and benefits administration. Survey respondents generally increased their use of such vendors during the past year, also turning to staffing companies and executive recruiters more often.

Percent of respondents that outsource HR functions year over year

The uptick could indicate that employers are moving slowly — or struggling — to hire HR professionals, one source told HR Dive. Outsourcing is sometimes used to bridge that gap.

HR still has a PR problem

Despite the field’s increasingly strategic position, HR still has a PR problem, another source said. The survey results seem to support this: Respondents indicated that they haven’t been able to move the needle on demonstrating value. Year-over-year change was small, with respondents saying employees value them slightly more than last year, and company leaders value them slightly less.

HR Dive asked: How valued do you feel your HR department is by the leadership of your organization?

HR may need to improve its communication and storytelling, one source suggested. As the “lighthouse” of a company, it’s easy for others to take the function for granted. But it’s always there, he said, even in times of uncertainty, serving as a guide for employees and employers alike.