HR Management & Compliance

2020 Reforged What It Means to Be HR

COVID-19 threatened millions of lives around the globe and wreaked havoc on business. In business, the human-centric nature of these challenges rapidly placed HR at the center of organizational strategy. From addressing immediate crisis needs to maintaining business continuity as the impact of the pandemic instead over the many months, HR leaders found themselves as essential business partners and key decision-makers within their organizations.

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To understand how the events of 2020 affected business enterprises, researchers from Conduent and The Hackett Group interviewed more than a dozen HR leaders across various industries to find out how daily operations were impacted, in what ways workforces had to be reshaped, and how workplaces were reimagined in real time to adjust to new realities. From their findings, Conduent and The Hackett Group released the joint report “Leading HR Through COVID-19 and Beyond: Lessons from Top CHROs.”

Here’s what they learned about how HR’s role evolved in 2020 and where it may go in 2021.

6 Lessons from HR Executives Who Led Through COVID-19

As businesses struggled to maintain operations throughout 2020, HR leaders landed in the hot seat. They found themselves leading mission-critical initiatives on several fronts, whether ensuring workforce health and safety, overseeing a shift to remote work, or planning long-term solutions for workforce and workplace continuity.

1. Employee well-being became a true business priority.
While the pandemic affected nearly everyone, the most vulnerable segments of the workforce were hit the hardest. A host of existing issues, including inadequate health care and financial inequity, were not only magnified but also joined by additional challenges that further adversely affected employee mental and financial health. These included isolation from working at home, competing distractions in a home office environment, and increases in substance abuse.

During times like these, one chief Human Resources officer (CHRO) pointed out that it’s essential that business leaders approach their workforce with genuine empathy. And it fell to CHROs, another agreed, “to help the CEO and the management team think in a very different way about what is important, [including] a focus on the safety and security of the workforce and their well-being.” Not only did business leaders develop more authentic and personal styles of communication with their employees, but they also began to explore flexible working arrangements and innovative employee assistance programs (EAPs) to support diverse wellness concerns.

2. HR moved into the spotlight.
Given the people-focused nature of 2020’s biggest challenges, HR held an integral role at both strategic and tactical levels. From helping other business leaders scale for necessary resources while keeping near-term and long-term head count needs in mind to planning and communicating new policies in real time to instituting new protocols that protected employee health and safety, HR leaders were essential drivers. “When COVID hit, our people realized how much they need HR,” one HR leader said. “They became much more reliant on us in all the most positive ways.”

3. CHROs took valuable and strategic leadership roles throughout the crisis.
Of his and other HR leaders’ roles, one CHRO noted, “Our company’s leadership, including the CEO and board, is looking to us for direction.” Another agreed that the COVID crisis in particular catapulted the role of CHRO to the front and center. While HR executives have long led workforce initiatives, they now found themselves acting as close confidantes and direct advisors to their CEO.

4. HR organizations that had begun digital transformation before the pandemic were best-positioned for success.
HR leaders who had started updating not only their technical tools and platforms but also their processes and operating models were better-positioned to make nimble adjustments. Those who performed best had already adopted global operating models with shared services and emphasized strategic alignment between HR and business objectives. This allowed them to make pragmatic adjustments as needed on both global and local levels. 

5. Organizational and technical deficiencies rose to the surface.
On the flip side, other HR organizations were held back by traditional HR models and the tendency to focus on long-term plans. “We had to shift from 12- [to] 18-month plans to 1- [to] 2-week sprints,” explains one HR leader featured in the study. “It forced us to change the paradigms around our speed of decision-making.” HR teams that weren’t prepared to do so suffered process breakdowns and couldn’t react with the necessary speed, especially if their use of technology and their data analysis capabilities had lagged pre-pandemic.  

6. HR now stands poised for gains, provided its leaders know how to take advantage. 2020’s challenges have permanently elevated HR’s visibility and importance but have also raised expectations for what HR is capable of and what it mustdo: Add value to the business by ensuring employee well-being, influencing a productive organizational culture, and maintaining a positive employee experience as the world accelerates into a very different future of work.

What This Means for HR Leaders in 2021

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has permanently impacted the business world. At Conduent, we believe the priority for CHROs in 2021 will be continuing the function’s journey of reinvention, ensuring HR maintains a permanent strategic seat within the organization and the C-suite, and carefully considering how HR and its services can be designed, organized, and delivered to be employee-centric so they better support well-being and productivity, as well as create a positive culture.

Throughout 2021 and beyond, HR leaders must maintain and cultivate their advisory role within the C-suite on a continual basis—not just during crises. They should continue their efforts to capture high-quality data but also ensure their teams have capable analytics skills to support informed decision-making. To better serve employees, they should implement universal processes, global service centers, and cloud-based technical platforms with human-centric design. By modernizing their function in these ways, HR leaders can enable continued and unfettered workforce support and business continuity throughout future challenges.

Michelle Hernandez is the Vice President and General Manager for Conduent’s HR, Payroll, Health & Wellness, and RightOpt businesses. For more than two decades, she has built and delivered best-in-class, human capital management solutions for clients of all sizes, across all industries, and around the world.