Strategic HR

5 areas forward-thinking HR leaders are prioritising in 2021

Forward Thinking

The COVID-19 pandemic has become the biggest catalyst for business transformation of our time – and HR now finds itself at the forefront of delivering that change.


Every organisation has been forced to press the reset button on normal operations and resolve unprecedented challenges to survive as a business. As the recovery process continues, HR professionals now play a crucial role in redesigning their organisation for the better whilst maximising the health, wellbeing, and performance of their people.


We can’t ignore the fact that the pandemic has shifted the way organisations structure themselves and how they manage their workforce. All HR departments have been given a mandate to strengthen their services, build greater resilience and develop more efficient ways of working wherever possible.


And that has huge implications in terms of culture, technology, communications, remote working, recruitment, L&D, and many other core functions.


One thing’s certain: things won’t be going back to exactly the way they were.


Despite this fact, very few are prepared for the future. Our HR Transformation Survey 2020 found that only 23% of HR departments have a clear plan to manage the transition to the ‘new normal’. Given that preparation is absolutely essential to avoid ongoing disruption and poor performance, this finding is concerning.


So what should HR and business leaders be focusing on in 2021? What areas are going to need the most attention as we prepare for business recovery? And how can we best support our people to get us there?


Here are 5 areas forward-thinking HR leaders and prioritising in 2021.



1.  Strengthen your digital foundation


"88% of HR professionals expect their department to review technologies and ‘normal’ ways of working as a result of COVID-19"

Source: HR Transformation Survey 2020, Access Group


HR’s reliance on new technologies and secure digital systems has been pushed to the extreme by the global lockdown; though it’s also created huge opportunities for companies to transform their day-to-day operations and culture.


The scale and speed of change is like nothing we’ve seen before. HR professionals across all industries are facing the ongoing challenge to maintain culture, communications, and resources across a predominantly remote workforce. And whereas departments that already had a strong digital infrastructure in place have been able to adapt far more effectively than those without, every business has been forced to accelerate their digital transformation in some way.


Any HR department that relied on outdated legacy systems or on-premise file storage will have struggled enormously to carry out their plans for business continuity. For these organisations, the pandemic will have been an alarming wake-up call to analyse their approach and start integrating the digital tools necessary to become more resilient, productive, and agile as an organisation.


As businesses continue to navigate their own recovery, HR will play a pivotal role in validating new systems and ways of working as standard practice. This is a chance for HR to rethink outdated solutions and transform the way that people services are both perceived and delivered.



2.  Prioritise health and wellbeing


"86% of HR teams are performing regular check-ins with people as part of their effort to maintain employee health and wellbeing in 2021"

Source: HR Transformation Survey 2020, Access Group


The pandemic has put employee health and wellbeing directly in the spotlight, and more and more organisations are now realising how HR software and online support portals can transform the way their internal services are delivered.


Having a centralised view of their entire organisation is a crucial first step.


From there, managers can maintain open channels of communication, check-in on individuals and provide a clear route to report issues or absence. Cloud computing and self-service portals are streamlining key processes and revolutionising the way employees access information and engage with HR. That leaves far more time for the bigger picture of people management.


Culture is everything in times like this and organisations have a real chance to build their brand as an employer, minimise churn, and retain their top performers for the long haul. This isn’t just about covering short-term challenges; it’s also about preparing the groundwork for wellbeing for years to come.



3.  Rethink your talent strategy


"57% of in-house recruiters say preparing for the future is now their top priority"

Source: Recruitment Pulse Survey 2020, Volcanic


For most in-house recruiters and hiring managers, it’s been impossible not to recognise the widespread disruption the pandemic has caused within the Australian jobs market.


According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of job vacancies had fallen by 43% in May 2020, making it the largest drop ever, as companies across all industries take stock of their situation and prioritise recovery. Many organisations have also struggled to adapt to new ways of working and simply did not have the right solutions in place to enable their hiring teams to continue working as normal from home.


Those that rely primarily on on-premise solutions and analogue onboarding processes have been hit the hardest. Some employers will have had to freeze their recruitment because they can no longer manage employee inductions and initial training on-site. Others have faced serious issues with tracking and assessing candidates remotely and maintaining confidence within their pipeline.


Where challenges have arisen, HR must now rethink the ways in which they support in-house recruiters to thrive in the modern landscape of hiring. Yes, digital tools and agile working are vital for business continuity, but these are ultimately long-term investments that can lead to substantial gains in productivity further down the line.



4.  Embrace the rise of eLearning


"65% of HR professionals believe eLearning solutions will become more important as a result of the pandemic"

Source: HR Transformation Survey 2020, Access Group


As businesses and HR professionals continue to rethink their strategy for the remainder of the year and beyond, learning and development is a key area of transformation that’s being discussed.


Inevitably, in-person training sessions were one of the first initiatives to be cancelled following the government-mandated social distancing regulations. Every company now faces the ongoing challenge to migrate their training to an online platform so that employees can continue working – and learning – from home at any time.


Ongoing risk and compliance training has been crucial to share important updates and keep staff updated on new regulations since the COVID-19 outbreak first emerged. Top employers have also ensured their people have continual access to expert advice around remote working, data security and personal health and safety. Many more have been forced to find new ways to upskill staff quickly in order to support their businesses in a critical area of response.


eLearning has therefore become an essential solution for organisations during their recovery process, though it’s also clear the situation is prompting many businesses to broaden their thinking around the way that L&D is delivered going forwards.



5.  Protect your company data 


"An average of 164 cybercrime reports are made by Australians every day — about one report every 10 minutes"

Source: Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC)


The ongoing shift to remote working and cloud solutions presents a new set of challenges for HR, though none more potentially damaging than data security gaps and poor protection for remote systems.


As recovery from COVID-19 continues, it’s vital that organisations keep their personal and company data protected at all times. The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) and the NZ Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) have highlighted the need to be more vigilant regarding the rise of cybercrime, phishing attempts and other data security threats during the pandemic, and these risks remain.


HR will need to transform its approach to meet the challenge head-on. Data security is no longer an option for modern businesses and the importance of carrying out regular risk assessments and only using software that has strong password and encryption measures cannot be avoided. These challenges are particularly relevant to HR when you consider the amount of confidential data that the average department typically handles.


More staff may continue working on a home device as they use their own laptop or mobile to access programs and confidential data whilst operating remotely. This fuels the need for HR to promote stronger cybersecurity measures, offer online training courses on personal compliance and ensure that the right level of antivirus and firewall protection is available for all employees.



Your Playbook to Navigate Change


Now is the time for business leaders and HR to work closely together to review tactics and put a decisive strategy in place that not only facilitates their organisation’s recovery, but that also lays a foundation for long-term success.


To help, we’ve put together The HR Transformation Playbook. This guide will help HR and business leaders navigate the transition back to ‘normal’ and solidify a stronger approach to people management going forwards. Download your copy here.


This post was written for The Access Group, a leading provider of HR, digital learning, payroll and financial management software to small to mid-sized organisations. It helps more than 47,000 customers globally across commercial and not-for-profit sectors become more productive and efficient.