HR Function

Three big HR challenges for 2021

person working on laptop

As we wave goodbye to what many agree has been a disaster of a year, people are eager to jump into 2021 and start looking ahead with optimism and excitement. But while we may well be turning a corner as far as the covid-19 pandemic is concerned, HR now has a very steep hill to climb – the knock-on effect of the pandemic means there are a few big HR challenges 2021 will throw our way.


We’re all sick of hearing about the pandemic, but we have to face the reality that it really has changed the way we work, and one of the biggest impacts has been the sudden switch to remote working. Many organisations are planning a phased return to the office for 2021, but the general consensus is that the next 12 months will not see working life will not return to what we once knew – in fact, we may not ever see that return at all. 


Large organisations such as Microsoft have already announced that they will continue their approach of remote working “until at least July 2021” – and other organisations have already gone as far as permanently closing many of their offices, with a view to keeping a hybrid approach of remote work and office-based work


If you’re currently thinking: “So what if home working is here to stay? We’ve survived for nine months…” then I wouldn’t blame you. But I believe that all of this is going to pose a massive HR challenge in 2021 – and not in the same way that we’ve seen in 2020.

1. Hiring and onboarding in a hybrid world of work


Many organisations paused recruitment efforts during the height of the pandemic. And while we saw a surge in recruitment around September time, I believe that 2021 will be the year where more organisations attempt to go back to “business as usual” – meaning we may start to see less pandemic-specific vacancies, and more traditional vacancies. But this is going to be quite the challenge for HR, according to Rolf Bax, CHRO for career-prep company This is because he believes that one of the biggest HR challenges we will face in 2021, is the need to come to terms with recruitment and onboarding in a remote-focused environment


“The traditional interview process, which has already been tested by the pandemic, is about to undergo radical, and I would say irreversible change” he tells me. “HR professionals and hiring managers are going to have to completely rethink not only how people are interviewed and what kinds of new approaches will need to be considered in order to thoroughly vet and examine candidates, but also how to go about getting new hires up to speed through digital and virtual means.”


Rolf says to me that he believes HR professionals should be leveraging technology to help with this. In particular, he recommends AR (augmented reality) as well as gamification, to help select for the kinds of qualities and skill sets we are looking for in a candidate. 


And this will need to carry on through to the onboarding process, too.


“HR managers are going to have to seriously rethink how they train new people” Rolf tells me. “Onboarding packages will need to be much more thorough and comprehensive in order to account for the lack of face-to-face introductions, walk-throughs and hands-on experience new hires used to get.”

2. Identifying and supporting mental health and wellbeing needs


If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know how important I believe mental health and wellbeing in the workplace to be. So you can imagine how sad it made me feel, when I learned that the number of adults experiencing depression nearly doubled during lockdown


The massive challenge here for HR, is going to come from two different angles in 2021:


There will probably be more people in your workforce struggling with their mental health

1, You’re going to have a much harder time spotting the signs

2, I’m seriously worried about this, and I’m not the only one. 


Harriet Shurville, CPO at IRIS, is quoted in recent article as saying “with people working from home, it is harder to spot the signs that people need help”. And it’s not just the bigger organisations who are concerned – I interviewed Daniel Carter, the founder of Zippy Electrics, who expressed his concerns not just with identifying mental health issues, but also with tackling them


“With everything limited in the virtual world, it has become harder for HR staff to address mental health and wellbeing issues” he says. “Far from the conventional way of offering aid and counselling, this new setup has posed a huge challenge due to the limited interaction between us, and those who need our help.”


Daniel says we need to rethink the way we support positive mental health and wellbeing, and adapt our strategy to work in the new climate we find ourselves working in.

3. Aligning HR costs to support the business’s bottom line


Something else that this pandemic has hit hard, is the economy. And this means that for many organisations, survival now depends on their ability to avoid bankruptcy. And while traditionally, HR hasn’t been held directly responsible for costs – beyond having a budget and helping to prepare it – we may find that the year 2021 sees HR being landed with more responsibility for profitability. 


For example, I discussed this topic with Jim Edholm, strategic benefits advisor, who told me that even small changes to the structure of your benefits packages can have a salutary impact on profitability


“With many companies struggling financially, HR can play a part” he says. “Group benefits cost money – and in the US, healthcare benefits are second only to salaries themselves as a contributor to the human-related cost stack.”


Jim says that no matter what the size of your company, there’s probably something you can do to make your benefits packages more cost-efficient, to help your company stay profitable while still providing great benefits to help retain employees. Of course, you should be careful not to blindly start stripping employees of their benefits – this may save money to support your business’s bottom line, but you’ll create yourself a new challenge for 2021: Retaining a talented workforce!