In 2020, every single organization – no matter the industry – was disrupted by COVID-19. Everyone was forced to adapt, and those who didn’t, didn’t survive. In this way, the pandemic has been the greatest leveler for businesses, organizations, not-for-profits, government, and agencies alike.
As a result, the way of working changed fundamentally in 2020. The ‘future’ of work is no longer in the future. We’re living it right now.
Whether or not your HR was digitized prior to this year, whether your staff had the option to work remotely, and whether your leaders had the skills to manage teams distributed across the world, chances are things are vastly different now.
Throughout 2020, organizations have overcome major challenges and undergone colossal changes. HR has been at the coalface of much of this change – acting as the advisory center for many other people and teams during the pandemic and facilitating a safe and smooth shift to remote work (and then back to the office again), all the while prioritizing the mental health and wellness of staff.
It is through these activities and initiatives that HR’s impact and strategic importance has truly been recognized.
Looking to the future
2021 is what many of us have been hoping will be a fresh start. And although we’re not quite out of the woods yet pandemic-wise, you can rest easy knowing that the hardest part is over – HR has already made serious strides to adapt to the new normal with new policies, procedures and technology.
The next step for is to reflect on and evaluate what’s been implemented to ensure it’s robust yet flexible and future-proof. This will require a long-term mindset shift at every level – for organizations, leaders and team members.
With this in mind, here’s what I believe HR in 2021 will look like.
1. Organizational design and a shift to self-organizing, autonomous teams
Things simply aren’t going to go back to the way they were, pre-COVID-19. Now that employees have demonstrated they can work effectively from home (and begun to enjoy the benefits of it), the new model of a hybrid, distributed workforce will prevail.
And with this, organizations, and HR need to put structure and foundations in place for teams to work at their best, no matter where they’re located.
Acknowledging that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, teams will look within to ask ‘How can we work best together’ and ‘how can we do things differently?’ and organize themselves accordingly.
If you’re working with teams or managers to assist with this process, it is useful to look at the following eight areas:
- Skills – what skills and capabilities exist within the team? How best can we leverage these to get work done?
- Decisions – how are decisions made? Who makes them? How are the outcomes shared across the team?
- Norms – how do people within the team act? What is considered appropriate and what is not appropriate behavior?
- Motivation – how are team members motivated or incentivized? How will success be recognized and rewarded?
- Communication – how do team members interact with each other? How can team members contribute to projects, discussions and decisions?
- Information – how is information and knowledge stored, managed, distributed and communicated?
- Work processes – how are responsibilities defined? How is work allocated and conducted?
- Bonding and connection – how do team members connect and relate to each other?
In self-organized, autonomous teams, every single person understands how they contribute to the team as well as the overall purpose of the organization. Research suggests that these teams are likely to be more efficient, productive, deliver better solutions and be happier and healthier.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the work gets done, but that it does get done, in a way that aligns with the organizational strategy.
2. Leadership and the athlete-coach approach
Leadership by sight is done and dusted. Taking away a manager’s ability to see exactly what their team members are doing at the desk next to them has totally flipped the game on its head.
The skills our managers need and the managers our employees need will not be the same in 2021 as they were in the past. Good leaders take an athlete-coach approach (and in case I’m about to lose you on the sports metaphor, I promise you don’t need to be a sports fan to get it).
In a sporting team, every single player has their unique role. Take hockey or football for example, every team member knows how to work with and leverage each other’s skills to move the ball towards the goal. It’s the same in business, only teams are working to kick business goals.
In 2021, leaders will coach more, and manage less. Instead of the coach who yells commands at players from the sideline (aka a manager prescribing work), the job of a leader in HR in 2021 more than before is to support, inspire and enable their team members.
They will know each team member intimately – their skills, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, working style and personality, and they will know how to bring out the best in them to meet goals. They will provide support and remove obstacles so they can get the job done and be the best they can be.
Questions coaches of 2021 will ask:
- What are your blockers?
- Do you have everything you need to do the work to the best of your ability?
- What other skills/inputs/resources do you need?
- What do you think is the best way to execute on this?
- What opportunities can you see to do things differently?
- How can I help?
Taking a coach-athlete approach, leaders of 2021 will also focus on creating an environment that is psychologically safe for team members (something which becomes even more important when working with hybrid teams).
Coaches will encourage and make it okay for team members to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work. They will foster an inclusive environment that leverages diversity. One that is conducive to taking risks; where it’s okay to make mistakes and errors, and where errors are discussed in a way everyone can learn from them, but no one is blamed or persecuted.
Leaders will reinforce that they too are fallible and do not have all of the answers. Fostering psychological safety in this way will yield more and a greater diversity of ideas, deeper discussion, faster learning, and ultimately better solutions.
RELATED: Diversity and inclusion: the case for mental health
3. Autonomous employees – the rise of the remote knowledge worker
‘Knowledge worker’ is not a new concept. First coined in 1959 by Peter Drucker, the term was introduced to distinguish workers who think for a living from those who carry out physical labour.
As I mentioned before, flexible work is going to become entrenched in organizations and with this we are already seeing a corresponding increase in the number of knowledge workers.
The value proposition that the majority of these workers bring to the table lies in their specialist knowledge. Combined with their creativity and ability to think critically – both convergently and divergently – they problem solve to come up with solutions.
Knowledge workers know more about their field of specialty than their managers do. As such, the onus will be on them to create, manage and optimize their own work and determine how they work with others in their team. Leaders will simply be there to provide the right environment and tools to support and develop them.
The knowledge worker will also be hired based on their ability to adapt quickly to change and learn. As written in Forbes:
How we value workers is changing, and the emphasis now is on an employee’s ability to learn and adapt, rather than their readiness to come into a job with the skills required to do everything.
4. Mapping skills for today and tomorrow
With employees and teams working autonomously and leaders playing a supporting role, there are some questions you might be asking. i.e ‘Where does HR come in?’
To answer, the job of HR in 2021 is to put the foundations and structures in place that empower managers to do what they need to do. HR leaders will leverage technology to reduce admin burden, which will free up the time they need to take a strategic approach to people management – whether that’s reinventing performance, supercharging engagement or implementing your D&I plan.
In this new organizational landscape, the other main questions I’m hearing HR managers ask are:
- How do I know who can do what across the organization?
- How do I have any control over the talent landscape?
- If my people don’t come back to work, how am I going to engage them?
One solution to all of this lies in skills. Mapping them, building them, awarding them, rewarding them.
Taking a strategic approach to the skills of your people will enable you to plan for the future, instead of just reacting to the past. To do this you will need to:
- Understand what skills there are in the organization
- Understand where these skills are located (i.e. geographically as well as in which teams)
- Understand how people accumulate skills
- Understand where there are skills gaps
- Predict what skills are going to be needed in the future and plan what you can do today to address this.
Say you have a set of skills that you can see are concentrated in employees who are close to retirement. Ideally, you would want to put a plan in place to develop other employees to ensure knowledge is passed down before the employees leave.
Your HR system might already have the ability to identify trends like this. In intelliHR you can create a library of skills that employees tag their proficiency in (i.e. from beginner to expert), or they can simply indicate that they’re interested in learning a particular skill.
From here you can use the skills matrix to inform talent management, training, hiring and workforce planning as you can see exactly where and how these skills are distributed across your organization, where your strengths are and any weaknesses or gap
s in skillsets.
Using skills to motivate employees
The other question I keep hearing HR leaders ask is ‘How do I motivate and increase the productivity of a remote, knowledge worker?’
In 2021 and beyond, recognizing and rewarding skills in the flow of work will be vital in motivating, incentivizing and building up a base of skills across the organization.
This is something that intelliHR is currently investing heavily into with the end goal that skills are interwoven into every aspect of work. i.e. when an employee completes a goal, they can accumulate skills. When they receive feedback from a manager, the manager can tag a skill, and when they receive peer review they can also highlight associated skills.
Why is this going to be so important? Positively reinforcing what people have done well through recognition increases the chances that they will do it again. It increases motivation, productivity, job satisfaction and fulfilment.
Reward what you want done, as the old saying goes.
This will also increase transparency of what teams are doing, even when distributed.
Worried about culture in a distributed workforce? If you have team members giving each other kudos it’s going to help build a positive culture back up. Gamifying the attainment and demonstration of skills and good work will help to foster connection, motivation and support – key ingredients of a healthy culture.
Furthermore for the at-home workers who, research suggests are less likely to receive promotions and career-development opportunities than those in the office, it evens back out the playing field. All of a sudden instead of competing with other team members, they are playing alongside them – kicking communal goals. Internal mobility will be a priority in 2021.