It’s arguable that 2020 wrought more workplace change than any year since the Industrial Revolution. Whether it was the pandemic, social justice protests, working from home, or political turmoil, last year exposed deficiencies in our ability to change, to engage in uncomfortable conversations, to monitor the creeping influence of AI, to drive diversity and inclusion, and so much more. And in the immortal words of philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I reached out to four prominent HR experts who saw the underlying forces that significantly disrupted companies in 2020, and here’s what they revealed.
Vadim Liberman is the Editor of TLNT and ERE.net, two of the most popular information and conference sources for human resources, talent acquisition, and recruiting professionals.
When I asked him to share one of the biggest disruptions that hit workplaces in 2020, Vadim pinpointed managing change and doing it efficiently, effectively and impactfully. “The pandemic has changed the way people, including HR professionals, think about work and go about work,” he says. “Whether that’s changing practices or implementing new practices, leaders generally, and HR specifically, were forced to become change agents, rather than passive recipients of change.”
But change isn’t easy, especially deep and meaningful change. Vadim notes that HR in particular, needs to be extra vigilant to ensure that we don’t mistake superficial change for deep change. He describes how, “While workplaces and HR have undertaken well-meaning efforts to accommodate employees and the often harsh realities of 2020, we need something more than quick fixes like Fitbits and meditation classes. Last year forced companies to look at more uncomfortable issues like improving the workplace, paying people correctly, fixing policies, getting serious about diversity and inclusion, etc. Because if all we do is put some quick Band-Aids on this, it will backfire and actually distract from the uncomfortable issues that we need to fix.”
And he offers a cautionary note for every leader, whether in HR or otherwise. “Social justice must be an ongoing imperative within and outside of work. But all too predictably, we’re seeing companies that think putting out a supportive statement or press release is adequate. We’ve heard predictions for years about the need for real diversity and inclusion. But if it’s just talk and companies aren’t willing to pour resources, including money, at diversity and inclusion efforts, to traffic in uncomfortable areas, it won’t get fixed. This will not be solved with a one-day training class.”
John Sumser is the Principal Analyst at HRExaminer, an independent analyst firm covering HR Technology and the intersection of people, tech, and work.
John identified another factor that significantly impacted and disrupted organizations in 2020. “At one level, we had an immediate crisis, including very real issues of business continuity. But that business continuity crisis has actually distracted many leaders from a longer-term issue, namely that HR is responsible for managing the personal data of all employees. With the ever-growing influence of AI on the management and evaluation of employees and potential employees, there’s an urgent need to take a critical look and assess whether this is harmful, especially since there’s a lot of purported AI that is really pseudoscience on steroids.”
The creeping automation and evaluation of employees are chilling, especially when HR is otherwise occupied on dealing with basic health and safety issues. That’s why John asserts, “Both technology vendors and HR departments need to have an ethics function that critically evaluates the efficacy of these technologies before they’re loosed on their employee base. With HR departments distracted by a very real crisis, this technology is getting installed without adequate oversight.”
Sharlyn Lauby writes the human resources blog HR Bartender (named one of the “Top 5 Blogs HR Pros Love to Read” by the Society for Human Resource Management).
When I asked Sharlyn to describe the forces that will cause the most significant rethinking of HR, she noted that, “One that comes to my mind first is the need for organizations to be willing to stand up for the right things. Employees want to work for companies that will speak out against social and racial injustice. They want to know that their employer isn’t polluting the environment. Organizations have to show that they’re not all talk. They need to show action. This impacts the organizational culture and employee experience, which impacts HR.”
Echoing a theme that Vadim identified, she says that, “One of the first things that organizations can do is offer some change management education. Many of us have been through change management at some point, now might be a good time to revisit it. Also, give employees tools to set goals and direct their own learning. This isn’t about setting lots of goals or learning a bunch of new things. It’s about being intentional. And education in change management, goal setting, and self-directed learning will be valuable no matter what is going on.”
Laurie Ruettimann is the author of the new book “Betting On You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career” and host of the Punk Rock HR Podcast.
Laurie identified a 2020 disruption that many leaders would rather avoid discussing; the turmoil surrounding the presidential election. “Perhaps the biggest impact on workplaces and human resources this past year was the election, the uncertainty, the heightened emotional states,” she says. “HR has a deserved reputation for disliking conflict and doing all that we can to avoid it. But we saw how much HR should really be redoubling our efforts to teach people how to communicate with respect and dignity. Rather than simply monitoring employees’ conversations and telling them to tamp it down, we really needed to be teaching these hard skills.”
Laurie’s insight wouldn’t just help workplaces, however. If done well, she rightly points out that, “Teaching people to successfully communicate with respect and dignity would positively impact not just day-to-day communications within departments or cross-functionally, but it could also benefit society as a whole. It’s not as if we’re never going to have a partisan divide in our country again. If HR could face the 2020 type of discomfort head-on and see it as an opportunity to help people communicate with one another, we could have a far bigger impact than just improving a few workplaces.”