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What HR professionals should prioritize in 2021

Acknowledging 2020’s successes, and five tips for the year ahead


In 2020, HR professionals experienced what it is like to play a central and strategic role in business continuity during a crisis. What's next? (ATKWORK888/Adobe Stock)

In 2020, the HR profession tested and proved the idea that “better HR makes business better.” The success of one drives the success of the other.

HR professionals want both their profession and their role to be recognized as essential in today’s working world.

To understand where the HR profession is going in 2021, let’s take a moment to acknowledge where we’ve been.

Managing the COVID crisis

This year, we have experienced what it is like to have HR play a central and strategic role in business continuity during a crisis.

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This year, HR professionals proved their value at the decision-making tables and together we showcased the impact HR knowledge and expertise can have on our respective industries and sectors.

While it is a moment of pride, it is more importantly a moment of growth and maturity for our profession.

Experience and best practices have mattered, and we have built upon what we already knew tenfold.

And as so many crises do, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface other systemic issues that were previously bubbling quietly below.

Dealing with mental health, diversity

Perhaps most profoundly, the pandemic has had an impact on mental health and well-being — in ways we do not yet fully understand.

Many people are invisibly suffering from mental health decline or illness with little or no support. With prolonged uncertainty and fear associated with the pandemic, as well as reduced social interaction and isolation, people at all ages and stages of life are facing increased risk for mental health issues.

HR professionals have been on the front lines of their teams’ mental health and greatly elevated the field of practice in 2020.

It’s been widely reported that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) and women workers have been most affected by the economic, health and societal impacts of the pandemic. Simultaneously — and on the heels of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter has catapulted issues of diversity and inclusion (D+I) onto board room and executive agendas, where D+I should rightly sit.

HR professionals have long known the value of D+I but we’ve struggled to find ways to get it attention. D+I is now firmly in the spotlight and HR professionals are the stewards of its future application in the workforce.

Successful remote work

The list of changes HR professionals have faced this year cannot be complete without mentioning remote work.

Overnight, HR teams partnered with their IT colleagues and flipped the switch to build, execute, and maintain remote, flexible, secure and safe work environments.

Balancing the notion of “work-as-usual” in everything but “work-as-usual” times, HR professionals kept teams going.

This kept our businesses going, our economy going — and supported the retention of Ontario jobs.

Fresh year, fresh start

In 2021, organizations must maintain the health, safety and well-being of employees above all else.

With that in mind, here are five areas where I believe HR professionals should put their greatest efforts in the year ahead:

  1. Diversity and inclusion

The data is in and it is clear — greater D+I awareness and practice positively increases performance, results and team satisfaction.

In 2021, data will continue to be tracked, best practices will be refined on an ongoing basis, board and executive leaders will increasingly step up and out to embrace D+I, and I expect ongoing enhanced policy expectations will be brought forward by provincial and federal governments mandating greater transparency with D+I reporting.

We’ve seen examples of progressive boards that set the tone by adopting D+I policies and then cascade change throughout the organization. This top-down sponsorship approach will continue.

In addition, we’ve been listening to a lot of shattered glass lately, with women breaking ceilings across North America – Chrystia Freeland as the first female finance minister, Kamala Harris as the first U.S. vice-president-elect and other noteworthy appointments across sport, entertainment, industry and government. These are standout moments, but the data still reflects significant inequity as well as institutional roadblocks for women getting to these roles.

We know that HR professionals are unique stewards of D+I within organizations. It is our job to leverage the organization’s data about equity, access and diversity statistics to spark awareness and change at the top and then support company-wide change thereafter.

  1. Return to work/remote work

Many felt Jan. 2021 was a line in the sand for when returning to work would happen. Even with a vaccine on the horizon, that line will be shifting many times in 2021 and perhaps beyond.

I believe we need to be ready to facilitate ongoing work-from-home capability with improved government and corporate policy. This must be met with a leader-ready response in terms of employee eligibility and how to lead teams and individuals in hybrid work environments.

We need to be at the ready for a number of possible outcomes — everything from increased requests to return to workspaces for those who aren’t thriving at home, to companies deciding to reduce their physical workspaces altogether.

  1. Continued focus on mental health

Every person has experienced the pandemic in a different way.

Family, child care, health and financial stresses are often not apparent. We need to do better to find solutions that accommodate individual workers preferences and needs.

Normalizing mental health with the same value and emphasis we place on physical health can only happen by tackling stigma and role modelling. I expect mental health awareness and programming to increase and become part of everyday work vernacular.

In 2021, HR professionals should:

  • institute best practices that encourage employees to talk and share experiences and needs, including encouraging vulnerability and openness from our leaders
  • work with management to increase flexibility and accommodation, adhering to “one-size-does-not-fit-all” solutions for different employees
  • track workforce well-being metrics like absenteeism, drug and paramedical utilization and other indicators related to mental health and anxiety-related causes to benchmark and provide justification for investment and tailored solutions that meet diverse needs
  • advocate for getting support from mental health experts and third-party training and service providers
  • educate leaders on mental health first-aid so they know what to look out for and how to help including intentional emphasis on making workplaces (whether in-office or virtual) psychologically safe.
  1. Prioritize self-care

There is good reason that in the event of plane trouble, we are told to place our own oxygen mask on first, and then assist others.

It’s because the old adage is true — if we don’t take care of ourselves, we will be unable to take care of others.

I’ve spoken with many colleagues this year and folks are understandably tired. Please remember to take the advice and counsel you provide your teams, and take the time you need to rest, recover and recharge.

You’re doing an incredible job and we need you to stay well and be ready for a new kind of “second wave” where HR will lead the next evolution of the modern workplace.

  1. Provide executive-level counsel

We have a seat at the strategic table, so let’s not give it up. Let’s drill the seat to the floor in 2021!

HR teams should come together to creatively solve their organization’s most pressing problems, while not missing out on the opportunities associated with business recovery.

Nothing is static. The pandemic continues to shift public thinking and corporate priorities.  This means we need to lead and shape the highest-performing workforces, setting them up to handle whatever challenges come their way and being bold in our counsel to executives about how to accelerate progress with highly-aligned talent strategies.

To do this, the greatest impact can be made by building an integrated business and human capital strategy for the organization.

This must be a comprehensive exercise, co-ordinated with all parts of the business.

The strategy should account for how technology supports communication, learning and training, and also how it can increase efficiencies, track essential data and remove excess burden on our teams.

Looking ahead

As we look forward, we must aim high.

HRPA members are held to the province’s highest standards, so Ontario workplaces can trust us to help unlock business growth and optimize employee potential. This is our goal.

Going into 2021, we believe well-run businesses are essential to a thriving society.

The HRPA exists to ensure HR professionals have the most up-to-date tools and the advanced skills to act as champions for positive change.

Louise Taylor Green is chief executive officer of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA), the regulatory association for the HR profession in Ontario with 27 chapters and over 23,000 members.