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2021 HR Trends: What Business Leaders Can Expect After a Turbulent Year
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2021 HR Trends: What Business Leaders Can Expect After a Turbulent Year

Cornerstone Editors

DECEMBER 04, 2020

The world experienced a great reset in 2020, with innumerable changes that altered just about everything as we know it. The silver lining of a global pandemic is that it forces organizations to pivot and adapt as well as be reminded about what matters most. As we say goodbye to 2020, it’s a good time to reflect on the positive changes that have been born and will continue to make an impact on our world in 2021.

As a direct impact of COVID-19, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey of 2,000+ members, 2 in 3 employers say maintaining employee morale is a challenge. The same research from SHRM notes 71% of employers say adapting to remote work has been difficult and 83% of employers claim they’re adjusting their business practices in light of the pandemic. While the long-term ramifications are still unclear, work has changed for the foreseeable future.

Uncertainty has been a theme this past year, and the HR industry has stepped up to the challenge of dealing with organization-wide changes and realizing that change is constant. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t predict the future... but it’s always fun to try! As we enter 2021, here’s what Cornerstone experts expect to see trending next year.

HR, Meet AI, Your New Business Partner

"For several years now, we’ve become accustomed to the power of AI, especially when it comes to creating personalized experiences, such as curated music playlists on our phones to the smart recommendations on online shopping sites. We predict that 2021 will be the year that more HR teams start to invest in AI in the workplace. Whether using AI to help hire the best job candidates, or relying on it to recommend the best learning content and personalized development plans, AI has the potential to help our people grow and thrive through change. For example, the pandemic has caused many people to recognize the need to quickly shift their skillsets. We’ve seen this in the service industry as many restaurants switch to take-out for the first time, as well as in the healthcare industry, with the rollout of brand-new protocols for keeping employees and patients safe. Now more than ever, employees need to be adaptable, and AI can help people more effectively upskill and reskill and much more. One of the challenges, though, is that many leaders and their people are unaware of the many practical uses of AI in the everyday workplace. That’s why we are committed to helping organizations and HR leaders understand how AI can benefit them. In fact, to help drive AI innovation forward, we recently formed the Cornerstone Innovation Lab for AI, a center of excellence within our company that unites our best AI and machine learning experts. They are responsible for innovating practical and ethical ways to apply AI technology to the workplace. The benefits are truly limitless, and we are just starting to see how AI will impact our world."

– Mark Goldin, Chief Technology Officer

People Will Take Greater Ownership of Their Skills

"In 2020, the roles of employees at every level, and in every organization, have changed in some way or another. Whether the crisis has forced people to pursue entirely new career paths, or simply re-explore the path they’re on, people are feeling the pressure to take stock of their skills and figure out what new skills they may need to be invaluable to their organization. Moving forward, we believe the events of 2020 have sparked a sense of autonomy and personal accountability in employees to take their development into their own hands. We’ve seen more workers take online learning and development courses this year to up-level the value they bring to their organization. Part of taking ownership of skills development is participating in assessments to understand which skills they bring to their company and which skills they need to cultivate. An accurate view of skills enables companies to quickly deploy their employees’ unique talents through gig assignments and internal mobility as their company pivots to changing market dynamics. It also allows organizations to do skills-based workforce planning to identify and develop the people with adjacent skills to the new and emerging skills required to compete in the future. People will also begin to explore alternate career paths outside of the traditional vertical, functional path that tap into the skills they currently have, the ones they enjoy using (their strengths), and ones they want to learn. People and businesses are looking for new ways to adapt in highly volatile markets and skills will become the currency which will drive that change.

– Heidi Spirgi, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer

Accelerated Transformation Will Continue Across All Sectors and Geographies

"One of the benefits that organizations have seen throughout the pandemic has been the nearly instant acceleration of digital innovation and transformation. The question is no longer "how" but "how fast". What’s clear is that the ability to pivot quickly will be the driver behind transformation, including within HR departments. Organizations will be more open to approaching work differently, offering fresh employee experiences, becoming more suited to today’s workforce and continuing to roll out new or significantly enhanced business and organizational models. HR will play a significant role in helping organizations transform by supporting employees as they identify and develop the skills needed to perform in this new environment, preparing their workforce for continued change and driving the highest levels of engagement. Organizations are having their resilience and adaptability truly tested."

– Vincent Belliveau, Chief Executive EMEA

Organizations Will Master Development Conversations in a Remote Work Setting

"Performance management has been undergoing an evolution for years, accelerated in 2020 as many managers and their teams transitioned to being primarily remote. Embracing continuous feedback via activities like regular check-ins are proven tools to foster communication and drive engagement in a virtual environment. Research shows us time and again that more engaged employees directly translate into higher performing employees. And, we know that increased development and training opportunities are what drive that engagement. So, keeping your employees engaged via technology is now not a nice to have, it is a must have. Having accessible content available on-demand via a variety of platforms allows for this type of real-world, real-time development that can help maintain engagement and drive performance in a remote work landscape."

– Jeremy Spake, Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

New HR Skills Will Become the Norm

"2020 has introduced a myriad of new challenges from adapting to new ways of working to experiencing fatigue from rapid disruptive change. HR professionals must act as a guiding force to help both employees and leaders navigate these challenges. The traditional HR role must now leverage new skills to facilitate effective remote work programs, address employees’ personal needs when impacted by natural disasters and be able to seek out, uncover, and mitigate unconscious bias embedded in both people and processes. Already we are seeing several new skills required and even new roles emerging within the industry to address those personal needs. From providing dedicated support to remote employees or those facing natural disasters to offering counseling for mitigating unconscious bias and change fatigue, there are now several elements of HR roles that require a new set of skills. In 2021, we will see a new emphasis on the importance of adopting a learning mindset so that HR and leadership can not only support and help their people thrive, but ultimately set the entire organization up for success regardless of future workplace disruptors."

– Kimberly Cassady, Chief Talent Officer

Gen Z Will Bring TikTok-Like Content to Professional Training

"Heading into 2021, we will see more companies adopt pithier training formats - moving away from protracted and irrelevant offerings - that resonate with the sophisticated content filter these younger age groups have honed. In response to this shift, Cornerstone Studios has developed a variety of innovative learning formats, like Cornerstone’s nano-learning framework in the much-hyped DNA series, that present quality learning through consumer-grade design. These punchy and powerful videos are begging to be consumed in the midst of a busy work-life."

– Summer Salomonsen, Head of Cornerstone Studios

There Will Be Zero Tolerance for a Lack of Transparency

"COVID-19 has reshaped how we work and interact with each other. The office as we know it could be gone, and according to a recent study by Gallup more than 60% of managers say they will support their employees’ choice to work remotely post-COVID-19. It’s been apparent throughout the pandemic about what’s worked and what hasn’t. We’ve seen many organizations and governments properly prepare, as well as some that missed the mark. Where information was clear and there was transparency on what to expect, that’s where people felt most calm and comfortable with the path forward during uncertain times. In 2020, we’ve seen the potential for so many new communications mediums and technologies, and in 2021, it will be time for organizations across the world to fully adopt them. As the representative of our companies, HR leaders need to be able to reach our people where they are. For many of us, that means we need to adapt our traditional communications methods in order to meet workers’ needs now and in the future. We also predict companies adopting more channels for employee feedback. Right now, workers are eager to share their concerns, and it’s important for companies to have secure channels where people can be equally transparent and contribute to the wellbeing of the organization. Transparency is now expected, crisis or not."

– Jeff Miller, Chief Learning Officer and VP of Organizational Effectiveness

We Will Practice Empathy in a Virtual World

"In today’s work environment where people are experiencing all sorts of changes to their routines or levels of stress – empathy is critical in the workplace. Stanford researchers have found that exposing people to certain situations within a virtual reality world can help facilitate understanding by showing what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. Adopting VR into your L&D strategy can bring an element of delight into the learning experience for employees, and help people work through future disruptions that are sure to come. A question organizations need to be asking themselves is how to adopt new and emerging technology to promote cross-collaboration. That’s why Cornerstone continues to bet on VR with our investment in Talespin (a VR talent development company), that uses XR technology to promote skills for the future of work."

– Elvis Ha, Senior Director, Product Management

Organizational Change and Transformation Starts With Your People

All this to say, 2020 has come to an end. While the year has presented itself as challenging to say the least, it has also prompted many of us to consider how we can make an impact on our collective future. 2020 has accelerated inevitable changes and forced industries, companies, and most importantly, people to adapt to these changes over a considerably short amount of time.

And 2020, if nothing else, has shown us that people are resilient, organizations can adapt in the face of rapid change, and together, they can create extraordinary outcomes. At Cornerstone, we believe organizations that see change and transformations as opportunities will help their people succeed, develop new skills and thrive.

To learn more about Cornerstone’s investment in the reskilling and adapting revolution, check out the 2020 Cornerstone global research report, "A License to Skill," and explore applicable and ethical workforce solutions powered by AI in the whitepaper "Realizing the True Potential of AI in HR."

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