The Future State of HR: The Top 10 Predictions for 2021

Holly Pennebaker

The year 2020 and its outta-nowhere, life-altering challenges made one thing clear for 2021: high hopes for change. 
 

It seems like everyone has yearned for normal since mid-March, to finally reach the end of this pandemic, to get their families and lives back in order, to find justice and noticeable differences made in Diversity, Inclusion & Equity, to see the conclusion of a history-making presidential election, and to somehow, make the most of the holiday season.
 

And — just days beyond the turmoil of 2020, how can we even start to predict what will come in 2021, in our personal lives and at work? 
 

Many of us have created home offices, are taking extra precaution to work public-facing jobs, and even still looking for work post-layoffs and furloughs. A year like 2020 made knowing what 2021 would mean for life at work seem impossible, but for businesses, employees and job seekers, the road ahead must be paved sooner than later, as 2021 is underway.
 

To serve you up reliable predictions you can count on, I sought insights and inspiration by consulting some of the leading, best-of-the-best, industry experts. Allow me to introduce your Top 10 HR and Talent Management Predictions for 2021!

 

1. It'll be a year of building — in more areas than one. 

HR and TA professionals are bound to be very busy making key changes to operations, HR technology, employee engagement, and productivity.
 

"2021 will be a year of building," said Tim Sackett, President of HRU Technical Resources and Chief Storyteller for Fistful of Talent.
 

"Building up the mental health of our workforce who went through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic... Building up our tech stack in response to remote work... and building up our leadership skills to be able to develop and grow culture across a much more flexible workforce." 

 

2. Employers will get creative about work arrangements. 

Here comes the "3-2-2 Model," thanks to Dr. Ashley Whillans, Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School and Author, "Time Smart." The model puts employees in the office three days a week, working from home two days a week, and off work two days a week. The general idea of this structure serves employees who work remote, or who don't yet feel safe returning to the office, as well as organizations that face restrictions in the number of employees they can have simultaneously in-office.  
 

"Some workplaces are also allowing employees to work wherever," Whillans said. "Regardless, all organizations that can accommodate this should be increasingly focused on flexibility. Employees' happiness and safety depend on it." 


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3. Priority shifts will make hiring objectives look a lot different. 

Think about all the changes that have impacted us since March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Talent supply took a quick fall next to a spike in talent demand. For changes still taking place in 2021, there's no perfect solution to make everything better. We're in the mindset that anything can change at any time, including the talent experience, talent relationships and especially, the talent lifecycle. 
 

Companies will find innovative solutions to adapt to modern talent needs, including ways to make working from home easier so employees can better maintain work/life balance. Organizations that employ frontline and essential workers will cater to their priorities, requirements, and expectations. 
 

"This whole talent redesign is going to reshape the whole conversation throughout HR," says Mahe Bayireddi, Phenom CEO & co-founder. "How are we really going to hire, how will we retain, and how are we really going to evolve employees to the next level?"
 

According to Bayireddi, COVID has accelerated new requirements for HR to successfully acquire best-fit talent, including video everywhere, bots for automation, and AI for productivity.
 

Talent acquisition hiring initiatives in 2021 will be different for today's organizations because there's so much fluidity in industries. Some initiatives will look like those of pre-pandemic practices, while others haven't returned to "normal."
 

Sackett added that some teams will finally grow after spending 2020 at a standstill or worse — shrinking in size and force.
 

"Our c-suite team is looking at 2021, and they're in full belief that we're ready to scale at a moment's notice," he said. 
 

"And no one is willing to accept excuses," Sackett added. "Start digging into your data and your tech stack to determine the changes you will need to make in Q1 and Q2 to be ready to meet those challenges."  


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4. 'Change leadership' capabilities will become even more mission-critical.

Just a couple years ago, we were trying to reduce the fear and threat associated with changes in the workplace. When faced with the unknown, employees said they became worried about potential impact on their roles. In 2020, we went through that scenario. The pandemic's unpredictable change did the unthinkable — it caused record-breaking unemployment and put us in some scary places. 
 

But we'll have to get proactive and equip people with agility, change management skills, and empowerment to emerge from crises and shift into a positive mindset for a meaningful 2021. 
 

Seeing real results this year will mean a lot of leadership development, and an even greater demand for the ability to drive and facilitate organizational change. In 2020, we put our resilience and tenacity to the test in the face of COVID-19's impacts. In 2021, we'll have to really show our stuff, predicts Barbara Trautlein, Ph.D., Creator of the CQ System for Developing Change Intelligence.
 

"In this time of global crises, every member of our workforce needs to view themselves as a 'change leader' regardless of tenure, title, or role," Trautlein said. "Every crisis contains opportunity, and one of the greatest is the opportunity to learn and grow — and to use each change and challenge as a 'pop-up learning lab' to build the plane while we're flying it, to soar together to brighter horizons." 

 

5. It'll be "pedal to the metal" for digital transformation of talent experience and hiring.

January 2021 marked 10 months into the global pandemic, during which several industries and major corporations slashed a significant percentage of their workforce — in some cases, that included the entire recruiting team. 
 

As the pandemic subsides, companies will eventually need to rehire their people. This time, they'll build a much different recruiting team that no longer spends 60 percent of their time on administrative tasks. Instead, the teams of 2021 will be products of major digital transformation — a much faster one than we've ever seen. They will digitally transform the talent experience and for some roles, automate the process for every touch point, all the way up to the final interview and the moment a hiring decision is made.
 

"These companies will be the pioneers that create the case studies and best practices for others to follow," talentEXP founder and CEO Ed Newman said. "Once there is a tangible business case and a blueprint for how to build it, the digital transformation of the talent experience will be a top priority for all."
 

Perhaps we knew this day was coming, when the robots would take over our jobs, right!? Fortunately, that's not where we're going here! Digitizing won't become unlimited in 2021; longstanding boundaries of digital transformation won't be easily broken.
 

"Nobody ever wants to cut a lot of people for the sake of automation, especially in good times," Newman said. "It's critical to also have the human touch, even though the majority of recruiters' time is spent on manual, repetitive tasks." 
 

Automating tedious tasks like screening and schedule creates new opportunities for recruiters to focus their time and energy on strengthening candidate relationships.

 

6. The new year will highlight automation, fairness, and employee skills.

The new year will up the demand for balance between automation and fairness in hiring, especially after a 2020 that surfaced serious issues and life-changing demands for diversity, fairness, and equality. 
 

According to Ben Eubanks, Principal Analyst of Lighthouse Research & Advisory and Author, "Artificial Intelligence for HR," the approach we use to define problems and determine solutions will have to evolve. 
 

"Our research shows that "diversity hiring" isn't usually specific enough as a goal to help employers improve their hiring outcomes," Eubanks said. "Leaders must think more proactively, such as looking at ways to decrease bias, or increasing the use of assessments and tools that offer a fair and equitable chance for all candidates." 
 

The year 2021 will also introduce a great opportunity for employers to leverage skills as a currency in business operations and growth, learning from the pandemic's challenges that unique skills can be more useful than we've seen in modern times. 
 

"In 1975, 83 percent of the value of the 500 largest companies in the U.S. was in physical assets: plants, equipment, etc.," Eubanks said. "In 2015, 84 percent of the value in those companies was in intangible assets: intellectual property, patents, and skills." 
 

"Today's modern technologies can shed light on employee skills in brand new ways, and business leaders can make accurate decisions on the capabilities of their people based on that real skill data" 

 

7. Resilience will be a priceless possession for everyone

If business leaders and HR professionals learned one hard lesson of 2020, it's this: Resilience is an invaluable part of a survival kit for change. 
 

"Ninety-seven percent of firms that are future-ready say their HR tech plays a key part in that readiness. In the coming year, we must look at resilience on a continuum," Eubanks said. 
 

"Individually, can workers handle what is coming their way, and are their employers helping them to prepare and cope? Do teams have an atmosphere of psychological safety, which can set them up for best performance? Do organizations have the tools and people in place to adapt to changing conditions as disruptive forces come?" 
 

The year, HR professionals and leaders will have to really walk the walk when it comes to resilience, according to Eubanks. 
 

"It's time to commit," he wrote. "It's time to elevate the conversation and make it happen." 

 

8. Finding the right balance will require a lot of rethinking. 

We've spent the past few years talking about change as one of the most pressing challenges organizations can face. Now that COVID-19 has captured focus from things like changing market trends, increasing competition, and steep requirements of customers, 2021 will ask companies to find balance. 
 

Recent years have also shown that organizational change initiatives fail more often than they succeed. In an upcoming year of overcoming the odds, leaders will have to rethink their future approaches, strategies, and plans. 
 

The needs of an office space, employees, and the business are bound to change in 2021 says Dr. Trish Holliday, Founding Partner of Holliday | Kenning, and former Assistant Commissioner and State Chief Learning Officer at the State of Tennessee, and so organizations will have to put their thinking caps on tightly. 
 

There's a balance that allows organizations to succeed and employees to thrive, and Holliday predicts a "say easy, do hard" strategy for taking charge over 2021's challenges. 
 

"Organizations are striving to set strategic goals for the next 2-3 years and yet with so much unknown, they are using scenario planning as their guide into the future," she says. "The power of scenario planning is the opportunity to consider the 'what if's' surrounding the external forces impacting the organization."
 

Creating possible situations and outcomes as we head into a very unknown future helps leaders and employees prepare for challenges, and to be ready when (and if) they come. The practice preps organizations to best handle unexpected events and adapt accordingly. 

 

9. Reducing bias from job postings will require a major focus shift. 

As for working to reduce bias and job postings — it's a trend that's nothing new, according to Katrina Kibben, CEO and Founder of Three Ears Media.
 

But in 2021, conversations will develop and the actual changes in content and online candidate experience will reflect a greater effort from organizations. We should expect to see changes rather than just hear about ideas for them.
 

"2020 was about setting the goals. 2021 is about doing the work," Kibben said. 
 

Companies will have to dig deep into their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) strategy, and ensure it truly creates a welcoming place for everyone. 
 

"It's less about bias in the description, but more about understanding an inclusive hiring process," said Christine Kensey, Senior Director of Training at Phenom.
 

A company culture has everything to do with reducing bias in job postings and throughout the candidate experience. HR must examine where their organization is collectively. It's a much deeper implementation of DE&I within the culture.  
 

"The bias and language in job descriptions are a direct result of those in a company culture," said Ellen Hughes, Customer Success Manager at Phenom. "There are things HR should prioritize, and there are things that they actually will." 
 

Companies will have to make culture changes, primarily becoming more holistically inclusive, that will impact the job postings themselves. And then, they'll be able to recruit talent based on much more than quick-and dirty, public-facing facts, like a bachelor's degree. 
 

Reducing bias in job postings takes reconsidering requirements for each role, and making shifts away from those that are easy to quantify. 
 

"At the end of the day, it's about competency and proficiency," Kensey said. "We have to pivot away from formal indicators and break down barriers." 
 

"What can talent do versus what they can have?" 

 

10. It's time to trust your team. 

Companies will really start talking and getting serious about trust, according to Kibben. 
 

There's no real way to see what your employees do when they're "on the clock" for their remote work shifts. Of course, there are KPIs, productivity measures, attendance-required meetings and Slack/Teams/etc. But how do you know they're engaged, performing as highly at home as they do in the office? 
 

"As companies go back to the office and we have a more hybrid work model, we're finally going to have to address the issues of trusting remote workers," Kibben said. "We have to show that we trust them." 
 

Trust is the backbone of strong teams and the empowerment employees need to give every day 100 percent. Without face-to-face communication, building trust is especially vital for professional relationships.
 

Building trust starts at the top — to establish a solid foundation, leaders should: 
 

  • Set clear and consistent expectations 
  • Provide employees with the tools they need to succeed 
  • Deliver open and honest feedback
  • Offer opportunities for social interaction 


Learn more about each prediction and how to implement them at your organization by attending our webinar, Top Predictions HR Can’t Miss in 2021! Sign up now