2020 hindsight: top 10 takeaways for HR leaders

Someone working on their computer at home.

This articleoriginally appeared on Toolbox.com.

We’re almost to the point where we can use the phrase “hindsight is 2020” literally. Soon enough, we’ll be looking at this cataclysmic year in the rearview mirror, able to make sense of what we learned as HR leaders and professionals—and how we changed—during this pandemic. If I had to narrow down my own top ten takeaways right now, here’s what would make my list, says Laura Butler, SVP, People and Culture, Workfront, an Adobe company.

1. Communication is king.

We’ve learned that the frequency and clarity of communication from leaders must rise in direct proportion to the amount of change and uncertainty the organization is facing. If we don’t provide avenues for folks to ask questions and get the answers and reassurance they need, the grapevine will fill the void. (And yes, the grapevine remains intact even when workers are remote.) Some ways to keep connection and trust levels high include video messages from the CEO, town hall-style Q&A sessions, and robust instant messaging technology.

2. Tech talent is still a hot commodity.

I expected the pandemic-fueled layoffs to relieve the pressure in the talent markets, which have seen years of fierce competition for the best candidates. But this hasn’t been the case. If anything, it is more important than ever to reinvent our employee value proposition (EVP), as it’s easier for folks to take interviews, and then feel less connected with their employer when working remotely without any face-to-face events or connection points. As evidence of this, recruiters are still luring away top talent, and highly skilled candidates are still securing multiple offers.

To stay competitive, Brandi Frattini of CareerBuilder recommends that “companies should keep looking to stay connected with top-tier talent, even if they are not expanding their workforces now,” a strategy that “helps prepare a company’s talent funnel for future hiring pushes by making sure those conversations have already kicked off.”

3. People are (finally) able to bring their full selves to work.

The professional facades we wear in the office have been slipping somewhat in the new world of Zoom. We give each other wide latitude when a cat walks across a keyboard, a dog barks in the background, or a preschooler loudly hollers for help in the bathroom. Photos and memorabilia in the backgrounds hint at hobbies and life events. I believe that seeing these new sides of our colleagues humanizes us and connects us in a multidimensional way that will benefit us going forward.

4. Technology has leveled the playing field.

Conference room limitations are a thing of the past, making it possible to invite a wider array of voices to participate in online and remote meetings. Company-wide townhall meetings are now just a click away. And when it comes to interviewing, technology can mitigate certain unconscious biases, such as height, body size, and even class differences, since we only see candidates from the shoulders up—and digital backgrounds can be used to mask our home environments. We may even decide that video interviews help us remain more objective about the qualities we’re looking for most in new hires. And it is easier than ever to be inclusive with meeting participants as there aren’t room size or location limitations.

5. Work perks are being redefined.

Without onsite cafeterias and game rooms, having a cool place to work is no longer the big-ticket employee value proposition. Employers are turning to more impactful perks, like paid leave, pet benefits, financial wellness, flexible schedules, and mental health resources.

6. We can’t ignore mental health.

One unfortunate side effect of the pandemic has been a three-fold increase in anxiety symptoms and a four-fold increase in depression rates, compared to the same time period in 2019, according to the CDC. These invisible disabilities need to be brought to the forefront. We need to plan for capacity so we can manage the time off folks might need to take care of themselves and their families as the days get darker, the weather turns colder, and we enter the pandemic’s third wave. Organizations could consider offering recharge days, improving mental health benefits (or better communicating existing benefits), and re-centering the corporate culture around intrinsic motivators like purpose, potential, and play.

7. Corporate real estate footprints will shrink permanently.

With 84% of talent acquisition teams adapting their processes to work remotely, it’s hard to imagine us ever returning to a primarily in-office workforce. I predict more and more companies will reduce office real estate and add more hoteling or hot desking options and collaboration spaces, so people can come to the office to mingle and work together, but retreat to their home offices for more focused, productive time. These smaller office arrangements will also need to address acoustic and video issues to make it easier to host meetings where half of the participants are meeting in person and half are joining remotely.

8. Engagement must be a priority.

As many organizations struggle financially during these challenging times, salaries and people-related expenses continue to comprise a significant portion of the budget. It’s important to remember that it’s the people who drive the innovation and strategy of the business; they’re the key differentiators at any company. Company leadership should identify those critical talent segments of hard-to-find, impossible-to-replace, highly impactful contributors and conduct “stay interviews” with them, to understand their motivations and help actualize their desires—before the competition comes knocking. Remember: developing and creating leaders who use more than compensation and emotional pressure to get things done will drive and sustain engagement long after the pandemic is a memory.

9. The digital work experience matters more than ever.

The pandemic has given rise to an even greater emphasis on the digital work experience. If you don’t have technology in place that connects team members seamlessly, acts as a central nervous system for work, and enables rapid feedback loops in order to encourage individual learning and team progress, your top performers may seek out organizations that can provide these things. The workforce is increasingly comprised of digital natives who are looking to drive insight and impact with today’s most powerful tech tools.

10. We are realizing just how connected we all are.

Above all, this pandemic has taught us that our individual choices can and do affect everyone around us. On a more macro level, when one industry is impacted (like travel), so are countless others (like catering, facilities, speakers and presenters, and so on). When hospitality workers lose their jobs and can’t spend, retail businesses are affected. When schools close and parents can’t work, there are widespread impacts financially, educationally, and emotionally. My hope is that the lessons we’ve learned, especially on this front, will motivate all organizations—from corporate to government to non-profit—to create more sustainable and equitable systems to help us weather not only the challenges we’re facing today but whatever the future has in store.