Over the year that has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic started, human resources (HR) teams have had to accelerate workforce transformation at every level. Forward-thinking teams will be looking at how they can seize this as an opportunity to build a more productive, yet also more inclusive and compassionate workplace.

What has become clear is that there is no road back to the old normal.

Here are a few of the major workplace themes we can expect to dominate the HR industry over the next year or two as we slowly emerge from the worst of the pandemic.

  1. Mental wellbeing is a key focus

COVID-19 has caused anxiety, stress and burnout to spike in the workplace. One side effect of this is that discussions about mental and emotional health are losing some of their stigma. It has become okay to talk about depression, anxiety and other mental wellbeing concerns. And companies have started to recognise that they have a role to play in employees’ mental wellbeing.

“Because of the pandemic, employers have realised the criticality of mental health. Employers will work to de-stigmatise mental health by expanding mental health benefits, creating “collective mental health days” and supporting other initiatives to improve the mental health of their employees,” writes Gartner’s Brian Kropp. 

“What we have also learned is that if we help employees support their personal lives more effectively, not only do they have better lives, but they perform at a higher level as well.  2021 will be the year where employer support for mental health, financial health and sleep will become table stakes of the benefits offer given to employees.”

  1. The reskilling race picks up pace

It’s a truism by now that COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation in most workplaces. Yet the danger here is that workers may rapidly get left behind by the sheer speed at which companies are deploying technologies such as digital self-service, robotics and artificial intelligence. Urgent skills audits and reskilling programmes will be  a priority for many organisations.

According to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends Survey 2020-1, 56% of South African companies say identifying new skills and capabilities for the post-COVID world is one of their top priorities in accelerating skills development. Some 28% admit a lack of workforce capability and future skills remains a roadblock to transformation.

  1. Generational theory gets displaced by perennial thinking

As they get better at personalising employee experiences and value propositions, companies will start focusing less on what separates the generations. “Millennials and generations X, Y, and Z have all been analysed, decoded, prodded, and speculated about extensively, including on HR trends lists – but scientific proof of intergenerational differences remains slim,” writes Erik van Vulpen.

“What people want from their working life – purpose, good leaders, and professional growth—doesn’t differ all that much. To understand our workforce and develop our talent strategies, we should look beyond group differences and gather insights on individual employees’ interests, values, and aspirations.”

  1. Data matters more than ever

With more employees working remotely due to the pandemic, companies are increasingly investing in tools to help them capture and analyse data about the productivity and engagement of their workforce. “HR departments are having to find ways to make sure employees are hitting targets while maintaining a work environment that takes mental well-being into consideration,” says a blog post from cloud HR software company, Beekeeper.

“Long gone are the days of the traditional employee engagement survey, wherein HR would manually distribute surveys to their teams and painstakingly try to extract valuable insights from the responses. Tools that allow real-time feedback are essential for understanding how employees are adapting to and coping with the rapid changes brought on during the pandemic.”

  1. Going beyond diversity to belonging

Themes of diversity, inclusion and employment equity will remain central to HR departments in South Africa for the foreseeable future. Deloitte says, however, that companies can benefit when they move beyond a compliance-driven focus on diversity towards creating a genuine sense of belonging for the people in the business.

People are seeking solidarity in the workplace because they feel society is becoming more polarised and because of the feelings of isolation associated with working virtually and remotely. Transcending the transformation narrative beyond compliance and ensuring employees  experience “comfort, connection and contribution” will translate into improved organisational performance, says Deloitte.

  1. Work-from-home sticks around

Working from home is here to stay, says Tshepo Yvonne Mosadi, human resources director at Heineken South Africa. “As most companies are adopting a hybrid model to return back to work, leaders need to know how to balance their approach, leading virtual and on-premise teams in a way that eliminates the perception and views of inequality and favouritism.”

Furthermore, HR departments will start to move beyond the improvisational approach they took when they had just a few days to urgently prepare everyone to work remotely ahead of the hard lockdown. They will start to look carefully at how they can optimise processes and policies, from recruitment to onboarding to performance management for a remote working world.

  1. Purpose takes centre stage

The past year has offered ample opportunities for personal and organisational reflection, and many of us have reassessed our priorities. For top talent, it’s become more important than ever to work for an organisation that has a strong ethical backbone and a heart of meaningful purpose.

In the words of Tom Haak: “The expectations of clients, employees and candidates are changing. They are looking at organisations to contribute to the required changes in society. If organisations are tolerating toxic workplaces, it will be difficult for them to play the required role, and it will harm their business. Spearheading corporate social responsibility will be high on the list of opportunities for HR.”









[Photo by Israel Andrade on Unsplash]