This year upended nearly every aspect of the working world. It meant learning about risk tolerance, stay-at-home orders, and “PPE.” We’ve watched companies reckon with racial injustice and seen whole workforces shift permanently to a remote model. Most recently, we’ve lived through a contentious and divisive election.
Dr. Meagan Baskin, Ph.D., a professor of strategic management at the University of Tulsa, is researching workplace bias toward gender and parental status. She said in 2020, one major factor contributes overwhelmingly to others: a lack of connection.
As workplaces shifted quickly to a remote environment, they faced communication issues that only made the swirling social, emotional, and health-related dynamics more complicated for HR.
“Getting them connected is at the forefront of all the challenges with wellbeing, bias, etcetera,” Baskin said. “It all stems from the inability to be connected with each other.”
Baskin said employers learned a lot about remote work in 2020, but they’ll need to reckon with challenges presented by a remote environment if they hope to successfully move forward. And they’ll need to do so at a time when everything is in flux.
“We’re having a crisis,” Baskin said. “It’s not business as usual.”
As we (finally) approach 2021, we wondered what lessons—about remote work, culture, and other challenges— HR professionals longed to share. Here’s what this tumultuous year taught 10 of them, and their suggestions for how we can adapt.
“With everything that has happened this past year, I realized it has become even more important than ever to support underrepresented communities. This is why I started WorkWider. And while race has been foremost in everyone’s minds lately, we also recognize there is a range of underrepresented groups and that’s why we specifically include: BIPOC, LGBT+, veterans, individuals with disabilities or neuro differences, as well as women and others over 50, all of whom experience to some degree being overlooked for hiring but maybe more than qualified for a certain position. We are striving to get everyone an equal footing when it comes to having access to job opportunities. Creating a culture where everyone is valued, welcome, and heard. Ensuring that you have representation at all levels of the organization goes a long way with employees, especially with people of color.”
“If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to think more strategically about worker safety. Companies who realize that their employees are their biggest assets have gone to great lengths to ensure their safety. After all, even a relatively small outbreak at an office or retail location could devastate a business already struggling under the pandemic.”
“I think the best thing any business owner can do right now is listen to their employees. It’s important to keep in mind that you need your employees as much as they need their job. Taking care of your staff makes them happier and more productive, and is ultimately an investment in the future of your business. Happy employees are also more likely to stick around with your company for the long term. Recruiting, onboarding, and training new staff has become far more complicated during the pandemic than it was before, so there’s extra motivation right now to hang on to your good staff and avoid this hassle.”
“First of all, I see that HR as a function has been valued like never before by businesses and hopefully they continue to see the value HR professionals can bring to a company, not just during a crisis. But when it comes to employees, the main lesson that I have learnt is how valuable it is for employers to be able to provide a more flexible way of working. By making work more flexible, we are opening up for a brand new type of workforce and are able to include more people in our candidate pools when hiring. I believe that this is an integral part of working towards a more diverse workforce since we are not excluding people who might need more flexibility but are still able to deliver the same result, like working mothers. The next phase is how to train and prepare leaders on how to manage a remote workforce.”
“2020 has shown us how important our mental health is, not just within the workplace but in our life in general. We, as employers, need to understand that everyone is going through their own struggles at home and there are always ways that we can help. We’ve become more understanding and I hope that more businesses adopt the same approach to their staff mental health.”
“2020 showed us that remote work would become a part of our new reality also after the pandemic. Organizations noticed that employees are productive regardless if they work from the office or home. I’ve realized that people want more flexibility when designing their schedules. Some colleagues prefer to go to the office every day, and work from 9 am to 5 pm. Others want to have a more flexible schedule, be more at home, or go for a gym session during their workday. As a hiring professional, I see that my new role is to understand employees’ needs and preferences and align them with the company’s objectives. Our goal is to find a balance between the need for team collaboration and employees’ individual needs. We want to offer possibilities that make our teams happy and allow them to establish a healthy work-life balance. On the other hand, we want to make sure that our company’s culture doesn’t suffer. We don’t want our employees to focus exclusively on their work. It’s crucial that they also find time to build and maintain relationships in their workplace. My new priority is to support them in achieving it.”
“The biggest lesson 2020 has taught me from an HR standpoint is to lead with empathy. COVID-19 has impacted each member of our team, from team members that have children to individuals that have preexisting health conditions. It’s important for HR to be understanding of each person’s story and their life outside of the workplace and to offer support and flexibility whenever possible amid this unprecedented time.”
“The most important lesson I learned is that WFH isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. You would like to believe that everyone loves to work in their pajamas or playing with their dog during breaks, but not everyone is sold on WFH. Personally I love it, but I also learned that not everyone is the same and some of our employees really dislike the experience of working remotely for the first time.
I found that it mostly applied to extroverts, since introverts, which make up a good portion of the coding world, have no issues working in pajamas with a bowl of cereal in one hand at all times. So we had to adjust to make working remotely more tolerable to our employees by incorporating more video calls and regular team-building activities to keep everyone feeling more connected. In other cases, we merged some of the smaller teams into one bigger team to promote more social interaction during work.
So there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to keeping everyone happy now that working from home is the norm. The most important thing is to look at it on a case-by-case basis and see how you can make their remote working experience more tolerable, including re-assigning job positions as needed.”
“I recognized that priorities need to be flexible. For example, as a company we took a break from setting goals in Q3 to truly allow for all team members to adapt to the new norm because everyone is managing a lot right now. I’ve shifted my thinking and now consider creating a comfortable home office environment as a part of every team member’s desk budget.
As HR professionals, 2020 is a reminder to challenge ourselves to slow down, and take a step back. The pandemic and the election have really caused every day to bring up something new. We have to be willing to take things one day at a time and then make decisions for our team accordingly. This can be tough since we notoriously get caught up in planning forward.”
Looking back, looking ahead
These HR pros’ perspectives on the challenges and lessons of 2020 run the gamut, but it’s easy to see pieces of our own experience in each response. Their insight on diversity, empathy, compassion, and leadership reflect the lessons we’ve all learned this year. And, as we reach for solutions in this new world of work, we can do as they suggest, drawing on flexibility, safety, and above all employee wellness to help build and rebuild a company culture that puts employees first.