Beyond 2020: Three Steps to Refresh and Renew for 2021

February 24, 2021

Thank goodness 2020 is over, whew!

If only it were that easy – we just flip the calendar and all the challenges we were dealing with just disappear along with the previous year. We know that the many issues that came to a head in our country in 2020 did not originate then. Of course, the pandemic did, for the most part, but other issues – political polarization, civil unrest, environmental disasters, and the dissemination of disinformation, for example – had been brewing.

We felt the societal pressures in our workplaces as well. Before the pandemic, most of us in HR were struggling mightily to attract and retain a churning and increasingly diverse workforce – one of vastly different generations, values, work ethics, and personal views and needs. Tensions were already running high.

The pandemic turned the world of work upside down. HR had to adjust and quickly. If we were even able to, we were tasked with getting employees back to work in clean and safe work environments that included social distancing, masks and other protective equipment, disinfection, and contact tracing. For some, we had to learn how to manage basic systems, communicate with, and encourage a newly remote workforce. We became experts at Zoom.

If we think 2020 was tough, HR had better be ready to hunker down to a 2021 and beyond unlike anything we have experienced. HR professionals and other leaders in our organizations will face a new reality of work, a “new normal” as it has been called. HR will be tasked to lead efforts to find innovative ways to conduct what have been routine functions in the past, and to bring our people together as one team, to help our organizations first survive and then thrive in this new world.

HR is up to the challenge.

Experienced HR professionals know that the solution to most issues that affect us in the workplace (and perhaps outside of work, also) do not lie at either end of a spectrum. The current tendency toward polar-opposite, mutually-exclusive positions on issues is an unsolvable problem at work. There are valid points to be made on all sides. Most often, after listening to and considering all sides, we find solutions somewhere along a continuum.

But even in this era of extremes, people have much in common with each other. Every employee is a human being that deserves to be respected for their different perspectives and opinions based on personal life experiences. Though different in so many ways, all humans have universal needs for inclusion, to be valued and appreciated for contributions, and to be treated with dignity and respect.

This is the very basis of our diversity and inclusion efforts. We know, based on multiple studies, that the more effectively we embrace all kinds of diversity in the workplace, the better our organizational outcomes and the greater our success and sustainability.

So how does HR leverage the great diversity that exists in the workforce today to bring employees together to perform as a team toward common organizational goals and objectives? How can HR reduce workplace tensions amid external events that may continue to promote division, turmoil, and unrest inside and outside of work in 2021 and beyond?

Here are three steps that HR professionals can take now to optimize workplace environments in 2021 and beyond.

  1. Openly Acknowledge and Manage Tension and Conflict
  • Openly acknowledge internal and external tensions, whatever they may be, and the challenges they present, yet remain neutral and suggest that all viewpoints are valued.
  • Be ready to act quickly when discussions on sensitive topics cross the line set by policies defining acceptable behavior at work.
  • Differentiate between tension and conflict that is work-related versus non-work related:
  • If non-work related, diffuse the situation by suggesting all viewpoints are valid, but that the workplace is not the place for further discussion on the issue;
  • If work-related, diffuse and mediate. Bring parties to the table and find common ground from which to problem solve the issue to find solutions.
  • Invest in leadership training and development for diversity, equity and, inclusion, and for managing tension and conflict through difficult conversations. Support your team by providing opportunities to practice new skills learned in a safe environment and encourage them to ask for assistance when needed.
  • Teach all employees to recognize, identify, and seek to address situations that could lead to conflict quickly so that they can be managed in the most appropriate manner.
  • Introduce or grow affinity group participation in your organization so that diverse viewpoints on work initiatives are gathered and shared with leadership and others to improve decision-making and benefit all employees.
  • Promote cross-functional and other diverse employee group problem-solving activities to build relationships and teamwork across divisions.
  • Encourage and support team building between diverse groups or teams inside and outside of work, such as for community support or philanthropy.
  • Get some help. Stay connected to professional organizations such as SHRM to keep updated on current events and to collaborate with other HR professionals with common issues. Get assistance from experts when needed.
  1. Refresh and Renew your Foundation

Foundational policies and programs which define the expected and acceptable behavior and performance in the organization are needed now more than ever.

Most of us have organizational mission statements and values that have existed for some time. Yet these easily become overlooked posters on the wall which come to lose meaning with the passage of time. Now is a good time to brush these off, refresh and restate, so that your employees and future hires know what matters to you as an entity and can support your mission.

In addition, many policies and programs commonly exist to establish the workplace culture and the expectations for behavior at work. The year 2021 will be a good time to strengthen these, and to educate employees so they will understand the boundaries of acceptable behavior as well as the methods by which those boundaries will be enforced. Some of these may include:

  • Commitment to such attributes as respect and dignity for all, equal employment opportunity, and anti-harassment;
  • Commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • Requirements for workplace citizenship and teamwork;
  • Work rules and corrective action programs;
  • Commitment to fairness and consistency;
  • Methods and procedures for problem resolution such as open door, formal concern resolution programs, and peer review;
  • Avenues for reporting issues and concerns, including anonymous methods, so that employees always have a way to voice concerns and receive a response; and
  • Social Media and IT policies and rules.

Refresh, retrain, and clarify roles and responsibilities in the organization. Define and explain the role of a supervisor, of leadership, of HR, and of employees themselves. Often, roles get confused – and when this happens, confusion and frustration may grow and lead to tension and conflict. It’s always a good idea to strengthen structure and schedules for one- and two-way communication between members of leadership and all employees so that open, honest, and transparent communication and information sharing is strong and supports mutual trust in the organization.

  1. Forge New Paths

In 2021 and beyond, HR will need to continue to find new and better ways to do our work and to accommodate various segments of our workforce. Even with a vaccine for COVID, it may be some time before we are able to function as we had pre-pandemic, even if we want to.

The pandemic opened our eyes to ways of operating that in some cases have turned out to be more efficient and effective. We have discovered that we are able to be more agile and flexible than we could have imagined. This need will likely continue.

Some areas where innovation may continue to rule the day may include:

  • Recruiting, selection, hiring, and on-boarding various types of talent, such as those that need to be physically on-site vs. remote;
  • New reliance on and more complex technology to manage additional HR functions online;
  • Provision of virtual training and development;
  • Live and virtual group meetings and events;
  • New and multiple methods for communicating with employees;
  • New methods for live and virtual team building;
  • Live and virtual recognition programs;
  • Supporting enforcement of safer and cleaner on-site operations;
  • More flexible employee benefit and time-off policies and procedures;
  • Complex staffing planning and monitoring for adjustments; and
  • New and varied options for employee and family wellness and mental health support.

HR professionals are not alone in facing the challenges of 2021 and beyond. We must work closely together with our leadership teams to meet increasingly complex situations to operate effectively to meet customer needs. We should avoid duplicating efforts. Collaboration amongst HR professionals in similar industries or with similar obstacles can help to expedite finding solutions. There is no time like the present to get started.

Need help optimizing your workplace? Not sure where to start? Foundations can help. Our consultants have the experience to help you refresh your foundation and forge new paths. Contact us and let us know what you need.

– Cathy Mills, Senior Consultant

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