HR priorities switch as pandemic heralds a new future

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The advent of Covid-19 has seen a major switch in HR priorities, a new survey has found, with the ‘future of work’ becoming the number one priority.

The Gartner survey of 172 global HR leaders on earlier this month found that 52% reported their organisation’s business operations were continuing at a reduced level due to the pandemic.

“Many organisations have entered the recovery phase and are focused on stabilising the business and restarting activity,” said Mark Whittle, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice. “HR leaders will play a critical role during this period. However, they continue to face uncertainty around several key issues, including equipping leaders to manage remote teams over the long haul, preserving company culture with a more remote workforce, and engaging workers in a cost-constrained environment.”

To address these issues and best support the business, HR leaders are adjusting their priorities for the remainder of 2020. Additional research found that the top priorities were:

  • Future of work
  • Critical skills and competency development
  • Org design and change management
  • Employee experience
  • Current and future leadership

Before the pandemic the same priorities appeared in the top five but not in the same order.

“Business leaders are planning for entirely new scenarios,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice. “For many, if not all organisations, the three-year strategic plan may be gone and planning is occurring quarterly. Perhaps most importantly, understanding the future of work is about understanding the permanent workplace shifts post-Covid.”

Whittle added that since the pandemic’s onset about three-quarters of HR leaders reported that more than 40% of their workforce has had to use new skills.

Gartner proposes that to adopt a more dynamic approach to managing shifting skills needs, HR leaders should focus on identifying areas of the organisation with significant changes in priorities and related changes in skill needs. Roles and projects that need support should be broken down into individual skills and outcomes.

It suggests the upskilling of a select cohort of motivated and influential employees to provide personalised learning support to colleagues, and the encouragement of internal movement across the organisation by engaging employees to gauge their skills, goals, and points of confusion around organisational skill needs.

In terms of organisational design and change management, Gartner’s research showed that successful change-management outcomes required a shift from top-down change led by senior leaders and communicated down to employees, to open-source change where employees were involved in designing change processes. It claimed that when organisations use an open source change strategy, the probability of change success increases by as much as 24 percentage points.

To achieve an open source change culture, HR needed to help managers and leaders create two-way dialogues that acknowledged the reality that change is difficult and then listen to employees’ reactions. Adopting open source change management could increase employee engagement by as much as 38 percentage points and intent to stay by as much as 46 percentage points, Gartner claimed.

Gartner’s HR strategists contend that the pandemic and fallout has changed the focus of employee experience to sustaining the performance and engagement of a hybrid workforce – with some employees working fully remote or partially remote and others at the workplace. It said that HR must gauge to what extent its employees believe HR really values people and were ensuring their wellbeing. It also needed awareness of how employees were collaborating with and learning from team members and how it was helping employees get the skills and tools and resources they needed to be successful during this period of disruption; a period that may become normalised.

In terms of leadership, Gartner added that organisations needed more resilient leaders than ever. Resilience could be fostered by HR supporting leaders at all levels of the organisation and by identifying leaders’ skills gaps and creating leader-to-leader partnerships.

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