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Looking back at 2020 – the year HR stepped up

15 Dec 2020 By Katie Jacobs

Katie Jacobs reflects on what has been a challenging yet momentous 12 months for the people profession, and explores its priorities for 2021

Back in March, at the very start of the pandemic when few would have predicted we’d still be living in the shadow of the coronavirus almost a year later, The Economist published an article with the headline: ‘The coronavirus crisis thrusts corporate HR chiefs into the spotlight.’ The piece reflected that while during the global financial crisis “boardrooms turned to corporate finance chiefs”, the pandemic instead highlighted the “often unfairly dismissed” role of the CHRO. 

In the months that have passed since, this positive sentiment about HR’s role during what is a very human crisis – a health crisis and a jobs crisis – appears to have grown. In a recent report on responsible business through crisis by the CIPD and Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey, we asked several CEOs and other business leaders for their views on the role of HR during the pandemic. One CEO summed it up: “Cometh the hour, cometh the HR team.” 

Throughout 2020, I have held regular conversations with groups of HR leaders. It has been a privilege to listen to their insights, reflections and challenges – to have a front row seat to observe the role HR has been playing through this crisis. And there is plenty of evidence that the people profession has stepped up and proved its organisational worth. As one CPO reflected: “No one better call us fluffy after this year.” Another feels that “the profession has found its identity this year”. Some have been promoted into executive or board roles. Several reflected that the appetite from other leaders to take issues they had previously dismissed as ‘soft’, such as wellbeing and recognition, as seriously as more commercial issues has increased dramatically.  

None of this is to detract from the fact that this year has been truly horrible. Many lives have been lost and livelihoods destroyed, and people continue to deal with isolation, loneliness and grief. But if some good can come out of 2020, it would be a reset in how organisations think about people and how work gets done. It would be leaders recognising the value of taking a multi-stakeholder approach and putting people at the heart of business and embracing human-centred practices like truly flexible working. And it would be businesses placing a responsible approach front and centre – what we called in our report a ‘north star’ for decision-making. 

From the transactional (implementing furlough) to the strategic (exploring future ways of working), this year has been tough for HR leaders. Many have said it was the most challenging experience of their working lives. But it has been rewarding too. As one HRD reflected, the deep fatigue is the tiredness born of meaningful work that he felt sure was making a positive difference to his workforce. 

But one priority for 2021 has to be that HR takes the time and space to consider its own wellbeing. It’s the old ‘oxygen mask’ analogy. People teams and leaders will not be able to support others (and that support will be sorely needed) if they are not looking after themselves. Many in the profession are burned out and the weight of expectation from the organisation can feel overwhelming. Next year, HR leaders will be fighting for resource in one of the deepest recessions ever experienced. As a function, HR is often under-resourced but, if business leaders are serious about people being their greatest asset, they will need to put their money where their mouth is. 

The depressing fact is that some of the worst is yet to come as the economic downturn linked to the pandemic starts to bite, government support falls away entirely and the inevitable rebalancing begins. HR leaders will need to draw on their reserves of strength and their increasing influence and credibility if they are to prioritise taking a humane approach while not shirking hard decisions. 

But as many of the leaders I work with have reflected, the crisis and subsequent new ways of working, from normalised remote working to more ‘humane’ leadership (people not batting an eyelid at children joining meetings, for instance) to more authentic, two-way comms, have given them the building blocks for a better 2021. As one CPO put it: “It’s up to us to start building a picture of the future.” 

If this year has taught me anything, it’s that it’s pointless trying to predict the year ahead. But I feel fairly confident in saying that 2020 has been a game-changing year for the people profession. As CIPD CEO Peter Cheese said at a recent CIPD HR leader event: “This is a time for HR to seal its place at the front and centre of organisational thinking. If we stay true to our principles, we have a profession now that will take its rightful place in business and business thinking.” This year has been a painful one, but the profession can go into 2021 feeling hopeful about the potential for sustained and positive change.

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD and a business journalist

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