The start of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the UK has given everyone cause to hope for a better 2021. But what can HR look forward to professionally next year?

After an extremely challenging 2020, when HR was called on to lead organisations through rapid change to operate in COVID-19-safe ways, HR should start the new year hopeful and excited. Less paperwork, more technical aptitude in the workforce, and a chance to work more strategically are just some of the highlights that 2021 could hold for HR.

new year checklist

1. An increase in technical skills

For many organisations, 2020 forced people to use digital communication and workflow processing tools – whether they had a lot of previous experience with them or not. As the year draws to a close, presumably most people who now rely on these online tools are more competent in their use.

This technical aptitude is good news for HR. If a baseline of competency has been established across the workforce in performing team-conferencing calls and utilising HR software, it’s that much easier for HR to reach the workforce with consistent HR processes, and to check they’re being followed. If, for instance, HR and line management need to onboard a new employee working from home, this should be a smoother process in 2021 as people are hopefully more familiar with the technology involved.

2. Better use of HR software and less paperwork

Being forced to work off site, or with teams that were a mix of both on- and off-site workers, would have encouraged many HR professionals to embrace HR software – or to upgrade their current solution if what they already had in place wasn’t up to par.

While the initial set up of HR processes online can take time, the reward in 2021 will be dramatically reduced paperwork for HR. Out of necessity and safety, ‘paperwork’ completed on actual paper, is likely to become a relic of the past.

3. A focus on analytics and strategy

Less paperwork and more digital solutions at HR’s fingertips might be just the right impetus to free up and redirect HR’s time to more strategic work. And for many businesses, this time could be well spent on HR analytics. By creating or advancing an HR analytics discipline within an organisation, HR can increase their own job satisfaction by being able to see, tweak and prove the value in HR interventions, and business leaders will be armed with much deeper insights into their workforces than they’ve ever had before.

4. Business-wide recognition of work-life balance as a priority

2020 has shone a light on just how important staff wellness – mental and physical – is to a business. All the processes that HR had to hurriedly put into place to keep people safe this year will allow businesses to be more agile in 2021 and beyond. HR professionals who have been beating the drum about work–life balance for years couldn’t have envisioned that it’d take a pandemic to firmly cement flexible working practices, but they can now use the lessons learnt during COVID-19 to evidence how flexibility has worked for their business.

With homeworking, or a hybrid of on- and off-site working now the norm in a lot of organisations, HR can progress the conversation about flexible working even further in 2021. We’re already seeing ideas floated about 4-day working weeks in the news. Businesses could also consider higher degrees of flexibility in terms of working hours and patterns. HR professionals likely have many ideas about flexible working and how it could work within their own organisations – 2021 will hopefully produce a more receptive audience for these ideas with flexibility front and centre of business leaders’ minds.

5. Diversity and Inclusion gaining increased business support and focus

COVID-19 hasn’t been the only issue dominating workplaces in 2020. Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has also been high on businesses’ agendas (including the overlap between COVID-19 and concerns about some minority groups being disproportionately affected by the virus). Important conversations about equal opportunities regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, sex, age etc. that have gained momentum in 2020 need to continue into 2021. As with flexible working, HR no doubt has many ideas about ways their businesses can be more diverse and inclusive, and with increased world attention on the issue, they are more likely to get support for D&I initiatives next year.

COVID-19 has made 2020 a very difficult year for everyone, but the issues that have been raised, and the advances made to cope with new ways of working, should lead to more progress and opportunities for HR projects in 2021. Get a head start on next year by finding out What you and your HR system can do to make December easier for your business.

Shandel McAuliffe author image

Shandel McAuliffe

Now based in sunny Australia, Shandel is prolific writer and editor - particularly in the world of HR. She's worked for some big names, including the CIPD and the Adecco Group. And more recently, she's been the Editor for new HR publication HR Leader.