January 6, 2021

7 Ways Senior HR Leaders Are Building a Better Future of Work

The CHRO of a global manufacturing organization recently told me that many work changes that happened in 2020 were things his company “backed into.” They were tactical reactions to external factors and were not initiated as part of a future focused strategy. He then said it is time to turn around, face forward, and start thinking about how to build on these changes to create a new world of work. I have subsequently used this observation about “facing forward” as a starting point for conversations and roundtable discussions involving more than 100 senior HR leaders.

The following are seven ways HR leaders are building off changes experienced in 2020 to create a better 2021.

Recognizing that some change is good, but not all change. To say 2020 was a year of change is an understatement. Companies radically altered work practices to protect employee wellbeing and respond to widespread economic and societal unrest. As a result, companies learned that employees have an amazing capacity for change when they understand its purpose, have technology to adapt, and feel supported, connected, and cared for during the transition. Companies also discovered that many previous work practices were based on outdated traditions and false assumptions.

Yet not all change is good. And HR leaders are concerned that some recent changes in work could negatively impact employee wellbeing, organizational culture, and workforce effectiveness over time.

I do not know any HR leader who wants to mindlessly return to past work practices. As one leader put it, “some people talk about wanting to get back to the way it was, but the ‘way it was’ wasn’t that good. We want to focus on moving toward the way it should be.”

HR leaders are seeking to drive positive change, but they are also concerned about inadvertently losing positive aspects of company culture and work practices. As the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. With this in mind, a common topic being explored by HR leaders is: how can we create a better future without losing what we liked about the past?

Planning a purposeful return to the office. Everyone wants to get back to more in-person office meetings. But few people want to return to the daily office commute. Data show that employees do not want to go back to the old way of work where everyone was expected to be in the office just to be in the office. Research also shows that traditional “show up in the office every day” cultures lead to inefficient work practices. At the same time, there is value in bringing people physically together for certain things. And many employees miss having a dedicated workspace outside of their home.

The changes of 2020 are making companies rethink why we go to offices and when we need to be there. HR leaders are starting dialogues with leaders and employees to revisit how offices are designed and used. Treating offices as a resource whose primary purpose is to support people with working together, and not using offices as a form of control to force people to sit together.

Embracing the value of virtual work. The move to virtual work created four specific benefits that HR leaders do not want to lose when we return to office settings:

  • We do not have to sit together to work together. The move to virtual work led companies to shift from longer but infrequent in-person meetings to shorter and frequent virtual sessions. As one person put it, “we used to wait until we could be in the same room to have important discussions, which meant we spent a lot of time waiting for travel schedules to align. Now we talk constantly in virtual meetings and as a result are making decisions much faster than before.” Training has also benefited from moving to virtual learning methods.
  • Your location does not determine your influence. HR leaders commented that employees who were located in offices outside corporate headquarters feel more connected to the company as a result of the move to remote work. When everyone is virtual, then everyone is equally involved regardless of geographic location. One HR leader noted that virtual work has created a more egalitarian culture. “People who worked in the same building as our senior executives used to have more power because they could engage them in informal hallway conversations. This influence had nothing to do with their knowledge or position. It was just a consequence of where they sat.”
  • Geographic location is not a qualification for hiring skilled talent. Virtual work allows organizations to recruit talent from a much broader labor market. As one HR leader commented, “Virtual work lowers the bar for entry and exit. It is easier to recruit people if they do not have to relocate to work for you. This has major benefits in terms of who we can hire and how much they cost. On the other hand, it is easier for our current employees to leave. They do not have to move houses to change employers.”
  • Electronic communication tools enhance organic conversations. There are jokes about how when we return to the office, the two things we will miss the most are the mute button and turn-my-camera-off button. Joking aside, HR leaders noted the unique value in online meeting tools such as chat, instant polling, and screen share. Chat is particularly valuable as it allows people to quickly share ideas and emboldens some employees to voice questions and opinions they might not otherwise share verbally.

hr leHR leaders are concerned about losing the gains of virtual work when we return to offices. And they are exploring how companies might get the “best of both worlds” by integrating in-person and remote work technology, norms, and behaviors.

Building more supportive, more human organizations. The events of 2020 have made leaders and employees more open about discussing emotional and personal challenges faced inside and outside of work. This is described by some HR leaders as organizations becoming more “human.”

This change is attributed to two things.

First, the social challenges in 2020 related to health, safety, and racial justice affected people across the organization. This created a common sense of empathy and support among employees and leaders.

Second, the move to remote work physically merged people’s work and non-work lives. This led to more discussion and appreciation for the challenges of balancing work and non-work responsibilities such childcare. HR leaders have seen significant positive outcomes result from this move toward more supportive cultures, including high levels of employee engagement.

There is concern that the move toward more supportive, human organizations might be lost when companies return to offices and physical barriers between work and non-work life re-emerge. Some HR leaders hope to address this by redefining the roles and expectations of managers and leaders. As one person put it, “things like emotional intelligence and empathy used to be seen as a nice-to-have for leaders but did not really impact how we evaluated and rewarded people. Hopefully we can change this view. In a world where employees are faced with increasing levels of change and stress, supportive managers are often far more valuable than directive managers.”

Listening and understanding employee experience. Events of 2020 heightened awareness that not all change affects all people equally. Some employees responded positively to remote work while others struggled to adapt. How the pandemic affected employees varied depending on a person’s job and their personal life situation. And concerns over racial justice increased awareness that the experience of work is not the same for people with different demographic backgrounds. HR leaders shared that in 2020 companies put a lot of emphasis on listening to employees to understand how changes are affecting them. This included use of online meetings, discussion groups, and short surveys.

HR leaders also emphasized the value of getting beyond summary statistics to explore how employee experience varies within the organization. Average metrics like company engagement scores may be useful, but they can be highly misleading as they can mask important differences between employees.

HR leaders want to maintain higher levels of employee listening as an enduring leadership practice in their companies. Technology is critical to making this happen. As one HR leader shared, “it is impossible for leaders to truly understand employees without using technology to solicit and interpret employee opinions and views. Technology is critical to collecting and analyzing information across multiple people. A leader who thinks they know what’s going on based on their personal interactions and conversations with employees is seeing the world through their personal bubble. They aren’t conducting research, they are conducting ‘me-search.’”

Maintaining ongoing and open dialogue. Research in 2020 highlighted the importance of ongoing dialogue as critical to employees’ ability to effectively respond to change. Many HR leaders said their senior executives are talking with employees much more now than they did in the past. The sheer speed and scope of the changes in 2020 required much greater levels of communication. This includes open discussions about things related to employee wellbeing and equity that previously were viewed as being too sensitive to talk about.

The move to virtual work and leaders’ resulting willingness to “talk together without being together” also made it far easier to set up conversations. HR leaders want this higher level of open dialogue to endure. As one HR leader shared, “in 2020 we started a practice of having weekly 30-minute huddles where people could talk about whatever is on their mind. It started as just a way to stay connected in a virtual world. But it has led to very powerful conversations. I hope we keep doing this when we return to the office.”

Planning random interactions. A common concern expressed about remote work is loss of non-planned interactions with colleagues. The so-called “hallway meetings” and “water cooler conversations.” Companies have found creative ways to replace these random social interactions in a remote setting. Examples include “coffee roulette” where two employees are randomly paired up to meet for 15 minutes and share a virtual cup of coffee. Or common interest groups were employees from different parts of the company meet to discuss shared hobbies or interests (e.g. cooking, childcare, music). It is unclear whether these virtual random interactions provide the same value as in-person random interactions. HR leaders did note that virtual interactions enable employees to meet who might never meet in an actual hallway given their work locations. And there is interest in exploring the value of maintaining these sorts of activities after offices reopen.

It is heartening to see the thought and effort HR leaders are putting into building off the changes we experienced last year to make lasting improvements to the nature of work. In the words of one HR leader, “we need to stop talking about adjusting to a ‘new normal’ and start talking about creating a ‘new better.’”


The work of Steven T. Hunt, PhD; Chief Expert Work & Technology, focuses on design and deployment of technology-enabled processes to improve workforce agility, productivity, experience, engagement, and well-being. He has played a central role in creating human resource solutions that have positively influenced millions of employees working for thousands of companies around the globe. An industrial-organizational psychologist and recognized thought leader in the field HR technology, Dr. Hunt regularly speaks on topics related to the changing nature of jobs, organizations, talent management, and the experience of work. He has written hundreds of articles and several books on strategic HR methods including “Commonsense Talent Management” and “Hiring Success.”