HR departments were instrumental during the health emergency. They worked on communication and staff involvement, found new ways to design and deliver training and coaching to support remote working, and brought in services and initiatives to alleviate distress and boost employee confidence. There is now considerable awareness of their efforts: 73% of HR managers believe that their role has become more strategic and 91% feel ready to face the changes that digitalisation and smart working have ushered in. However, there was no shortage of shortcomings: only 27% managed to ensure the continuity of their business smoothly and, despite investing in communication and employer branding activities, well over a third struggled to attract candidates and retain employees. A further negative effect of the pandemic was the decline in the sense of belonging to one’s own organisation, which fell sharply amongst a quarter of workers, and in the number of employees who feel ‘engaged’ (-16% compared to 2020) and ‘fully engaged’ in their organisation (-23%).
In 2020, HR has taken on a more central role in the eyes of top management.
Mariano Corso, scientific head of the HR Innovation Practice Observatory
These figures come from research by the HR Innovation Practice Observatory at Polytechnic University of Milan’s School of Management.
The study suggests that if HR departments are to regain their attractiveness and reverse this dangerous trend, they will have to redouble their efforts to take care of their people, improve engagement and make new working models sustainable by stimulating employees and helping them cultivate professional relationships. One approach that can strongly contribute in this direction is “Connected People Care“, a set of HR practices that use data collected through digital technologies to respond to the specific needs of each person, improving their autonomy and involvement in business processes, while enabling HR Management to remain constantly informed and “connected” with the entire organisation.
“In 2020, HR has taken on a more central role in the eyes of top management”, relates Mariano Corso, scientific head of the HR Innovation Practice Observatory, “many initiatives have been put in place in recent months, not only to manage operations in the emergency, but also to initiate more profound and lasting changes linked, for example, to goal-oriented work management, support for remote projects and the creation of inclusive and stimulating working environments, including virtual ones. Yet the success of these initiatives presupposes a shift in culture and skills: we need to go beyond simple ‘personnel management’, instead adopting a model of personalised and ‘precision’ care for workers, one that is capable of interpreting their needs and positively transforming the corporate experience, making them increasingly involved in the organisation and a protagonist in the HR processes that concern them”.
For Fiorella Crespi, Co-Director of the HR Innovation Practice Observatory, “HR departments spent a great deal on digital technology, communication and employer branding, and employees certainly appreciated their efforts, but the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic undermined their energy and engagement. In this sense, Connected People Care may well hold the key to giving employees back what they really need, restoring their momentum and well-being. Not surprisingly, organisations that have successfully worked on these aspects have engagement levels 45% higher than the average”.
HR challenges in 2021
In addition to the pandemic, 2020 was the year of the smart working boom, yet only a few companies introduced agile organisational models based on flexible structures and shared leadership, scarcely 17% (in line with last year). According to 45% of HR respondents, consolidating and enhancing smart working is expected to be the biggest HR challenge of 2021, followed by workforce reskilling (42%) and developing digital culture and skills (38%). In fact, the health emergency forced 35% of workers to speed up the acquisition of new skills or change the skills they were trained in, with young people managing to adapt more easily (+48%). Seven out of ten workers think that they will have to update their key skills to perform their job in the next two years as a result of digitisation and new ways of working: 86% of them feel ready, and 62% because of the tools provided by their employers. In response to these challenges, companies have accelerated their investments in digital projects and initiatives, focusing mainly on communication, corporate climate management and training. No fewer than 60% of the survey participants expect an increase in the dedicated budget during 2021, with the highest average investment trend in recent years (+7.5%).
Implications for the labour market
In this past year, companies have become aware of the importance of communicating externally to improve employer branding strategies, as they seek to engage potential candidates through content and storytelling. While 40% of HR managers believe that they have been more effective in communicating their corporate values, the ability to attract and retain talent has yet to improve: Despite a widening pool of available candidates through remote working, companies have found it difficult to attract talent from both local (37%) and remote areas (39%) and even to remain attractive to employees (37%). A protracted pandemic coupled with compulsory remote working has taken its toll on the mental and physical well-being of workers and the organisation as a whole: 25% complain of a sharp decline in their sense of belonging to the company, 23% report a reduction in interpersonal relationships at work, especially with other work teams, and the percentage of people who feel ‘engaged’ (64%, 16 points lower than in 2019) or ‘fully engaged’ (20%, -23%) has fallen.
The new role of HR departments, towards ‘Connected People Care’
“Fostering employee engagement and improving their well-being requires a revamped corporate experience, leveraging not only technology but also the skills and attitude for autonomy and goal-oriented work afforded by the new ways of working”, explains Martina Mauri, Co-Director of the HR Innovation Practice Observatory, “The research reveals three key elements for an effective strategy of ‘Connected People Care‘: involvement and empowerment of people, increased use of digital tools and extensive use of data collected through new technologies”.
Firstly, HR processes should be overhauled to involve people more in company decisions and stimulate their autonomy, for example by working on performance management, i.e. the transparent communication of information on salaries, objectives achieved and involvement in setting individual goals. Only 14% of organisations, however, are ready on these aspects in all HR processes.
The use of data to support decision-making is also crucial, though no less than digital technologies, which, by processing the multitude of available data, make it possible to offer services tailored to the real needs and interests of individuals. But HR departments still lack a data-driven culture, with only 15% measuring the impact of their practices on the business. The main barriers to the use of data are the lack of a standardised process for collecting data on HR processes (61%), poor or no integration of IT systems (41%) and a lack of awareness among management of the benefits (29%). There are now more digital tools to support HR processes than last year: tools for monitoring employee performance (77%), software for video interviews with candidates (53%) and apps for induction (63%) and engagement monitoring (47%) have grown or are set to appear in the coming months. Artificial intelligence tools, however, are still marginally used.