Hand reaching out from papers The top three challenges being faced by HR teams? Emotional exhaustion (either for themselves or team members), an overwhelming number of projects and responsibilities and employee morale/retention. (Image: Shutterstock)

A new survey documents the business and personal challenges that HR professionals have been working through in 2020. The report, “The State of People Strategy: The New World of Work,” was released by Lattice, a software company that provides HR support.

The survey talked to more than 1,000 HR professionals and business leaders in the summer of this year. The report’s analysis outlines some findings that fit with what many companies are seeing—a move to more remote work, attempts to increase diversity, and efforts to improve communication with a stressed workforce. The report also discussed the personal cost of the current upheaval, and how HR teams are responding to the new reality of the post-COVID world.

Emotional exhaustion

The report outlines how this year has been unique in some of the challenges it presents: workers and employers alike are stressed, uncertain of the future, and dealing with changes that are completely new to their experience.

Related: The year of the ‘people crisis’ and how HR can help

“As the US encounters one of the lowest unemployment rates since World War II, companies like LinkedIn and Airbnb have seen mass layoffs, while industries from restaurants to retail have been upended completely,” the report said. “Other organizations have hit the brakes on hiring for the first time in years, keeping headcounts stagnant — and leaving many employees waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

With that backdrop it’s not surprising, the authors write, that 2020 has left HR teams exhausted. The survey found the top three challenges being faced by HR teams were in this area: 58% of respondents said emotional exhaustion (either for themselves or team members) was among their top three challenges. Close behind was feeling overwhelmed: 54% of respondents said their biggest challenge was an overwhelming number of projects and responsibilities. Rounding out the top three challenges was employee morale/retention (51%). Also listed were budget constraints (43%), and low perceived value of HR’s worth in the organization (29%).

HR’s role in the company organizational structure

The question of the role of HR teams within their companies at a time of dramatic change was one of several explored by the report.

“Given all they’ve faced this year, has HR finally earned C-level representation at most companies? What are they working on and how do they measure success? The data reveals a profession that’s moved past its reputation as a risk management or compliance function,” the report said. “If HR was already on course to being more deeply strategic at their organizations, 2020 only proves the trend is continuing.”

One of the top priorities for the coming year, the survey found, was manager enablement and training—listed by 46% of respondents as a top issue. Of that group, 86% said manager behavioral foundations would be top initiative; 78% listed leadership training, 42% said enhanced manager tools, and 40% said coaching services would be a priority for the upcoming year.

“Respondents also put a high level of importance on manager feedback — putting managers at the forefront of employee communication and continued growth. This is especially true as remote work has become more popular, with companies currently using one-on-one conversations with managers as a primary method for monitoring employee culture and morale,” the report said.

The Lattice survey also found that employee productivity continues to be important to companies. Many HR leaders are focused employee engagement: 48% said employee engagement would be one of the top three initiatives in the next year. Performance reviews are also a valued interaction; 89% of companies use at least one type of performance review. The report added that performance management was especially important to small companies, who tend to be building out their capabilities in this area.

Moving forward in 2021

The report concludes with a discussion of what HR teams should focus on in the upcoming year. The switch to more remote work will continue to raise HR issues, the report noted.

“With more companies planning to adopt a hybrid work environment that allows employees to choose to work remotely or not, pros and cons emerge,” the report said. “While it opens up the chance to recruit employees from anywhere, creating a bigger talent pool to choose from, it also has the potential to introduce brand new HR challenges.”

The report predicted that the trend of putting more emphasis on diversity, engagement and inclusion will continue. More attention to the mental health of employees will also be an ongoing trend, the report’s authors said. They said providing coaching and additional resources to employees will be a necessary step for many companies.

One of the experts quoted by the report, Farrah Jessani Mitra, founder of Green Reed, a leadership development and executive coaching company, noted that HR teams need top-level support in their efforts to help employees navigate their workload, emotions, and overall mental health.

“A CEO recognizing the load and hardship, and valuing and recognizing the efforts being made, can go a long way,” Jessani Mitra said. “It’s also important to take collective ownership, with all leaders leading their own people. HR and People teams’ job is to help be stewards and empower, but there should be collective ownership from leadership and the full team.”

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