15 December 2020

Which four key areas should HR focus on in 2021?

We review the past year for HR teams and take a look at what HR should be prepared for in 2021, including Brexit and hybrid workplaces


Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021, specialising in topics related to HR systems, recruitment, payroll software, and learning and development.


Future of work HR transformation Strategy culture and values


We review the past year for HR teams and take a look at what HR should be prepared for in 2021, including Brexit and hybrid workplaces

In 2020, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, offices around the world closed up, employees had to work remotely, and organisations had to deal with new challenges. For HR teams in both large and smaller organisations, this meant that 2020 was a year of change – new responsibilities had to be taken on, new processes had to be introduced, and an increased focus had to be put on the mental and physical health of the workforce.

Gwenan West, Ciphr’s head of HR, says: “2020 has been a challenge for HR. Everything was changing so fast and we were trying to keep up with all of the changes while making sure that we were still being compliant.

“It’s been a year of constantly moving, changing, adapting and learning.”

For employees, working from home led to a lack of social interaction and increased the risk of loneliness. In response, HR teams had to educate themselves and employees on how to support those who may be experiencing loneliness. Alongside this, HR also had to introduce new sickness related absence policies, ensure that everyone was able to work effectively from home, and more.

Here, we review 2020 for HR teams and discuss the four key areas HR teams need to be aware of in 2021.

Looking back at 2020 for HR teams

In spring 2020, the UK government introduced furlough leave under the coronavirus job retention scheme. This meant that employers could pay workers 80% of their regular wage, up to a monthly cap of £2,500, with the government funding these payments through a grant.

The furlough scheme is running until March 2021, giving employers the opportunity to retain staff during difficult times.

Since the introduction of the furlough scheme, HR teams have had to work closely with payroll to ensure that furloughed employees are paid accurately and on time. Open communication between HR and employees has also been crucial this past year when dealing with the impact of furlough leave.

West says: “At Ciphr, we made sure we kept communication open for those on furlough leave. We sent out a newsletter so that they were aware of relevant news and the fact that we communicated with our employees while they were on furlough made it a lot easier for us to bring them back in. It also highlighted the fact that we should be doing more to communicate with our employees on long term sick or maternity leave.”

In 2020, HR teams had to deal with the impact of remote working. The sudden closure of office spaces meant that employees had to create a new working environment in their home, which HR had to assist with. From providing monitor screens or new laptops, to ordering desk equipment for employees, HR had to make sure everyone had the means to work comfortably from home.

While employees had to learn to adjust to remote working, HR also had to do the same, which resulted in new ways of working.

Recruitment could no longer be done in person, so HR had to ensure they had the tools and resources available for remote recruitment. Video interviews replaced face-to-face interviews, and employee onboarding had to be done online (and is still being done online in many organisations).

“As well as helping everybody else change the way they work, we’ve also had to change the way we work. Interviews have been completely video based, even checking people’s right to work documentations had to be virtually via video streaming,” says West.

While remote working, HR have also had to focus more on the risk of their data being hacked. 71% of security professionals reported an increase in cyber-threats since lockdown started. For HR, this meant teams had to work closely with IT to ensure that all sensitive data was kept secure.

West explained that HR software supported the team during these periods of change: “our HR software helped us with keeping all of our documents and data safe and secure in one place.”

“If we didn’t have HR software, we would be tied to the office because that’s where our data is, or we would have to find a VPN into the office, which isn’t always the most stable. Even though we didn’t have our colleagues next to us when working, we didn’t have to change a thing technology-wise.”

What’s coming up in 2021 for HR?

1. Hybrid workplaces

2020 has shown organisations and HR teams that employees are able to work remotely if they need to. As a result, HR teams could see an increased focus on hybrid workplaces in 2021.

In a recent Ciphr webinar, Patrick Cournoyer, chief evangelist at Peakon, and Megan Hope, Ciphr’s partner manager discussed the growing popularity of a flexible, hybrid workplace.

“Now that employees have had a taste of working from home, and organisations have seen that they can maintain a productive workforce without the need for daily facetime, it’s likely that employees will expect more flexibility. Pandora’s box has been opened and – having proved that working from home works well for many people – there’s no closing it again,” said Cournoyer.

Similarly, West says: “I think we’ll probably get more requests for more flexible working, more changes in the way that employees work. I think we’re also going to going to have lots of adjustments with people coming back into the workplace and working in the office again, so there might be the element of having to get used to the new normal.”

2. The need to upskill employees

For HR teams, this means you must have the correct tools and resources in place that allow you to support employees with remote working – such tools include specialist HR software which can help you with online recruitment and onboarding.

HR teams will also need to be working closely with L&D teams in 2021 in order to upskill the workforce. In a survey of over 800 HR leaders, 68% said they will be building employees’ critical skills and competencies in 2021 to improve operational performance.

One-third of HR leaders also agreed that their major challenges include their lack of visibility and understanding of current skill gaps and being unable to integrate learning effectively into employee workflows.

As a result, 2021 could see HR teams having to step up and identify the skills gap within their organisation, and close the gap by working with the L&D team to improve learning and to provide employees the skills they need to succeed in the future.

3. Improving diversity and inclusion

HR teams should be prepared to continue to improve diversity and inclusion within their workplace.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 proved that HR teams need to overhaul organisational systems and structures that are preventing an organisation from being truly diverse and inclusive. While some companies are starting to make changes to improve D&I, more still needs to be done in most companies.

In 2021, HR teams should address their recruitment processes and question whether or not they are really reaching out to a diverse range of candidates. If not, they need to ask themselves how can they change this? The answer may lie in blind recruitment, or putting more thought into your job ads.

4. Brexit

“I think between January and June, there’s going to be lots of confusion around employing European citizens, and this confusion may still last after June, so HR has to stay on top of the Brexit negotiations and the workers status,” says West.

While 2020 was a year of many changes, 2021 will continue to prove the value of HR to organisations. “This past year, HR was largely involved in a lot of decision-making which has gathered the attention of senior leadership teams,” says West. As a result, HR should be prepared to continue to work closely with senior leadership, while also focusing on the health and happiness of the workforce.