HR Thought Leader Trends & Predictions for 2021

HR’s step into the spotlight is undoubtedly set to continue into 2021 and beyond.

2020 was quite the year, one that will forever be considered as unprecedented. The promise of the new decade as we entered 2020, was one filled with prospects of innovation, transformation and evolution for business and human resources professionals within them. 

Yet the challenges of this outgoing year, which has been dominated by a global pandemic, seismic changes to ways of working and living, coupled with the most severe economic crisis in close to a decade. Have propelled key workers including healthcare professionals, education professionals, retail workers and delivery drivers keeping the world’s commerce moving, into the spotlight. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is blurring the lines between people and technology

Of course those in Human Resources, who have been tasked with responding to the ever changing guidance and legislation on how to make workplaces safe and covid secure, responding to government mandated shut downs, and seismic changes to working remotely,  have also seen the appreciation for their work become heightened too. 

What will the trials, trends and transformations of 2021 now hold for HR leaders and practitioners?  Sage HR has looked to HR’s world renowned thought leaders and commentators to shine a light on what they predict we might see as a result of this unusual and challenging past year of this new decade.

⭐️ Dave Ulrich – Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

Hope for 2021, is something that Dave Ulrich agrees we all must have. However, he goes further to add that what will truly make the difference for HR practitioners and business professionals alike, will be making 2021 hopes become sustainable results. 

Whilst there’s a recognition that transforming hope into sustainable results does not come easily. There are, according to Ulrich’s latest article on the subject, seven disciplines that can help to transform your aspirations into results that will become sustainable.

This series of seven sustainable disciplines, or principles, help turn hope into reality: 

  1. Simplicity: Focus on the few key aspirations that will have the most impact – Keep it simple.
  2. Time: Update your calendar with your specific aspirations – Make them visible and relatable to your time that is precious.
  3. Accountability: Make public commitments, to help realise your aspirations – Linking personal accountability to your public accountability.
  4. Resources: Support your aspirations with personal coaching, but also with any relevant organisational governance, such as L&d or performance management processes.
  5. Tracking: Measure & share the process you’re taking towards your aspirations, but also the outcomes.
  6. Melioration: Learning from the experiences of the past to shape a better future, whilst harnessing uncertainty.
  7. Emotion: Apply your personal passion to transform aspirations into sustained results.

Ulrich expands his insights, by sharing some of his hopes for the year ahead. Which includes a hope that both leaders and organisations will personalise the work setting through flexibility. Something we have seen a great deal more of in 2020. But also, the personalisation of the work setting, should go further through the emotion, empathy and experience it is able to provide.

⭐️ Jon Ingham – Author, Strategic HR & OD Consultant

The shift of 2020 has, in Jon Inghams view, contributed to HR having to shift its focus from the individual to a social capital, or groups. Organisational change has been the presiding theme for most organisations this past year and one that is set to continue as we move into 2021. As such, the continued investment in the creation and deployment of agile teams, scaling these teams up through networks that are by their very nature now, even more distributed. All whilst connecting people within communities, so that engagement and belonging can take place will be vital. 

Jon has also predicted a continued shift in the realms of performance management, with its focus now benefiting from a shift towards performance motivation, or performance leadership. 

The more established acronym of SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant & timebound), used for the setting of performance objectives, is one that has also received a revisit into how to contemporise its meaning, to become more effective in the year ahead. 

MUSIC is the newly revised acronym, standing for: 

  • Motivational – What is it, that will truly motivate the individual to go above and beyond the basics required to do their job? 
  • Unusual – Performance leadership takes the standards of performance management a step further, beyond reflecting new or increasing responsibilities. Adding to this by setting objectives for individuals that are wholly different to what they have done before. But also different from the objectives being set for others. 
  • Sensory – By setting goals that are supported by the sensory evidence that would accompany their achievement, it’s possible to build on the psychological priming effect, beyond what having a clear set of goals alone will provide. 
  • Individual – By truly focusing on the individual, their respective individual skills, motivation and interests it is possible to align these in a way that surpasses traditional performance management routes
  • Congruent – Goals must always relate to the business plan, but the key here is to to also align them in a way that builds on the person’s individual insight, into how they might lend their skills and talents to contributing to both the business plan and organisation as a whole.

⭐️ Mai-Po Wan – Director of Product Marketing, HR & Payroll, Sage Group PLC

Sage Groups Director of Product, Marketing, HR & Payroll, Mai-Po Wan has been well placed to experience the constant state of flux brought about by the challenges of 2020. Particularly as Sage’s Survival, Resilience & Growth report shone a light onto the many stories of resilience demonstrated by business owners as they adapted to the impact of Coronavirus. 

The research reports findings shared 64% of SMEs had concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the employee engagement levels of those employed by them. And 54% of SMEs are also preparing for further shocks or challenges including losing key talent, critical interruptions to operations, a less connected workforce and increased competition. 

Mai-Po has identified a number of strategies to help organisations contribute to their people feeling safe, secure and supported. These strategies have far greater significance given the importance of considerations around mental health and wellbeing for employees and business leaders alike. 

Helping people to adapt and thrive is key for the year ahead and can be aided by:

  1. Making remote work easier & more accessible for your employees – Whilst working from home, your people will be facing the challenge of life & work colliding into each other. By utilising software and tools to optimise productivity, it’s possible in turn to support a more accessible work from home formula for success.
  2. Support communication, connection & belonging – Communication in remote working is essential, particularly as the remoteness can make the sense of connection harder. But by making time and space for two way, personalised and regular communications it is possible to create a sense of community amongst your remote teams.
  3. Working flexibly works best when it is made easy & guilt free – Employees have and will likely continue to be juggling, work, home, childcare and other caring responsibilities. It is to be expected that more flexibility would be of benefit.
  4. Setting work goals needs to be achievable – Helping your people to establish clear and realistic work goals, with the flexibility and space to actually achieve these, is the way to go in 2021 and beyond. It’s becoming more widely accepted that it’s unrealistic to expect employees to work at 100% capacity all the time. Taking this step in your approach to goal setting is a positive way to go.
  5. What availability do your people have? – In the ever shifting context of remote and flexible work, it is vitally important to understand when people are available, when they’re working on something that requires more concentration and when they may not be working at all. Building on the need to communicate and share openly work schedules and capacity, taking simple steps like sharing open diaries, capturing, tracking and sharing when people are available or working all support this effort. 

All Eyes on HR in 2021

HR’s step into the spotlight is undoubtedly set to continue into 2021 and beyond. It is certainly set to continue leading the way in championing flexible working, prioritising employee engagement and employee wellbeing, all whilst driving forward the adoption of technology to support effective people management. 

The social enterprise in a world disrupted Leading the shift from survive to thrive
The social enterprise in a world disrupted. Leading the shift from survive to thrive | Source: Deloitte

This recognition that HR will need to play a continued enhanced role has been well documented in research by the World Economic Forum, Deloitte and Accenture to name a few. The prevailing theme is that HR functions and HR leadership are needed by organisations in this forward looking year in ways they may not have needed them before. 

The CHRO is now viewed undoubtedly as a catalyst for growth and one of the most vitally important roles in the C-suite. Digital transformation and new ways of working must put humans at the centre of their plan and with the fourth industrial revolution, increasingly blurring the lines between technology and people, the need for HR strategy is only set to increase. 

One further thing set for certainty in 2021, is that HR’s evolution as a result of COVID-19 in 2020, is set to continue. And with it, the need to have a complete HR solution that can support your people is as valuable as ever.  Sage HR as you might expect is continuing its commitment to support our customers, existing and new in creating amazing experiences for their people. We look forward to continuing our journey in supporting HR and SMEs throughout 2021 and beyond. 


Sage HR

For companies where people are paramount to success, Sage HR  helps businesses overcome the complexities of managing their people, so they can focus on growing their business.

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.