Earlier this year, SHRM, in partnership with the Chief Executive Group, conducted a survey of the top HR leaders in the U.S. to analyze the economic outlook for business from the perspective of CHROs across the country. This survey informed the CHRO Outlook.
As the leaders responsible for developing and executing human resource strategies for their organizations, CHROs are uniquely positioned to gauge the pulse of the U.S. workforce. Based on responses from more than 219 CHROs, the research identified widespread optimism among HR senior leaders about the post-pandemic economy—although that hopefulness is tempered by enduring concerns about work, workers and the workplace.
"I remain optimistic about the post-pandemic economy," said Michele C. Meyer-Shipp, Esq., SHRM-SCP, Chief People and Culture Officer for Major League Baseball. "As companies begin reopening their doors for business and consumers are taking advantage of services they have missed for well over a year, our economy is destined to improve markedly. The challenges associated with returning employees to the workplace, however, remain front and center."
Summarily, Meyer-Shipp offers these issues as ones that loom for all and must be tackled:
Finding Clarity from It All
"In many ways, I believe the pandemic helped us to see a lot of things more clearly when it comes to people and culture at work," said Dan Oltersdorf, Chief People Officer at student housing provider Campus Advantage, based in Austin, Texas. "We faced some stark realities that cut to the very core of who we are, not just as businesses but as human beings.
"So much of the world has sat with fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Instability added to already stressful realities for many, whether it was health concerns, loved ones losing employment, or the less stark but incredibly impactful reality of the loss of connection and the associated mental and emotional well-being that can come with that."
Oltersdorf said as the country emerges from the pandemic, he is excited for the future and is looking carefully at what has been exposed through it all, starting with what he calls work/life harmony.
"Our changing work environments have forced us to look critically at this thing most call work/life balance," he said. "I much prefer and use regularly the term 'work/life harmony.'
"Whether it was kids engaged in remote learning or added challenges associated with health or finances, we were reminded that work and life intersect, now more than ever. We cannot and should not try to draw a clear line. Instead, we are well-served by looking at our team members holistically and looking for ways to support on all fronts. This continues today and needs to be a permanent focus in our workforce," Oltersdorf said.
Soothing Responses to Mental Health Challenges
That support, many said, starts with a focus on mental health and well-being. The stresses of the pandemic are certainly affecting recruitment and retention, according to the CHRO Outlook. More than one-third of CHROs (35 percent) are concerned about workplace morale, while 34 percent expressed concern about the mental health of their employees.
Oltersdorf said he's seeing an increased desire for employee assistance programs and other resources. May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and Campus Advantage took that opportunity to address its staff's situations.
"This intersects with the added work many of us are doing related to diversity, equity and inclusion, because many marginalized populations have been disproportionately affected by all that has transpired over the last year and more," he said.
Cindy Scharringhausen, Senior Vice President of HR at Camden, a property development and management company in Houston, said, "As we move into a post-pandemic world, we maintain a consistent focus on improving our diversity, equity and inclusion and improving the lives of our residents and employees, one experience at a time."
According to the CHRO Outlook, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) will receive the highest amount of companies' spending and investment for the next 12 months. It was cited by 72 percent of the survey's respondents. Much of that thrust will go toward cultivating leadership to deliver on their companies' DE&I goals as they commit the resources to match their rhetoric surrounding DE&I, according to the CHRO Outlook.
A significant component of this change is seen in greater investment in leadership development. Increasingly, organizations are empowering people managers to implement DE&I initiatives in the workplace, entrusting these key efforts to those who lead employees daily at all levels of the organizational hierarchy.
Technology as the 'Great Accelerator'
Technology was one thing that CHROs relied upon to get their companies through the tough past 15 months, and they expect that to continue in full force.
"COVID-19 has been called the great accelerator, and it was no different for Camden," Scharringhausen said. "During the past year, we have continued to innovate with technology and processes that improve both our customer and employee experiences alike."
At Pan American Development Foundation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit working in international development in Latin America and the Caribbean, Chief People Officer Beatriz Coningham is focused on skills related to technology.
"We'll place an increased importance on tech-savvy-related skills, as most work now is being digitized," she said, adding that this would help with the organization's "ability to work across geographical regions." Coningham continued, "However, technology needs to be paired with the ability to work across cultures and in multicultural teams."
Oltersdorf said the pandemic helped his company realize both the limitations and the potential of technology.
"I have seen the faces of my colleagues around the country more in the past year than ever before thanks to video calling becoming the norm," he said. "We have become a little more human. The barking dog or crying baby that once warranted a profuse and embarrassed apology is now seen as truly a facet of life that we not only accept, but we embrace, adding to the humanity of our workplace connections.
"At the same time, it has become even more clear that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and we are celebrating the fact we are now starting to engage in that face-to-face engagement as more and more are vaccinated and the numbers are trending in the right direction."
Flexible Workspace Meets Demands
Identifying a return-to-workplace strategy ranked third in the CHRO Outlook (46 percent) among initiatives that will be most important for CHROs to implement in 2021.
Coningham said an openness to increased work-from-home settings and a variety of work arrangements covering the span from full-time remote to full time in office will be evaluated. "We also will reconsider our office space," she said. "What is the most meaningful way to use space when many employees will be working from home on a full-time or part-time basis?"
Campus Advantage employed essential workers, so many in its workforce never left the office in the past 15 months because they were required to keep its communities running and to care for its residents.
"That said, we did adjust approaches and introduce more flexibility around how we do what we do," Oltersdorf said. "At the home headquarters, we have become much more flexible with work arrangements, and we see that continuing in the future as we adapt to both today's and to tomorrow's workforces."
Getting back into the office means increased attention to safety.
"This is yet another arena that COVID-19 has reinforced for us as people leaders: that safety and employee well-being are always and always need to be at front of mind," Oltersdorf said. "We came back to this over and over as we developed protocols, refined policies and adjusted approaches. Even now, as we begin to adapt to changing guidance from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], we continue to take an employee-centric approach."
Helping People 'Shine'
Finding and retaining talent is critical during the next 12 months as demand for hiring significantly increases.
Jen Swensson, Chief People Officer for Denver-based high-tech growth company deepwatch, said, "The recent and rapid reopening of many state and local jurisdictions has again provided an opportunity for people teams to shine. How employers respond to this rapid change will signal to their employees how invested they truly are in their people."
She said companies must ask their team members for feedback about the workplace so they can "truly understand what concerns, logistical challenges and requirements they need in order to feel safe, heard and productive. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in this environment—not if you want to attract and retain your people."
Deepwatch has 275 remote employees in 40 states and offices in Denver and Tampa. Its local workers have the option to work both from home and in the office.
The demand for talent in Swensson's industry is very competitive. "We have a strong commitment to diversity and offering working parents, dog lovers, and those more comfortable and productive at home flexible options to support their lives," she said.
"We get creative. We start with our customer obligations and 'red thread' that through our employee needs, our technologies to support them, our benefit offerings and our pay strategies."
She then asks employees for feedback, adjusts and keeps on. "We are never done, and it's rewarding and important work," Swensson said.
What We Learned About Culture
Finally, CHROs will find time to consider their company culture, especially given that this workforce battled through something none have ever experienced.
Heidi Parks, SHRM-SCP, is Chief People Officer at Intelligent Waves in Reston, Va. She said her mission is to reinvent the HR function and convert it into a motivational support organization that engages employees' hearts and minds with compassion, listening and purpose.
"Without purpose and culture, HR isn't truly doing its job of serving the needs of the most valuable assets of the organization: its people," Parks said. "Moreover, during the COVID-19 year, it became more apparent that employers with connective tissue and synaptic connectivity with their employees experienced lower turnover rates and higher morale.
"People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. HR plays an important role in building and cultivating culture across an organization. We are the mesh that brings it all together," Parks said.
Oltersdorf said he's been inspired to see how his company's values, mission, vision and purpose have come to life.
"It has been said that crisis reveals character, and I can definitively say that is the experience we have had at Campus Advantage," he said.
"For some, the words that describe our values, mission, vision and purpose had just been words on a page. Our values are 'Integrity, Intelligence (innovation), Passion (grit and tenacity) and MOJO (taking what we do, but not ourselves seriously).' I have seen them being displayed in amazing ways during the past year, and I believe we have emerged with a better culture but also a realization that culture is truly what you make it and shape it to be.
"This pandemic 'test' revealed that the foundation was strong and has us doubling down on these foundational elements moving forward."
Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer.
For details, click here to download the CHRO Outlook.
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