Practice Makes Proficient: Forward Focus

Developing critical competencies we need in the new reality of work

By Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP June 18, 2020
note with "what's next" written on it

​As I write this article, many HR professionals are switching from crisis response to reopening and reviving our businesses. My hope is that we can move forward to a new normal with few if any relapses or second waves of infection and shutdowns.

A forward focus may seem impossible in a world in which information, health guidance and government responses change not just every week, but every day. But we must begin to think about how we are going to do HR in this new reality and about what competencies we need to develop further if we expect success.

I've considered a lot of opinions and ideas about what the future of work might look like and have formed my own view. I suggest using the plan outlined below to drive decisions about which HR competencies to develop and which related HR functions to focus on.

Work will continue to include remote employees.

Several of my clients were able to continue operations during the shutdown by switching to full or partial work-from-home. They think it is working out well, and their employees are more productive and happier and are planning on continuing some level of remote work even when the crisis is over. Not all managers, however, have found remote management to be a comfortable approach. This means that employers should expect some pushback on remote work.

Competencies needed:

  • Business Acumen—to select appropriate positions for developing talent acquisition strategies.
  • Consultation—to provide guidance to managers on HR policies, compliance and ethics.
  • Communication—to develop strategies to effectively educate all regarding practices and policies.

HR Functions involved: Learning & Development, Talent Acquisition, Workforce Management.

Technology will grow in importance.

The use of remote work, virtual meetings and HR self-service has grown during the public health crisis. This trend will continue as workplaces look for technologies to check on employees' health and ensure safe workplaces—for example, touch-free timeclocks that screen for body temperature, or apps for contact tracing. Security and safety concerns will likely increase as access to data is more broadly distributed.

Competencies needed:

  • Business Acumen—to use HRIS and advise in the selection of appropriate technical solutions.
  • Critical Evaluation—to assist with data collection and research and analyze various systems to determine best applications for the workplace.
  • Communication—to understand the workplace audience and craft and translate technical language for employees and management.

    HR Functions involved: Technology Management, Risk Management.


    Mental health support will be a priority for employee health, worker engagement and employee relations.

    Some employees are fearful of returning to work. Others are experiencing anxiety over income loss. As HR professionals, we are often tasked with making and carrying out difficult decisions—employees to be furloughed, positions to be eliminated—which increases stress on the HR department. With schools closed, parents, particularly those with special needs children, are having emotional strain. In addition, loss of loved ones to the virus can result in depression.

    Competencies needed:

    • Ethical Practice—to manage social and political pressures and balance them with the health and safety of employees.
    • Relationship Management—to assist in resolving employee/management and employee/employee conflicts resulting from mental health issues.
    • Critical Evaluation—to identify relevant data and resources and select those that preserve the organization and simultaneously show concern for the employees.

    HR Functions involved: Risk Management, Employee & Labor Relations, Workforce Management.

    Employee pay and benefits may shift.

    The needs of employees are changing, while organizations may be looking for ways to save money. Policies on leave may have to accommodate the pandemic as well as new government regulations. Employees will likely be more concerned about health benefits. Organizations with reduced profits may need to revise their pay practices while staying competitive. Employees may demand more flexibility now that organizations have demonstrated it.

    Competencies needed:

    • Leadership & Navigation—to use understanding of the organization's current processes and policies to facilitate changes made necessary by new conditions.
    • Critical Evaluation—to apply research, information and analysis to all aspects of rewards.
    • Consultation—to garner information about necessary changes to the reward structure and support from managers and employees.

    HR Functions involved: Total Rewards, U.S. Employment Law & Regulation.

    I've always believed that, in HR, we are the balance between the people and the organization. It is our job as part of the business world during the COVID-19 pandemic to balance compassion with business survival. By focusing our personal development efforts on practices in these critical competency areas, we can be more effective going forward. Now more than ever, we need to keep growing our competencies to stay valuable and viable in our roles.

    Stay safe and well. 

    Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant in Freedom, Pa. She is the author of several books for the profession, including A Manager's Guide to Developing Competencies in HR Staff (SHRM, 2017).

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