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5 HR Trends in Employee Relations to Watch in 2021

Dec 21, 2020
Deb Muller

As I reflected back on this unbelievable year, I thought about a discussion I was privileged to participate in April with Nancy Altobello, former Global Vice Chair of Talent at EY. Discussing the early pandemic, I observed:

“As HR leaders we have been thrown into this (crisis). It’s changing every day. Last week’s problems are driving today’s resolutions, and we know tomorrow won’t be the same as yesterday. There is no playbook. We have to rely on our instincts to get us to the other side.”

8 months later, those words could have been written today.

We still know tomorrow won’t be the same as yesterday. pexels-photo-5717479

And while there still is no playbook, the good news is that working together, HR and employee relations professionals have learned a lot in 2020 – and have been able to share insights to help each of us lead our teams through the year’s many challenges.

Above all, we learned to expect the unexpected. I’d love to flip the calendar in a couple of weeks and return to “normal,” whatever that will look like, but we all know HR and employee relations are irrevocably changed, along with the workplace in general.

So with all that in mind, here’s a quick look at 5 trends we expect to see next year. What do you see happening in 2021? Drop me a line at We want to hear what is on your mind!

1. Employee relations will remain front and center – and lead through the recovery.

2020 was the year HR — and especially employee relations — took its rightful strategic place at the front of the organization. Regardless of size or industry, every organization had to cope with a new workplace: suddenly remote or in need of personal protective equipment. Dealing with all-time high anxiety. Coping with COVID symptoms. Looking for help with harassment.

It fell on HR and ER to become a combination of communicator, counselor, investigator and coach, guiding teams through unimagined stress and difficulties.

As we turn to 2021, this strategic influence will continue. A new year will bring many of the questions we’ve been dealing with in 2020 and certainly many new ones too.

Who gets the COVID vaccine, and will we require it? How will we handle the return to work – or manage a hybrid workforce? Will we be required to adjust pay for our new workforces?

All eyes will remain on ER and HR to lead the recovery, maintain employee experience and protect employees’ mental and physical health. I know you’re up to the challenge. Thank you!

 2. HR and employee relations will become even more data-driven.

Using people data and analytics to predict data has been trending for a while, but it became a must in 2020 as the pandemic and DE&I initiatives demanded data-driven insights. This focus will accentuate in 2021.

Tracking, documenting and analyzing your people data – especially behavioral data, like employee relations issues – helps uncover patterns and trends to guide your organization forward.

  • Did discrimination or harassment allegations spike during COVID, in certain regions, or in relation to the U.S. presidential election?
  • How will you manage and analyze who has received the COVID vaccine?
  • How did your investigation close rates change during the pandemic? Do you see patterns related to managers?

Documenting, tracking and applying predictive analytics will enable you to uncover insights like these and more. In addition, sharing data cross-functionally and across the enterprise will accelerate.

The promise of data and predictive analytics has been here for a long time. As we enter 2021 and HR and employee relations teams handle more and more cases, forward-looking organizations are using data and analytics to focus, be strategic and drive data-driven outcomes across their businesses.

3. Empowering managers will reduce employee relations risk and improve performance management.

Another focus area for many organizations is performance management – and empowering their managers to take an active part in it.

People leaders are the front line to employees and have the best visibility to, and relationships with, employees. But often, managers don’t have the tools, training or confidence to address their own employee issues (such as attendance, performance and behavioral issues.)

Not documenting or addressing issues leads to inconsistent documentation, incomplete data and legal risk – not to mention a poor employee experience.

By empowering people leaders to easily address their own employee issues, guided by HR, organizations can help managers lead better – while also reducing risk.

At HR Acuity, we’ve heard this feedback loud and clear and are addressing it with managER, our new solution for people leaders.

Look for more in 2021 and join us January 19 for a webinar with Jeanette St. Jacques from Equinox on the importance of empowering managers with productive collaboration from HR.

4. Diversity, equity and inclusion programs will move from commitment to action.

2020 was also the year social justice movements became front and center with George Floyd’s murder. Diversity, equity and inclusion programs are not new, but focus heightened this year, as massive organizational commitments to change were made.

In 2021, we will move from commitments to action – which requires data to uncover trends and patterns to benchmark areas of action. Are investigations involving people of color resolved differently, for example? Are there regional differences when it comes to inclusion, or across managers? Data shows where action needs to be taken – then progress can be measured.

In today’s world, words are not enough. Employees expect action. Data, benchmarking and measuring progress are essential to building and keeping momentum in DE&I. Keeping momentum is a major focus and trend for employee relations in 2021.

5. Collaboration, community and staying connected will matter more than ever in 2021.

Throughout 2020, HR and employee relations professionals leaned on each other to help their organizations manage the pandemic, sharing COVID-19 expertise, policies and practices with each other.

We saw this with the Employee Relations Roundtable, HR Acuity’s community of more than 150 ER and HR leaders, who actively shared expertise and insight with each other to navigate the pandemic.

This trend will continue as we head into an uncertain new year and will need to continue collaborating to share knowledge and best practices as the world around us shift. HR Acuity will be launching a professional community, empowER ®, for employee relations professionals, to facilitate this interaction. Check out the details here.

Finally, we won’t call it a trend, since it’s a constant, but communication remains critical.

One thing we all learned in 2020 is that to stay connected, we need to over-communicate. Though we may be suffering a bit of “virtual meeting fatigue,” the alternative is isolation – and that’s deadly. All of us focused on communication in 2020 to keep employees informed, productive and to address the mental health issues that spiked during the pandemic – and we’ll continue to do so in 2021.

Not many of us will be sad to see the calendar turn to 2021, though equally we learned many positive lessons this year. As always, employee relations leaders were adaptable, resilient and rose to the challenge. Whatever 2021 throws our way, we’re confident we can say the same will be true next year.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.