Employee engagement

7 HR Trends to Watch in 2021

Ben Travis
January 11, 2021
Table of Contents
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It’s a new year, and despite recent challenges, Human Resources and People Operations leaders have plenty to look forward to in 2021!

Every industry has witnessed huge shifts due to global events, and the HR space was perhaps one of the most affected. It’s evolving and adapting quickly, changing the way we experience work. Now, we’re taking this opportunity to reflect on trends for this year and beyond.

To bring you the most important and current information, we asked top HR leaders about their thoughts on top trends in the industry for 2021:

1. Renewed focus on the human element

Teams can’t function when their people aren’t taken care of. It’s the responsibility of HR to focus on individuals, and that means everyone on the team.

When day-to-day tasks drag on, it’s important to remember the human in Human Resources and people in People Operations. If nothing else in the past months, we’ve seen the necessity of embracing our humanity at work.

2020 showed us that there's nothing more important than people. In 2021, employers are going to reprioritize the human element in how they support and encourage their people. The goal isn't just to motivate people—it's to inspire them to bring their best self to work.

–Ben Eubanks, Chief Research Officer at
Lighthouse Research & Advisory


When people bring their best selves to work, they’re more engaged. And more engaged employees mean more successful teams. In 2021, HR will need to focus even more on the people they impact. We’ve all learned to expect the unexpected, and this next year is sure to bring its own hurdles that require an empathetic, human-focused mindset.

"While there are many people-first, forward-thinking, business and tech-savvy HR leaders, I hope that we make 2021 the year that HR finally transitions from paper-first to people-first.  And I mean all of HR.  If you wake up in the morning and your first thought is on the mountains of paperwork on your desk and not on your people, you need to take a good hard look at yourself first.
Tracie Sponenberg, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, Chief People Officer at The Granite Group

We all still face very human obstacles and opportunities. Those will continue as we cope with setbacks, but also as we bounce back and innovate. Every business has evolved more rapidly than they originally planned, and that evolution isn’t losing any steam.

Whilst we will never return to the old normal, key trends from then will return once the force of the pandemic has reduced. The future of work is still set in the future, [and] digital transformation involves more than meeting over Zoom. HR’s main challenge for 2021 will be to chart a strategic, people-centric path towards truly transformed digital businesses.
–Jon Ingham, Director at
Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy

As you’re leading teams, consider the following questions from Tracie Sponenberg:

  • Are you leading with empathy, kindness, vulnerability, compassion and love?
  • Are you having tough conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging? And more than that, are you doing something about it?
  • Are you talking about wellbeing in the workplace? Not just physical wellbeing, but mental health, financial health and social connections?
  • Are you giving AND receiving regular feedback?
  • Are you a fierce people advocate, willing to put your people before the business?

2. Automation of key functions


In 2020, HR leaders were tasked with managing their companies’ response to multiple crises, and are now faced with implementing a myriad of complex requirements resulting from COVID-related legislation. Many are overwhelmed, burnt out, and looking for ways to simplify their work. As budgets rebound, HR leaders should identify platforms and services that can help them streamline and automate aspects of their role that they no longer have time to perform manually.
–Analiese Brown, PHR - VP, Talent & Culture at

The uncertainty and volatility of last year brought HR teams a deluge of unforeseen complications. On top of that, many teams found themselves with fewer teammates or resources to get the job done.

Fortunately, new tools are available to ease previously cumbersome functions. Whether it’s a snappy ATS, a more fully-featured HRIS, or an engaging employee recognition platform, the right tools can make all the difference. Working with a smart HR tech stack is a sure way to prepare your team for the future, prioritize effort, and meet your 2021 HR goals.

The HR tech stack will be more important than ever. Having tools to connect, inspire, reward and protect employees will help companies fill in the gaps that remote work can create. HRIS systems will need to evolve to meet employees (and HR teams) where they are—everywhere!—and in ways that today's workforce wants to engage with.
–Julie DeBuhr, Senior Director of HR at

3. Expanded workplace flexibility

Research shows that flexible and remote work opportunities are now the 2nd most important factor job seekers consider when evaluating a new position—behind compensation. If organizations really want to attract and retain top talent, they will adopt more people-friendly and focused policies, like focusing on outcomes and not hours.
–Micole Garatti, Director of B2B Marketing at Fairygodboss

Last year, most organizations were forced to adapt to new ways of working, whether that included working from home, additional procedures for interacting with employees, or major adjustments to serving customers.

Flexible and remote working arrangements went from an optional perk to a requirement for many. Now that workers and employees have seen the benefits of this type of work, don’t expect it to fade away. 

Of course, remote work comes with its own set of challenges like disconnected teams and lack of visibility. An employee recognition and rewards platform like Bonusly can help make great work visible and improve connections between teams through consistent and meaningful recognition. 

2020—the year we worked from home. Employees are willing (and enabled) to realistically work ‘from anywhere.’ HR/Companies will have to act quickly to set up employment entities across state, even country, borders, to retain this top talent.
–Julie DeBuhr, Senior Director of HR at 1Password

4. Prioritization of job design

In 2021, HR professionals will need to focus on job design. As it becomes safe to return to on-site operations, hybrid work will be prevalent. As such, evaluating processes will be critical to ensure that employees achieve desired outcomes while remaining engaged and connected to one another, while working both on and off site. Performance management and total rewards will also need realigning as this new normal evolves.
Melanie Peacock, MBA, PhD, CPHR, SHRM-SCP, Double M Training & Consulting

Put simply, job design is “the process of creating a job that enables the organization to achieve its goals while motivating and rewarding the employee.” It not only adds value to organizations, increases team performance, and reduces turnover—it leads to real fulfillment. We’ve seen a rise in the importance of motivation at work, and prioritizing job design is an excellent way to motivate this year.


Image source.

5. Embrace employee wellness

Healthy teams are made of healthy individuals. As we look to this year, wellness will continue to grow as a priority for successful teams.

After the year of crisis, 2021 will have a strong focus on employee physical and mental health. That means organizations are going to need to continue the flexible and remote work opportunities, increased healthy and wellness benefits, and enhanced time off. Once employees are healthy, teams can focus on organizational health.
–Micole Garatti, Director of B2B Marketing at Fairygodboss


When we talk about employee wellness, that includes both physical and mental wellness. It’s a hugely impactful factor in employee engagement. It’s also a key physiological need required before people can focus on higher levels of work. That’s why it’s imperative for HR teams to understand the benefits of effective wellness programs.

In fact, our recent 2020 Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report found that Highly Engaged employees are 3.2 times more likely to be on a team that encourages open discussion of anxiety and stress at work than Actively Disengaged employees.

employee levels and wellness

When it comes to mental health, are you empowering your employees to truly succeed?

Mental health support will be very important this year.  I believe we'll see a move to offer more mental health benefits as the last year has proved even more challenging than most for many and HR professionals should help to de-stigmatize this issue.
–Jon Thurmond, SHRM-SCP, Co-Host of The HR Social Hour Half Hour Podcast


6. Increased reskilling

Reskilling has been a hot topic in recent years, but it became even more relevant when millions of workers lost their jobs during the period of uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Also, since the pandemic started, many companies had to adapt their business models to meet new demands. These events widened the skills gap for many employees in their current roles, and as research has shown, 80% of employees do not have the skills needed for their current and future roles. So in 2021, we can expect to see more employers demanding a shift to new and advanced skills better-suited for their new business models and investing in reskilling their employees.
Osasumwen F. Arigbe, PHR

To stay competitive and innovative, your team needs to have the right skills. Future-proof your organization by investing in reskilling now. We’ve been told about the benefits of professional development and continued education, and this is the time to prepare your employees for long-term success.

7. Incorporation of new technologies

The events of last year catalyzed our adoption of technologies in a way no one could have predicted. The abrupt shift that many workplaces faced last March necessitated the incorporation of new technologies into nearly every aspect of work.

In 2020, everyone got comfortable with video interviews. I think this is going to lead to more comfort using AI and other virtual tools to communicate between hiring managers & HR, and with candidates. These tools, implemented properly, can create a warm, welcoming feeling for the candidate and provide some relief to the recruitment staff by handling some of the minute details of the process.
–Wendy Dailey, Co-Host of The HR Social Hour Half Hour Podcast

That said, many of us are still learning how to include technology into our workflow. While we’ve become more accustomed to new tools and ways of communicating, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone faces unique challenges and has different levels of comfort.

I’m genuinely concerned about Zoom fatigue. Rethinking the “cameras on” rule is on my list to consider.
–Julie DeBuhr, Senior Director of HR at 1Password


Parting words

While it’s healthy to acknowledge the challenges this year will bring, it’s also important to understand the opportunities we have in 2021 to positively impact teams through effective HR.

Organizations should position themselves to thrive by embracing the trends mentioned above, adapting to new situations and evolving to become more successful. Let’s learn from the past year to come together and build a better future.

Looking for more advice this year? Read some of our other top articles:

And learn more about employee recognition with our special resource:

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