What’s Ahead For 2021? Five Lessons For The Coming Year.

We’ve learned a lot in 2020 and many of us are happy to put it in the rearview mirror. But as we look ahead to the new year, I think there are a lot of positives to bring forward.  (Our Predictions will be out in Jan.)

First, we learned to be humble.

The Virus is a sneaky, unpredictable enemy and the best companies found that “learning as we go” was the best strategy of all. I’d suggest that humility is a business strength in good times too. Even Amazon, one of the most successful companies in the world, takes lots of time to learn from mistakes and avoid “going through doors that you can’t back out of.”

Our Big Reset group shared dozens of inspiring examples of innovation, creativity, and human focus. Most of you let people stay home, increased flexibility, raised pay, improved benefits, and spent millions of dollars on safe workplace, productivity, and listening tools. These are all “humble” investments – they reflect our deep realization that we just have to listen to what people need, regardless of what they say. (Download the reports here.)

Second, we learned to listen.

In all the studies we did this year, listening to employees (and hearing and acting) was by far the #1 most important business practice. This goes back to the fundamental idea that employees are a company’s #1 asset (more important than customers). Employees live your brand every day. They voted with their careers to come join you. So their feedback, ideas, and concerns are the most honest and important of all.

Again this is a lesson to take forward in 2021. In the best of times, when the company is growing and making money, employees will always tell you where to invest next. And now we have a whole industry of listening tools and crowdsourcing technology to make this easy. (The era of “continuous engagement surveys” is here.)

Third, we learned about human-centric leadership.

One of our most active Big Reset group focused on this topic all year. And it sounds a little silly: isn’t all leadership “human-centered?”

Well not really. As you’ll read more about soon, there are really two “themes” of leadership:  Human-Centered and Business-Centered. And we’ve learned the difference throughout the year.

Human Centric Leadership

We’re going to publish a whole report on this next year, but the central idea is that supervisors, managers, and executives have to sit back, listen, and think about people first. It’s not a new idea, but this year it happened at scale. And this is why the 2021 DDI Global Leadership research (which I’m co-writing) shows the highest-ever employee rating of leadership since 2011.

Read my article CEO as Chief Empathy Officer, it really did predict the future.

Fourth, we learned to take Employee Experience seriously.

The EX topic started as a lark, to be honest. All the books, articles, and ideas on Employee Experience started around 2015 when AirBnB hired a “Chief Employee Experience Officer.” It was a funny idea and they looked at it as a “design thinking” group within HR.

Then we talked about “moments that matter” and we started to look at a few experiences at work: onboarding, employee transition, family changes. And as we dug in, we found out that EX is deeper and more complicated than we realized.

I spent hundreds of hours talking with HR leaders about EX this year and what now comes up is how expansive, important, and holistic this topic has become. EX is a company-wide initiative that includes Facilities, Safety, HR, Finance, Legal, Operations, and Business Leadership. It demands a whole nest of integrated digital tools (read about IBM’s focus here) that go from case management to knowledge management to safe workplace to daily productivity. And it requires a focus on service delivery and HR operations: moving to what I call a “continuous response” model in HR.

You are going to work hard on this in 2021, I know it. And these projects will be expansive and powerful. We’re now helping some of the world’s most complex companies deal with this and it requires a focus on employee segmentation, digital experience design, and leveraging a new world of self-service tools (from chatbots to AI to voice) to make work easier.

I think it’s the whole theme of the $250 Billion HR Tech market in fact, and this year you’re going to see Microsoft, Facebook, IBM, Cisco, and every other major vendor play a role.

Fifth, we learned that HR is a bold, innovative, and noble profession at its core.

Finally, let me add that I had the most inspiring and exciting year of my career. Not because I had to stay home and live on Zoom all day, but because I had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of you – the most committed, passionate, and creative people in the world.

The Human Resources profession grew up this year, and we take this new role and responsibility forward in 2021. I believe HR is not a “service delivery organization” but rather a “center of innovation.” Not only do we have to take care of people, make work simple, and help the company grow – we have to listen, create, experiment, and adapt. And I think you all did this in amazing ways this year.

My final point is to make sure you take these lessons forward. Next week take time with your team and write down what you learned. At some point we’ll look back on the Pandemic and try to remember what happened.

Let’s make sure this is a year of “Big Reset” and not just a distraction. 2021 may be one of the most important years of our lives – and I believe we can take these lessons and make it better for everyone.

Resources For The Year Ahead

Our Big Reset Research – detailed reports on what we learned from the Pandemic.

HR Technology 2021: The Definitive Guide – everything buyers, vendors, and investors need to know about HR Tech for 2021.

The Josh Bersin Academy – “The World’s Home for HR” – join more than 30,000 HR professionals to learn about EX, public health, technology, and more.

Pandemic Response: Building Resilience – the most in-depth study of ten best practices for business resilience.