12 CHROs on the HR Trends Driving Change in 2021

HR is at an inflection point and though it currently faces one of the largest challenges in its history, it has already begun to weaponize change.


“2021 and 2022 are inflection points in which we have an opportunity to make a change in how we do HR.” – Minh Hua, Chief Talent Officer, Stanley Black and Decker.

In what has become perhaps the most significant challenge to business since the financial crash of 2008, Covid-19 has forced HR leaders to pivot, innovate, and respond on a near daily basis since 2020. Nevertheless, black swan events of this nature can prove beneficial in that they reveal a certain amount of untapped business potential; this is certainly true of HR, which, despite currently facing one of the most substantial trials of its history, has already weaponized change for the better.

From Michael Arena of Amazon to Jennifer Nuckles of SoFi, here are some of the HR trends revealed by 12 of the sector’s principle leaders. Together they tackle the secrets to making hybrid work successful, how to use HR as an organization’s moral compass and purpose driver, and how both recruitment and retention are going to require far greater flexibility than we commonly afford them in 2021.

An Inflection Point for HR in 2021 - HR Trends for 2021

1. HR Trends for 2021  – Belonging and the CHRO

Working as the Chief Talent Officer for Stanley Black and Decker, Minh Hua is responsible for leading the company’s full talent lifecycle, helping the business to drive growth via people and technology. Previously, Minh has helped to head up HR for Amazon Web Services, and has also worked to progressively build up JP Morgan Chase’s Global Corporate Bank.

2021 is an inflection point for HR trends, a year where sweeping change has become business-as-usual, according to Minh, this change will only continue. Across all industries, 2020 was a year of firsts but as Minh suggests, “the single biggest change was a reset in our mindset.” The impact of the global pandemic on people and their professions has empowered the marketplace to make its own decisions, and for new talent to think of potential careers and companies in a whole new light.

The difficulty in this growing consciousness, as Minh states is, “how to engage with the community, while avoiding partisan politics”. Whilst there has been an obvious gear change on a macro level, not everybody wants to embrace the new normal, leaning instead to the older, proven strategies. HR’s legacy challenge – which may finally come to a tipping point in the near future – is that every leader has “beliefs about what works to keep people” but as Minh suggests, “most of those beliefs have not really been tested.” Covid-19 and future black swan events, could end up tipping the scales detrimentally.

In line with this, Minh suggests that, “belonging is the ultimate competitive advantage in the war for talent 2.0”, and that, “the most sustainable thing we can do is create the right culture where everybody feels they belong.” Culture will be the new competitive advantage for the majority of businesses in the new war for talent as once your culture is established and provides employees with tangible advantages, no lure from a competitor will be substantial enough to draw them.

‘Belonging’ however, is a concept which varies from person-to-person, company-to-company, and sector-to-sector. For some it may be as simple as perks that suit a lifestyle, for others it may run deeper, e.g. having their social or mental needs met. For Minh, it’s a critical matter, who concluded by stating, “just to be clear, we still want to be good business people, we still want to be data-driven, we still want to help with the bottom line, but it is ok for HR to talk about emotions, connect with employees, and invest there.” This is what the company of the future must provide.

What is the Purpose of your Purpose? - HR Trends for 20212. HR Trends for 2021 – Purpose and the CHRO

Purpose is vital in the modern business; serving not only as the means of establishing your organization’s identity, purpose also works as the operational North Star, a guiding light in your enterprise which helps your teams to pull in a common direction. Given the current atmosphere surrounding change and transformation, it is essential that we establish a cogent purpose and message that works for all members of the business just in 2021 but as we build for the future.

For Jonathan Knowles, this has become a key strategic priority. Working as a business strategy writer and CEO for Type 2 Consulting, Jonathan helps companies like Deloitte and Panasonic to identify blind spots and reach their full operational potential. Purpose, as Jonathan indicated, is rarely simple, stating: “there’s a lot of confusion around the topic of purpose, because there are at least three meanings. There is purpose as function, as in what is the purpose of this. There’s then to act with purpose, so that’s intent. Then there is this idea of purpose as a higher purpose.” This range of purpose often obscures a businesses ability to define its HR approach, a matter shared by the panel.

Alison James, BIC’s former Chief Human Resources Officer and now Executive Director of the BIC Foundation, defined the purpose of HR differently, stating, “I see HR as the moral compass of the organization. In playing that role, I think we need to collaborate very carefully across the business.” First and foremost, the contemporary HR division must act as force for good in the enterprise, in this way it can help deliver to its responsibilities in regard to people and process.

For Hannah Grove, former EVP and now Chief Marketing Officer for State Street, purpose is all about honesty and simplicity. In the post-pandemic, people want their companies to understand them as people, not as employees and in this way, “storytelling completely trumps PowerPoint and hyperbole.” Increasingly, we’re going to see companies instituting real, benefit-led recruitment policies which help to clearly define their organizational purpose in a bid to win the war for talent.

Ultimately, there is no single definition of purpose and everyone will differ in how they believe we can best outline it, but as Jonathan, Alison and Hannah all suggest, it pays to follow the moral compass closely, avoid inauthenticity, and stick to the story. As Hannah states, “it’s eventually up to the leadership team to exemplify the culture that they want to uphold,” and what is clearly unanimous is that no organization can afford to operate without a purpose that all can rally around. In this way, establishing a culture that caters to the bilateral requirements of purpose and belonging will be vital to all companies moving forwards, particularly in regard to talent.

How HR can lead the conversation around the workforce of the future? - HR Trends for 2021

3. HR Trends for 2021 – The Future Workforce and the CHRO

Predicting the direction of the talent marketplace is always challenging, but even more so during periods of immense social and financial upheaval. Getting ahead of this challenge is currently a business-critical priority for HR executives worldwide. For Jerry Patterson, President of Fidelity Investments Life Insurance and Jennifer Nuckles the Executive Vice President with SoFi, it’s an issue that they can’t afford to ignore should they wish to help deliver the workforce of the future.

In the face of such stark adversity in recent times, many are realizing that simplicity is key, as Jennifer established, “the pandemic in the broader context is really just one more check on why we need to better understand our workforce’s needs.” Similar to Minh, Jennifer suggests that the pandemic has revealed value in that it has afforded HR executives the option to stop and take stock of the challenges before them, to then innovate to combat them. We live in uncertain times subject to certain change, but this isn’t always a bad thing.

Even prior to the pandemic, this atmosphere of change was already on the rise, as Jennifer purports, “even without the pandemic there’s been massive leaps made in technology, demographic shifts, geographical shifts. The world as we know it has completely changed.” It would seem that many have failed to realize the extent to which the market has been changing, even more so, the extent to which employee opinion has irreversibly shifted. Ultimately, if we are to cater to the future of the workforce, we must first establish whether employees see our workforce in their future.

We must acknowledge that some things have been irretrievably altered and that others have simply been amplified, but we must also ask whether these were changes already in motion. The only immutable truth is that change will come to define the future workforce and it’s an issue that many organizations are still equipped to face, as Jennifer stated, “only about 9% of CHROs are saying that their organizations are prepared for the future and about 60% of board members believe their industries are going to substantially transform in the next five years.”

We forget, but we’re now nearing the end of the largest work from home experiment that there’s ever been, and with it, there’s a host of new issues to tackle for the future workforce, as Jerry suggested, “we’re all struggling with things like burnout and the weight that this time has put on us mentally. To get back to where we were before Covid is going to take effort on all of our parts.”

Remaining cognizant of the personal impact of the pandemic will be essential in acting with the workforce’s best interests at heart, but equally as Jerry suggests “the leaders that can immerse themselves in data and immerse themselves in technology to help drive results and lead and run our operations are more valuable than ever.” These will be the leaders that help deliver the workforce of the future, helping not only to deliver a new era of profitability but of valuable new talent.

The War For Tech Talent 2.0 - HR Trends for 2021

4. HR Trends for 2021 – Talent and the CHRO

The post-Covid war for talent is already well underway and whilst we can intrigue the next generation of staff with a more methodically defined sense of belonging and purpose, exemplifying your culture is just one of the ways in which businesses can weaponize their strengths in order to influence and attract new candidates in the recruitment process. This was a matter that Chloe Rada Alex Smith, and Alison Dunsmore all focused on in their discussion of building a strong employee value proposition for a post pandemic world.

Chloé Rada currently works as the Director for Global Recruitment Marketing and Branding at Syneos Health, and believes that guaranteed support is going to prove one of the most valuable benefits for new and legacy employees. As she suggests, though “tough times drive creativity and innovation, we are really focusing on a model for our employees that supports our collaborative culture. Putting an emphasis on employee safety is and will continue to be number one.” Particularly after the realities of remote work set in in 2020, it was easy for staff to go unseen, this cannot last.

Businesses not only need to have robust models for future crises, but also ways to cope with the very human fallout of trying times: stress, wellbeing, mental health, work-life balance, and more. This was a point that Alex Smith, CHRO for The City of Memphis, acquiesced to, “from a retention standpoint, looking at how we can go above and beyond to support employees is critical in our response. From a recruiting standpoint, continuing to think about more non-traditional individuals and having more flexibility in our work environment is key.”

Remote working has democratized the jobs market for those who may have previously considered themselves ineligible or unsuitable for an ‘office job’ and this is one of the HR trends that leaders must factor into their futures. As Alex expands upon for new and existing employees, “I think it is important for us to look at considerations in terms of part-time work, flexible work arrangements, and other things that we can do to help ease the transition back into the workplace.”

However, there is a valuable resource that many executives are currently leaving untapped and as Allison Dunsmore, the Talent Programs Manager for Petco specifies, it’s far simpler than many might assume. “I’m a true believer in focus groups, polling your people, and hearing what’s going on and adjusting your benefits or your flexibility options accordingly. If I’m not living and breathing that experience, how am I supposed to know how we really need to change it?”

Your current employees are the best means of discovering what you need from a talent perspective, they eat, sleep and breathe your culture and values every day, and CHROs should use them as a sounding board when looking to implement sweeping changes or benefits. This will be increasingly important as we continue to iron out the creases in workplace policy post-Covid, particularly in regard to remote work.

Hybrid By Design - Enhancing employee experience and performance - HR Trends for 2021

5. HR Trends for 2021 – Remote Working and the CHRO

The growth of remote work opportunities is arguably one of the most significant social and financial consequences of the pandemic and truly, remote and hybrid working has become one of the key culture drivers in deciding the direction of businesses in the post-pandemic as well as a major pull for new potential talent. Remote work is here to stay, but how have HR leaders pivoted in recent times to meet this new challenge and in particular, engage with an increasingly remote employee.

In spite of the advantages that the remote work model provides, there are still numerous challenges being faced by businesses seeking to institute it within their organizations. Trina Hoefling is the Adjunct Professor for USC and Founder of the Smart Workplace and when discussing remote work, she stated, “I know for a fact that 100% virtual organizations and teams connect, belong, collaborate, and innovate together, but it takes a special intention to make that happen.”

Michael Arena, AWS’ VP of Talent & Development, also acknowledges the underlying challenges in remote work, “the first run of the experiment shows that we can be productive, we can be flexible, and that people enjoy this environment. I think the next wave of this experiment, whatever it manifests into, will be forcing us to think about the long haul.” Leaders must ultimately future-proof remote work, and ask themselves difficult questions like, “how do we continue to learn, how do we continue to cultivate and maintain a culture, and then, most importantly, how do we also innovate?”

However, if any sector in the business is prepared to solve the underlying challenges in remote work, it is HR, as Trina suggests, “HR really is the leader, because we tend to step up and do the right thing when it comes to caring for people and strategy.” It is this unified understanding of soft and hard factors in HR that place it so well for impactful change and not to alienate staff, as Trina goes on to state, “the planning up front of a hybrid environment takes more structure, more planning, more prescription, but we have to be careful not to proscribe so much that we lose people.”

Michelle Hay, the Global Chief People Officer for Sedgwick, laid out her advice for all executives when it comes to remote work stating, “we have to think about convenience, functionality and well-being from the employee’s perspective and then balance that with, what does the organization need?” Doing so will be vital to deliver a remote work policy that works for all employees, as she concluded, “the employee experience has forever changed” and therefore “the way that we think about it has forever changed.”

Post-Summit Reporting – HR Summit 2021

GDS’ HR summits bring renowned senior human resources executives together to connect and provide insights. If you are a leader in the space, don’t miss out on the opportunity to engage with other Chief Executive, VP and Director Level Leaders who are driving change both now and into the future.

Not simply comprised of the keynotes we host, summits also provide interactive Q&A and polls as well as breakout sessions, roundtables and 1-1 business meetings with executives. Across each of these, we asked leading HR executives and providers about their top spending focuses and at what stage in the process they were in implementing these transformation initiatives, the results of which can be seen below.

HR Executive Spending Priorities

It will come as no surprise that mergers and acquisitions ranks highest of the HR trends requiring departmental budget and investment. With an average yearly spend of $35million it’s an area that’s seeing substantial investment at this time. It’s not surprising as the cost of contract transfer, onboarding, and staff turnover form a significant part of the investment in any M&A project. Additionally, these M&A agreements will ultimately provide the tools that businesses use to achieve their organizational objectives, a precious commodity at this time.

What may surprise some though is the relative lack of investment being seen in the area of organizational culture which, whilst a principle focus for many of our speakers, seems to be an area receiving less investment currently. However, this is due to the fact that much of the infrastructure necessary to improve culture is already in play. Instead, it is up to leaders to engender a sense of culture in the business, to help define the future of work and to provide a competitive identity for the company, as Minh put it, “the most sustainable thing we can do is create the right culture where everybody feels they belong”

HR NA April 2021 – In Review

There was little disparity between the leaders at GDS’ HR Summit held during April, whilst this harmony of purpose may suggest at an easier route to positive change, it also highlights the common challenges facing HR departments and how widespread and entrenched they have become. Ultimately, as the world embraces the post-pandemic world at different paces, care must be taken to prevent a widening gap in the now-global remote workforce and between employees and culture.

We’ve seen near overwhelming change since 2020 and we can expect more on the horizon, but as the words of our esteemed speakers suggest, simplicity, authenticity, and flexibility are going to be the best means of finding a way out and avoiding black swan events in the future. Despite the current landscape of change that we find ourselves in, businesses have been able to weather the storm of Covid-19 deftly and as we’ve seen, HR is chief amongst the reasons why. These were the HR trends that are expected to drive change both now and into the future, by catering to each of them any HR team can help to guarantee their company’s survival.

GDS Summits are tailored 3-day virtual event conferences that bring together business leaders and solution providers to accelerate sales cycles, industry conversations and outcomes. Regarding the HR Summit, 88% of Delegates said their overall experience was Above Average or Excellent and 100% of Delegates who responded said the summit provided them with actionable outcomes to support their current initiatives

For more, click here to hear from attendees on how GDS has helped them to achieve their business outcomes.

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