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Is HR future-ready for the emerging trends in 2021 and beyond?

The year 2020 will go into the annals of history as one of the years with the most unprecedented and disruptive changes mankind has witnessed in its recent history. The pandemic has reset the ‘new normal’ in every walk of life and led to a ‘new world order’ encompassing every aspect of humanity. 

The world of business and work, both have transformed hugely in the COVID era and no function is untouched. The HR fraternity needs to ponder over – Is HR future-ready for the emerging trends in 2021 and beyond amidst the changing landscape of HR function? 

Here are the top six global emerging trends in the HR function which are redefining and  transforming it to manage increasingly hybrid workplaces and diverse workforce, largely  working remotely: 

Top six global emerging Trends in HR in 2021 and beyond: 

1. Organisation transformation and change:

Most of the organisations around the world are facing enormous business challenges ahead and working tirelessly to set the reset button for fast recovery.  

The fast pace and disruptively changing business and market dynamics resulted in a huge shift in consumer behaviour and preferences on account of pandemic leading to the current economic downturn and the rise of unemployment globally. As uncertainty continues, the bigger challenges such as addressing the apprehensions, insecurities, and anxieties of employees, consumers, and other stakeholders quickly, influencing the consumer behaviour to generate fresh demands, building an agile organisation for real-time response to the market and supply chain challenges, re-engineering the business and people processes as per the changing demands, adapting to the virtual world with the digital transformation of businesses, revisiting the purpose, values and organisation design, and resetting the culture of the organisation for the new normal, etc. are going to be the daunting tasks at hand which will keep business leaders and  HR fraternity occupied in the year 2021 and beyond. HR fraternity is expected to be a  catalyst in the change and transformation journey of their organisations and lead from the front.  

‘Change management’ has been included in the top three essential business skills for  Managers along with ‘leadership’ and ‘design thinking’ in the essential skill map for businesses by Coursera in its recently published Essential Skills Playbook. 

2. Digital Transformation:

It’s time for HR to go for digital transformation. Most of the corporate’s digital transformation strategies were focused until now ‘outwardly’ towards customers, employer branding, and highlighting products and services. 

However, the COVID era has turned the table and now the focus has shifted ‘inwardly’ towards own employees to elevate the employee experience at various touchpoints from pre-hiring to retiring by creating ‘Aha!’ moments for long term engagement and retention.  

The digitization of all key HR processes is making the function more transparent,  measurable, real-time analytics-driven, efficient, and accountable. However, the biggest impact of it is on the L&D process where the focus has shifted from ‘inputs’ to business ‘outcomes’. In a disruptive world in which we are living, rapid learning,  assimilation, and adaptation are the key essence of the L&D process to make organizations agile and responsive to the fast pace changes in the marketplace. L&D  initiatives will impact business performance and shape business outcomes through cutting edge learning solutions aimed at rapid learning in real-time.  

A recent People Matters & Skillsoft research study shows that 88 % of the HR and  L&D leaders listed ‘digital learning’ as the topmost option for the aspirational mode of learning. 

3. Mental wellness of the workforce:

As the workplaces have transformed and a large number of employees are WFH, they are struggling in managing their work-life balance. Also, the line of demarcation got blurred between personal and professional working hours resulting in increased screen fatigue and overwork. It has led to enormous mental fatigue, anxiety, trust deficit, insecurity, depression, social and emotional stress amongst employees. The fear of becoming irrelevant and redundant is looming large and employees are finding it challenging to sustain their productivity and performance level while working remotely in the absence of the right ecosystem, infrastructure, social and emotional support. 

A global study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, an HR research and advisory firm found that the COVID-19 has negatively impacted the mental health of 78% of the global workforce. 85% of people say mental health issues at work (i.e. stress,  anxiety, and depression) affect their home life. 76% of people believe their company should be doing more to protect the mental health of their workforce. However, due to their vulnerability, 82% of people believe robots can support their mental health better than humans. Employees want help and turning to technology over people as  83% of the global workforce would like their company to provide technology to support their mental health, including self-service access to health resources (36%),  on-demand counselling services (35%), proactive health monitoring tools (35%),  access to wellness or meditation apps (35%), and chatbots to answer health-related questions (28%). 

HR needs to shift gear by developing holistic and blended (human touch as well as technology interface) employee wellness approach keeping mental is wellness as the prime focus. It is also time to engage external coaches to reduce the vulnerability and insecurity of employees in discussing their mental health and other issues without being judged. Until now, the focus was primarily on physical health by providing infrastructure and incentives but going forward, the whole ecosystem needs to be developed for physical, mental, social, and emotional wellness of the workforce. 

4. Transformation of work, workplace, and workforce:

Many set beliefs, assumptions, and presumptions about work, workplace, and workforce have shattered during the COVID era and given way to new possibilities and realities.  

Future of ‘Work’ is becoming more challenging with embracing new technologies in the digital world and working and leading teams & projects remotely.  Application of new technological tools such as AI, ML, IoT, Data Science, chatbots etc. are redefining the nature of work such as its scope, competencies, job profile and delivery mode – online or onsite. 

‘Workplaces’ are getting redefined with the adoption of the hybrid model; employees working from offices as well as remotely. The recent study by Oracle and  Workplace Intelligence suggests that despite perceived drawbacks of remote work, 62% of people found remote work more appealing now than they did before the pandemic, saying they now have more time to spend with family  (51%), sleep (31%), and get work done (30%). 

‘Workforce’ is becoming very diverse with the inclusion of own employees, contract employees, gig workers, freelancers, consultants, coaches, etc. leading to various modes of engagement such as full-time, part-time, hourly rated, contracted, project-based, etc. Also, the composition of ‘Workforce’ is rapidly changing with the inclusion of more numbers of women, millennials, gen Z, LGBTQ, differently-abled, local and global employees. The above requires complete overhauling of archaic HR policies,  systems, and processes along with a paradigm shift in the mindset of the HR fraternity first.  

5. Emerging competencies and skills for hybrid workplaces:

Many recent surveys and researches are showing that L&D processes have undergone huge transformation and digitization during the COVID era and are now an irreversible process. While content has become more digital and innovative with the use of cutting-edge tools such as gamification, animation, graphics designs, comic strips etc., the delivery model has shifted vastly on the virtual platform. 

World order. Soft skills are leading the pack and redefining and balancing the skilling reskilling programs at all levels of employees which were until now more focused on the technical and functional domain. The leadership traits have vastly shifted and leaned towards non-cognitive skills as an antidote in the context of huge transformation like work, workplace, workforce, and digital adaptation. 

New generation leaders are expected to exhibit more empathy, compassion,  emotional intelligence, mindfulness, resilience, learning agility, adaptation,  collaboration, communication, and listening skills to stay connected with the workforce in the digital world. They need to excel in leading teams/workforce virtually and remotely, driving innovation and digital adaptation. Mindset, attitude, motivation, and communication are the key focus at all levels apart from specific technical and functional skills. Similarly, building trust, camaraderie, diversity &  inclusion, collaboration, problem-solving and entrepreneurial spirit will be the team competencies most sought after in the future hybrid workplaces. 

Recent global survey results published by the Ken Blanchard Companies shared a  list given below where respondents, largely leaders, and L&D professionals, rank-ordered 26 different areas to focus on with skill training in 2021:  

6. Changing L&D delivery model:

The delivery model of L&D initiatives has vastly shifted to virtual & on-line platforms and digitized during the COVID era as the necessity to connect with employees, mostly WFH and remotely. The response to the new situation was more reactive than proactive and strategic. The Ken Blanchard  Companies global survey result suggests that this rapid shift to virtual and digital learning was not without its own challenges as 40% of respondents, largely leaders and L&D professionals found the design, delivery, and successful use of technology to be difficult.

However, this phenomenon has transformed the delivery mechanism forever with high virtual learning and digital content in L&D initiatives for employees at different levels. The Ken Blanchard Companies survey also suggests that going forward when face-to-face options become available again, a more blended L&D delivery model is in the offing as the respondents preferred 32.67% for in-person Instructor-led  Training (ILT), 30.89% for Virtual Instructor-led Training (VILT), 20.79% for Self-paced  (eLearning, digital resources, Mobile, etc.) and 15.66% for Coaching / Mentoring. In looking ahead, respondents expect to use in-person and virtual instructor-led training equally. This requires organizations to create a unified platform to integrate all delivery models so that they complement & supplement each-other and reinforce learning and retention at all levels for higher business performance and outcomes. 

The HR fraternity needs to gear up for the new reality and focus on the new capability development (NCD) for effective business partnering. They need to embrace change,  develop an ease with HR technology, build capability for digital adaptation, enhance learning agility, develop non-cognitive skills and build analytical & design thinking abilities focused on solutions to be future ready, stay relevant, and thrive in the VUCA  world. 


  1. Coursera for Business – The Essential Skills Playbook – Prepare your organization for  digital transformation

  2. People Matters – Skillsoft Research Study – Learning Trends India 2020

  3. Oracle and Workplace Intelligence – AI@Work Global Research Report 2020 – As  Uncertainty Remains, Anxiety and Stress Reach a Tipping Point at Work

  4. The Ken Blanchard Companies Report – 2021 Trends: Learning and Development in a  COVID World

A Global Leadership, Team, and Career Coach, Santosh Sharan is a highly acclaimed HR  consultant, advisor, thought leader, influencer, and speaker. He has three decades of enriched corporate experience of working in leading Indian and MNCs such as TATA Steel,  Jindal Steel & Power, Escorts Ltd., Singer Ltd., LG Life Sciences, S C Johnson, and Essel  Infraprojects Ltd. 

A former President and CHRO turned entrepreneur, Santosh is Founder & CEO, GenNxt HR  Consulting; Partner, Positive Momentum India and Senior Advisor to Vertebrand Group of  Companies.  

A recipient of ‘HR Leadership Award’ in 2010 and selected as one amongst the ‘Top 100 HR  Minds in India’ in 2018 by World HRD Congress, Santosh did his Science and Law graduation from Ranchi University and PGDPM in HR from Xavier Institute of Social Service  (XISS), Ranchi, India.

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