HR executives share some of the biggest challenges of 2021

“Growing our business amidst scarcity of talent in this economy has been a macro trend across our entire economy and certainly within our industry,” said Michael Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC.

“In the digital knowledge economy…there isn’t enough talent to go around,” he said. “That was a trend that pre-dated the pandemic…and we see it persisting.”

To help with recruitment and retention, PwC expanded its work options. Most employees have chosen a flex role, which means they are in an office or client site one to three days a week. The firm also offers a fully virtual option to its 40,000 client service employees — meaning they primarily work remotely, and only come into the office occasionally for things like collaborative meetings and events.

“That has enabled people to stay with our firm who might not have otherwise done so, and has enabled us to access talent and hire talent we might not have been able to otherwise,” said Fenlon.

To help attract new employees, health insurer Cigna changed some of its recruitment techniques, including things like offering sign-on bonuses in some cities. It’s also looking for talent in different places.

“In the past, we may have been focused on a particular geography for certain aspects of the business, we’ve now opened up and cast a much wider net,” said Cindy Ryan, Cigna’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer.

Embracing flexibility

Workers have made it clear they want more flexibility, but execs needed to figure out exactly what that means. Is it being more flexible about how often employees come into the office? Or making it easier to set schedules or work outside of the traditional 9 to 5?

“People want more flexibility…we understand that is the new normal,” said Vinita Clements, chief human resources officer at Nationwide. “We’ve had to balance the needs of our associates and their desires and also understand the needs of our customers and how do we deliver on the promise to protect people, businesses and futures?”

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The company, which had some employees working remotely before the pandemic, reopened its four main campuses in June 2021 with a hybrid model that uses an A&B schedule. Workers in group A come in one week while Group B is remote, then they switch the following week. By alternating weeks, the company avoids having more than 50% of workers in the office at once time.

“That is what is necessary to keep people safe and allow social distancing,” said Clements. “It is working well for us. We still have many associates in a permanent work-from-home situation.”

For the most part, employees who are not at one of the four main campuses will work remotely permanently.

Keeping workers safe

As new coronavirus variants emerged throughout the year, company leaders had to adjust safety protocols and re-opening plans.

“We turn the news on and there are different variants so that is a constant journey and absolutely the most important thing is making sure that our workforce is safe,” said Clements.

Nationwide requires all employees to wear a mask at their offices and limits conference room capacity.

Clements also said the company holds virtual broadcasts with experts, including infectious disease and mental health specialists, to provide information and answer questions on Covid-19, variants, vaccines, and children’s mental health.

“Individuals are in different camps even in understanding all of the variants of Covid, how do they keep their children safe, their families safe,” said Clements. “Education has proven to be a really great advocate for us in allowing us to put resources in front of people.”

Battling burnout

Workplace stress, the ongoing pandemic and a lack of boundaries between personal and professional life have all played a role in causing employees to feel burnt out.

“To help colleagues with work-life balance, we put in place practices to help make the new normal a better normal,” said Sara Wechter, head of human resources at Citi, in an email to CNN Business. The bank started “Zoom-Free Fridays” for internal meetings, reduced hour-long meetings to 45 minutes and asked that workers try to avoid scheduling meetings from 12:00 to 1:00.

Citi is also offering a hybrid work schedule where the majority of employees will be in the office at least three days a week. “We expect to learn and adapt as we put this model in place, but colleagues are embracing this approach,” wrote Wechter.

Leading in a new environment

Company leaders have also had to adapt their management styles during the pandemic.

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“Managing the ongoing health crisis continued to challenge our colleagues and leaders in 2021,” said Wechter. “It has tested our resilience, but also showed us the importance of flexibility, agility and empathy.”

At IBM, flexible work isn’t a new concept: Around 60% of its workers were in the office on a given day before the pandemic. And as the pandemic raged on this year, the company adapted.

“In 2020, we dealt with the immediate crisis of, how do you shift to remote?” said Nickle LaMoreaux, chief human resources officer at IBM. “We had to start thinking, this isn’t a temporary emergency. We now have to move into, how do we truly lead and continue to engage in a virtual-first environment?”

The tech giant offers empathy training to managers, and focuses more on outcomes during performance evaluations.

“One of the benefits of this virtual-first environment is it has allowed us to really create and do a step change in performance evaluations around outcomes versus activities. And…really talking as a team about the outcomes you want to drive — not just the amount of hours you want to put in.”

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