Top concerns for employers in 2021

We're far from returning to life as we knew it before the pandemic

Top concerns for employers in 2021

From mass layoffs to mass hiring, from remote working to hybrid working, talent leaders turned to a variety of business continuity and people management strategies to survive in the pandemic. The most fundamental changes, such as the introduction of flexible working and the expansion of company-sponsored health benefits, showed employers’ commitment to putting workers’ health and safety first.

However, some measures such as reducing work hours, wages or the size of the workforce also reflected the economic strain of the pandemic, most especially during the lockdown. Industries that relied heavily on face-to-face B2C interaction, such as hospitality, travel and some retail businesses had very little choice aside from cutting jobs or placing people on paid or unpaid leave. These trends reshaped business in 2020 – but are they likely to continue in 2021?

Read more: Revealed: Top three HR trends for 2021

With the launch of vaccination drives, especially in key economies, business leaders are regaining their confidence and preparing to invest in growth in the next 12 months. But as economic experts warn: we’re far from returning to life as we knew it before the pandemic. Even with growing optimism that the end of the crisis may be in sight, some concerns continue to keep employers up at night:

Team morale and productivity

While essential businesses were booming, other sectors were forced to shed jobs in 2020. In fact, a recent benchmarking report from The Predictive Index showed 69% of companies restructured through layoffs or furloughs since the onslaught of COVID. Of the organisations that reduced their workforce, 28% cut at least a quarter of their staff. These decisions reportedly take a toll on employee morale.

“It’s no surprise employee productivity is a major concern for CEOs. Layoffs bring feelings of anxiety and guilt for employees who remain. Also, restructuring means new teams are formed – and thus, new people problems to address,” analysts from The Predictive Index wrote.

Employee health and safety

Workplace health and safety precautions today primarily follow guidelines set by the World Health Organization. For employers, there is the added challenge of formulating health and safety protocols around the nature of their operations.

A few, however, have benefitted from working with medical experts in identifying COVID hazards that they or their employees might be unaware of. The crisis has sparked the trend of hiring in-house chief medical officers to oversee health and safety programmes – even in non-medical industries.

“If you are not getting proper advice from a chief medical officer, how do you know if you are not exposed to liabilities in the health and safety areas?” said Dr. Rob McCartney, an expert in occupational medicine and the first-ever medical chief at supermarket chain Woolworths.

Indeed, it’s important for employers to get expert advice tailored to business needs. Speaking to HRD, Tony Morris, a former risk advisory partner at Deloitte, said: “The risk COVID-19 brings to our workplaces must be assessed in the context of operations, work environment, workforce and health and safety risk profile. Everyone would like to have a prescriptive list of what to do, but a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.”

Read more: 2021 set to bring fresh set of challenges for HR

Another concern among employers this year is whether they can require workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. While some executives are keen on requiring new hires to get the jab prior to joining a company, public health experts and labour lawyers have been quick to point out that there is currently no blanket rule to mandate staff vaccinations. The recourse employers have, in most cases, is to incentivise employees who voluntarily get immunised.

If inoculation is deemed reasonably necessary in one’s line of work, as seen in cases of healthcare workers being asked to get vaccinated against influenza – yet employees refuse the jab – then the issue becomes a matter of employers communicating the risks clearly to staff. “Employers can’t force somebody to take a vaccine. However, employers can address the issue in another way – perhaps by stating that an employee cannot return to the office unless they’ve had the vaccine,” employment lawyer Stephen Wolpert told HRD last year.

The return to work and post-lockdown recovery

The highs and lows of people management in a pandemic doesn’t revolve exclusively around health and safety concerns. Recovering from the economic fallout also entails regaining employee trust.

With companies downsizing at the height of the crisis, and eventually ramping up headcount as part of their recovery process, the pandemic has ultimately led to employers managing a diverse talent base. Today, this consists of workers who were retained; recalled; and recruited during the crisis. Perhaps the most challenging for businesses heavily affected by layoffs – even when the job cuts were temporary – is the process of calling back employees who went through retrenchment.

“Employers need to think about redeployment and re-employment of furloughed workers,” said Philip Mondor, CEO of Tourism HR Canada. “How can employers support both the workers and employers to facilitate transitions? There are various needs and added complexity at play.”

“The pace of calling back people,” Mondor told HRD, “will require careful planning and contingencies to mitigate risk for both employees and employers in relation to the precariousness of employment or the ability of the business to extend cash flow and drive revenues. The burden exists for both parties until it is sufficiently stable and predictable.”

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