If human-resource leaders thought 2020 was tough for the profession, this year is proving even more taxing.

Seven in 10 HR leaders feel that 2021 has been “one of the most challenging years in their career,” while almost all  (98 percent) believe that the pandemic has “transformed their role,” according to a survey by Paychex, a payroll-services provider.

More than a year and a half after the Covid-19 pandemic spurred a global shift to remote work, HR professionals are constantly facing new hurdles in a constantly evolving workplace.

Their top issues? Hiring and retention amid the “Great Resignation,” employee mental health and emotional well-being, the preservation of company culture as well as planning and managing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I)  in the workplace, the study said.

When it comes to remote-work challenges, HR professionals listed training and development as their top challenge, followed by employee engagement and retention, and management and oversight of work.

To better manage remote staff, HR leaders revealed in the report that initiatives to boost training opportunities and “optimize remote employee productivity” are needed. They also noted that “offering a secure method for employees to receive confidential answers to HR questions, without having to meet in person,” would be helpful.

Tackling the Great Resignation

HR professional also mentioned initiatives such as supporting employees with policies and programs to “maintain a better work/life balance; providing online communication tools to help managers and employees stay connected as well as implementing a system to help plan and track regularly scheduled manager/employee check-ins.”

The so-called Great Resignation and the resulting war for talent also are posing new and difficult challenges for HR staff, the survey showed, as a growing number of employees are leaving companies that will require a return to the office in favor of businesses that offer permanent full- or part-time remote work.

In fact, the search for talent is a priority area for HR leaders this year. They expect their overall head count to climb 11 percent, on average, over the next 12 months, according to the report.

Companies are using technology more than ever to help in their recruitment. About three-quarters 76 (percent) use data to create optimal profiles to attract the right hires. That’s up 28 percent from 2020, the study found. About 8 of 10 organizations said their HR systems help them attract talent.

In addition, HR departments are battling to retain existing talent. That’s because employee engagement has declined by more than 50 percent in the last year amid the move to remote work, the study said.

“This is an issue for many HR leaders, since engagement is typically correlated to an employee’s willingness to stay with a company,” the study said.

To help tackle this challenge, HR professionals are employing tactics that include offering training to help staff develop new skills, remote-work-options, financial incentives, flexible work options and regularly surveying about job satisfaction, according to Paychex.

HR departments are finding that preserving workplace culture also is key to employee retention amid the current environment.

In fact, 20 percent of HR professional surveyed said they had terminated employees who “don’t align with our company culture.”

Efforts to improve DE&I policies

Another key part of employee-retention planning is establishing remote-work policies, the poll revealed. About three-quarters of HR leaders are developing remote-work options for staff whose jobs allows for it, in addition to workers who can demonstrate a need.

Setting up policies for improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace also is a top priority for HR.

According to the survey, HR plans to boost DE&I efforts this year by about 30 percent, with just 6 percent of organizations stating that they aren’t planning any strategic changes to support DE&I initiatives.

HR professionals polled cited employee recruitment, retention and the belief that it is “the right thing to do” as the main reasons for boosting their DE&I efforts. A third of companies plan to put someone in charge of DE&I and about 7 in 10 (72 percent) of HR leaders have set up training to address employee discrimination and workplace harassment.

Rounding out the main challenges for HR this year is ensuring mental health in the workplace.

In fact, just 4 percent of HR leaders don’t view mental health as an employer responsibility and only 3 percent said that they are not doing anything to address employee mental health.

More than half (52 percent) said supporting mental-health challenges associated with the pandemic — including increased anxiety and depression, and decreased enthusiasm, motivation and focus — is a critical issue for their department.  In addition, 40 percent “increasingly see a link between employee mental health and productivity and company profitability.”

“As 2021 continues to unfold, exciting opportunities exist for businesses to strengthen employee communication and collaboration through new policies, ongoing training and technologies. As HR leaders continue to focus their efforts on DE&I and providing more support for their employees, a new vision for the workplace is emerging which may maximize productivity — in a way that benefits both employees and employers — like we’ve never seen before,” Paychex said in the study.

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