Humanity re-discovered in 2020: Reflections for human capital leadership in 2021
Witnessing what is happening around the world from my post in Singapore, I find it striking to see how governments, businesses, and societies are grappling with our new reality in very different ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the frailty of our human condition along with other challenges in our world today. We have all been affected personally and professionally in ways we could not have imagined just a year ago.
If I think back to the end of 2019, many were preoccupied with the coming digital revolution and climate change impact as we considered what this might mean for humans. When COVID-19 arrived, we suddenly reprioritized to address immediate risks. Dealing with this invisible virus enemy has highlighted our humanity in unexpected ways; perhaps testing us in this manner surfaced issues that were not on our priority list previously. In the spirit of reflection, I will share these re-discovered observations of our humanity as we consider our plans for the year ahead.
Observation 1: Humans are adaptable – Wow! I hope change management experts were paying attention this year! The typical old challenge of influencing people to accept a change as simple as a new process, system, or structure seems easy after seeing what we were able to do in 2020! Entire companies demonstrated agility as we all made rapid adjustments in our business operations. Vast populations in countries stayed home, jobs impossible to do from home became doable, and all critical travel became unnecessary within weeks or days! In addition, we suddenly became digitally tech-savvy in many ways! We have demonstrated to ourselves that we can make big changes quickly – we are all adaptable!
Looking forward – As we think about human capital leadership, how can we build on this adaptability for our workplaces of the future? It would be a missed opportunity to simply go back to our old ways. How do we take the good from the pre-COVID world coupled with the lessons from COVID to reinvent how work is done? How might we keep the organizational agility as a part of company culture to help us innovate for the future?
Observation 2: Human social cohesion is fragmented – Several incidents around the world this year have surfaced systemic racism and prejudice in our societies. In our businesses, we often have diversity efforts which have led to good progress in areas of employment over the years, but it is clear that we still have a long way to go to create an inclusive workplace and society. We also have witnessed the further economic bifurcation of our societies. Over the years, we have noted the widening income inequality with the rising Gini coefficient around the world. Unfortunately, the impact of COVID has likely furthered this divide. For many people, the pandemic has caused the loss of income, challenges at home, and additional health issues. However, those with higher income levels are more likely able to remain safe, work from home, and even profit from the impact of the pandemic. In many global regions, we have serious tensions regarding income gaps, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, and gender that have surfaced due in part to the unintended consequences of social media, access to disinformation, as well as increased awareness.
Looking forward – As we make our human capital plans for 2021, what more should we each do in the area of diversity? Employers can make an important difference not only for their workplace but also in society. What are the ways that your organization can make a diversity impact by demonstrating an inclusive approach with employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders? How might HR leaders help make an impact on the vast income differences in our compensation systems? What else can the private sector do to help bring about social cohesion around the world?
Observation 3: Humans are collectively strong – As we watched the videos of Italian people singing from their balconies during lockdown and fun Vietnamese messages about wearing masks, we saw the tremendous strength of people working together and supporting each other. We also saw the collective strong vigilance to beat the virus in places like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other locations. We, unfortunately, witnessed locations where people acted with individual interests (e.g. USA) that are not faring so well against the threat of COVID-19. When we work with a collective orientation, we can accomplish great things!
Looking forward – As leaders, we know that teamwork can be a powerful force in accomplishing goals. How can we create more teamwork and collective ambition in our organizations? Imagine the collective strength of the human capital of your business and consider what your teams can accomplish for a positive impact. How might we use a collective orientation to make a difference with critical issues such as climate change?
Observation 4: Imperfect humans are relatable – Rather than polished shows and speeches, we watched late-night talk show hosts broadcasting from home, CEOs and other leaders Zooming from their living rooms, and our teammates introducing us to their young children who popped into our video calls. These imperfections became welcomed nuances as many embraced these situations as relatable human connections. Through this crisis, many embraced the humility and the authenticity of being themselves with others. These accidental humble moments perhaps endeared us and engaged us more than the polished, edited, scrubbed professional messages.
Looking forward – While we adjust to virtual working and digital tools, how can leaders of human capital manage to keep a human touch? It would be great to build cultures of authenticity where people continue to be comfortable sharing. At the same time, tools like Zoom are becoming more professional (Zoom’s new “Studio Effects” enhances facial features). How can we find a way to keep those uniquely human touches in 2021?
Observation 5: Health is a human value – The health risks associated with COVID-19 created immediate needs related to ensure the physical safety of employees and others in the workplace. Suddenly, the virus risk allocated more value and appreciation for human health, something that we may have taken for granted. Many CHROs found themselves acting as a “Chief Health & Risk Officer” in the response to the pandemic. As physical work was restricted and knowledge work became virtual, a second impact surfaced regarding the mental health of the workforce. Many leading companies have been actively working to help address the stress, isolation, and frustration of employees through various engagement programs and other interventions.
Looking forward – The virus will be with us into 2021 and we will continue to need to be mindful of the physical and psychological health of those in our workforce as well as our contractors, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. Those in the Human Resource Management profession have an opportunity to use this focus on health to help reshape the nature of the profession. How might human capital leaders raise the importance of wellness and wellbeing to the forefront of the top management agenda?
As we plan for the year ahead, there are many considerations, concerns, and ideas for our future. 2020 has been a year like no other and it has allowed us to re-discover our own humanity and vulnerability. For human capital leaders, we have an opportunity to reflect on this and create an even better future for our organizations, our profession, and for ourselves. What will you take from your 2020 experience to create a better 2021?
For me, I have learned invaluable lessons from my post here in Singapore this year. In fact, over the past 15 years, I have learned from the rich experiences of our Asian lifestyles, diversity, values, and cultures. In 2021, I will be taking action to follow my interests in both Health and Human Capital to a new post at Johns Hopkins University in the USA. Building on my work in Asia, I plan to take on new challenges as we evolve our global thinking on Human Capital Leadership. Of course, I will continue to stay connected with People Maters and you, my colleagues in the region. I look forward to seeing how we will create our new future in 2021 and how we will collectively evolve the Leadership of Human Capital around the world.