Martin Trotier assesses the topics and tasks of personnel work in 2021
In the early days of 2021, the media once again started discussing the future role and tasks of the personnel department – or in modern terminology: HR. But this time something’s different. The whole discussion is being overshadowed by the pandemic. Why should that affect HR? As HR expert and Steinbeis Entrepreneur Martin Trotier discusses in our latest Steinbeis Swipe opinion column, the importance of HR is growing for companies in these times. For Trotier, the pandemic is not a catalyst of the trends we’re currently experiencing, it’s just fanning the flames of certain processes that started a long time ago. The only difference is that these processes are now becoming more obvious and more embedded in the consciousness of those affected.
In the summer of 2020, consultants at Kienbaum ascertained that the pandemic is expected to raise the importance of HR at companies, offering an opportunity for HR departments to adopt an interesting position in the corridors of senior management. Naturally, they said, this comes hand in hand with a significant rise in senior management expectations regarding the HR function. 
In its traditional end-of-year review, the German Professional Association of HR Managers (BPM) sings off the same song sheet regarding the future of HR work. It also points to a sudden rise in the importance of the HR function for companies due to the pandemic. HR – a central axis of corporate management: The report said it’s important to retain this significance in the future and not fall back into the pattern of traditional roles.  In her official statement, association chair Inga Dransfeld-Haase also points out that HR needs to hold on to this outcome of the pandemic. 
If you think about these notions, the pandemic has had an interesting impact. It “finally” resolves HR’s dilemma of having to continually justify its existence and prove that it adds value for the company. The pandemic is making an important contribution to the HR guild not having to keep trying to persuade itself that it’s valuable.
Human beings as the center of all activity
The pandemic has impacted firms in a number of ways, but one thing that surely applies to all industries is that being ordered to remain physically distant has caused havoc for entire organizations and partnerships. Without delay, ways had to be found to organize work, working hours, communication methods, and leadership techniques in line with the crisis. This immediately affected human interaction at companies.
The crisis turned the spotlight on people – properly, not like we’ve witnessed so often in the past with management simply paying lip service to people. Making employees the center of everything at the company – suddenly this really did become essential for survival.
Megatrends and HR
For some time now, it has been generally accepted that HR is driven by a whole series of megatrends, which it has aligned itself to. Global events are becoming increasingly volatile, trends are becoming more uncertain and complex, and there are fewer and fewer clear answers to the questions. At the same time, fast-moving trends – such as digital transformation, demographic change, climate change, and demands for diversity – are heightening the pressure on people and companies to change too. This pushes HR into the front row and it will have to align its activities with the support of and according to people in order to make these trends manageable within the company and organize how everyone collaborates.
Shifting the focus: the big challenge for HR
So it wasn’t the pandemic that came up with these trends, but it certainly amplified them once more and resulted in a shift in priorities.
Having to separate people in physical terms has placed new emphasis on how processes are organized – also introducing the term “working from home” (WFH). Almost instantly, people were expected to put everything in place to organize their work differently. Like a magnifying glass, WFH highlighted the complexity of interrelationships and how important it is to see and use HR as a management function and mediator between different parties. WFH separates employees into those who can work from home, and those who can’t. Some find WFH a flexible arrangement that offers a new sense of freedom, others don’t. Topics rise to the surface relating to working hours – or observing, monitoring, and spreading work over the day or week. WFH requires the right technology and much more advanced digital processes than was probably even necessary in the past.
Communication is undergoing a major transformation and has to be controlled much more tightly than it used to be. Staff and managers have not prepared for remote collaboration and can’t always get their minds around it. How do you remotely manage people? Do you still need managers or is it now all about self-discipline and taking personal responsibility? How should WFH workstations be equipped and designed when it comes to ergonomics and health issues? And finally, WFH presents new challenges when it comes to collaboration between employers and workers’ representatives. Employers and works councils must quickly work on how they collaborate and find constructive solutions.
All of this spells change at an unprecedented pace. The focus lies in redefining the processes of work and working hours within companies. The role HR has to play in this is to work with all stakeholders to come up with sustainable solutions and thus constructively overcome any conflicts that arise. We are highly unlikely to see a culture of “back to the workplace” like in the past.
The pandemic also draws attention to occupational health management and health and safety issues. HR’s role in this is to manage processes beyond the pandemic. The importance of health issues should now be patently obvious to everyone in management by now.
These changes have a fundamental impact on how people interact and work together in organizations. To not only make it through these changes, but also shape them, HR has to find ways to help staff become more resilient. For managers, this entails a new direction in management development, seeing people from an overall angle and considering all of their individual facets. Managers must be enabled to reflect on their own roles, redefine them, and support staff as they learn how to organize their own tasks and assume more personal responsibility.
Another key aspect of current HR work: Economic pressures resulting from the crisis may trigger or accelerate a necessary process of restructuring. HR has a particularly important role to play in this by shaping working relationships within the company. The future of the company depends on smooth cooperation based on mutual trust.
Other aspects of HR management will become less important at first. So it’s entirely possible that recruitment will not be the main priority at the moment. But in view of long-term demographic developments, this will only be a temporary effect. However, it should not be forgotten that HR must continue to deal with the administrative sides of the business. Its aim here should be to seize the opportunities offered by digitalization and enhance processes. This will remain the case in the long term.
External support for HR
HR faces enormous challenges during the pandemic and beyond, and it should not hesitate to call on external support.
Although these trends are universal, many prevailing conditions are also specific to individual companies. As a result, each company must decide for itself which priorities to set and how best to bring in support from outside. A specialist in HR consulting, SCG Personal can provide this kind of individual support and respond as required to the needs of its customers – whether the priority is to empower employees and managers to deal with change, or it’s about making work more flexible.
My personal conclusion
The pandemic is not triggering trends, but it has been fanning the flames by reinforcing existing trends in HR and making dealing with the pandemic a matter of long-term survival.
How long the pandemic lasts will determine how profound change is, not only for the economy but also for companies. All of these issues have a fundamental impact on how people interact and work together in companies. HR therefore plays a pivotal role in processes over and beyond the pandemic. HR must now seize the opportunity to shape change, not just suffer consequences. Seldom have times been this fascinating. I agree with Inga Dransfeld-Haase when, despite the many challenges, she speaks of a “positive sense of changing into a completely new world of knowledge-based work with greater freedom and self-determination” .
Martin Trotier (author)
Steinbeis Consulting Center HR Management and Transformation (Mannheim)
Martin Trotier runs the Steinbeis Consulting Center for HR Management and Transformation in Mannheim, with a focus on change management, restructuring, and the development of HR strategies. He is also a partner and coordinator at SCG Personal, an association of experienced experts in human resources consulting, covering all aspects of organizational and personnel development as well as personnel and skills management.