6 Themes For Today’s CHRO Agenda

From flexible workplaces to compensation issues, the CHRO plate is fuller than it’s ever been.
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John M. Bremen, co-founder, Willis Towers Watson CHRO Thinking Ahead Group

What’s on CHROs’ plates as the world slowly digs itself out of the clutches of the Covid pandemic?

John M. Bremen and Amy DeVylder Levanat, co-founders of the brokerage and advisory firm Willis Towers Watson CHRO Thinking Ahead Group, are in a unique position to know. Bremen, based in Chicago, is the firm’s managing director, human capital and benefits, and global head of thought leadership and innovation. DeVylder Levanat, based in Stamford, Connecticut, is the firm’s senior director, human capital and benefits. HR leaders share their thoughts with Bremen and DeVylder Levanat every day.

The two spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about what they’re hearing, the importance of reskilling and why it’s critical to meet employees “where they are” today.

What is the current “state of the world” according to CHROs as we make our way through the summer of 2021?

Based on regular conversations with CHROs, including members of Willis Towers Watson’s CHRO Thinking Ahead Group, there is no consistent “state of the world” across countries right now, given significant differences between what’s going on in different parts of the world, countries, states and provinces. It’s really a case of two worlds: some regions are surging back and reopening, while others are still in lockdown and/or have Covid cases increasing. We also see vaccine distribution is highly inconsistent across countries and regions within countries. Supply chains remain “lumpy” and disrupted, and labor markets remain in transition.

The agendas for CHROs for the balance of 2021 are shaped by expectations for ongoing disruption, but in a very different way from 2020. Whereby 2020 was “disruptive down” in terms of shocks to growth, market stability and well-being, we are seeing 2021 as “disruptive up” in terms of non-linear growth, as countries and companies around the world work to restore constancy of markets, societies and institutions.

What are the most pressing issues on the CHRO agenda for the balance of 2021?

We are seeing six themes as top HR priorities and trends for 2021. First, there is clear acceleration in new ways of working, including flexible work that impacts where, when and how people work. Second, well-being and resilience—for both organizations and employees—remain at the forefront of the HR agenda, with concurrent focuses on physical, emotional, financial and social well-being. Third, a new focus on fairness and sustainability has emerged for total rewards programs across pay, health benefits, wealth benefits and careers, with well-being and equity at the center.

Fourth, speaking of diversity, equity and inclusion, efforts have become more ingrained into all aspects of HR to create a sense of greater dignity and belonging, and to make progress on company DEI commitments. Fifth, ESG measurement and disclosure continue to grow as a priority for boards and senior management teams based on pressure from investors, consumers and employees—for HR, this means that human capital measurement and governance take clearer prominence.   

Finally, we see CHROs focus on HR program financing and cost flexibility, especially in the areas of compensation and benefits as companies layer in costs to support employee well-being during this complex time. The HR agenda certainly remains full as we pass the midyear point.

Amy DeVylder Levanat, co-founder, Willis Towers Watson CHRO Thinking Ahead Group

It’s clear that new ways of working, flexible work and reopening workplaces are top issues for CHROs, regardless of where they are in the world.  What advice do you have for them and their teams on how to be successful?

According to our research, the percentage of employees globally working remotely surged to 65 percent during the pandemic, compared to 11 percent pre-pandemic. Indications suggest that post-crisis instances of permanent remote working could be around 30 percent—about three times higher than pre-crisis levels.

The demand for flexibility will continue to grow and support a diversity of workstyles. This includes the ability to work “anytime, anywhere” for select roles and populations, which also may include flexible shift schedules, caregiving leave policies, updated performance management guidelines and collaboration technology. We’re seeing leading companies ramping up investments in automation, artificial intelligence, digital transformation and new work practices to offset the cost of reconfiguring operations and shifting talent work preferences.    

In terms of reskilling, organizations are prioritizing career enablement and career equity programs that create greater job access and long-term employability for employees, and skill availability for employers. Additionally, employers are making changes to work design and architecture and establishing new skill requirements for the virtual and hybrid world.

Creating a new employee experience in 2021 puts the employee at the center of HR program and culture design, under the assumption that different components matter to different people in increasingly unique ways—and, to put it more simply, “meets them where they are.” Organizations that do this are setting themselves apart and gaining greater access to talent, as well as achieving higher levels of employee well-being, engagement and productivity.

As you noted, DEI is also a high priority topic for CHROs in 2021. How can CHROs and their teams make meaningful progress on these issues?

Efforts to address DEI more broadly throughout organizations and programs were focused trends of 2020, and clearly have redoubled in 2021 given company commitments in this area. Successful organizations start with cultures of inclusion that are supported by fair and inclusive programs. We see organizations increasingly emphasizing meeting employees “where they are” and “where they want to go” through an inclusive mindset, behaviors and HR programs, such as equitable total rewards that create an inclusive experience for all cohorts focused on dignity and belonging.

2021 provides an opportunity to reframe a company’s sizable spending in total rewards to support flexibility, well-being and new ways of working and DEI, with the goal of longer-term workforce sustainability commensurate with the expense. So it all fits together, starting with fair, flexible pay and performance management.

Organizations are reframing pay as both a competitive and well-being issue, with a direct impact on financial, emotional and social well-being. They also are increasing efforts to align flexible pay and performance management programs with flexible ways of working, including how people are paid, such as pay-for-skills versus pay-for-value, and geographic differentials, as well as how performance is measured and rewarded.

We also are seeing inclusive, flexible health and wealth benefits. Specific areas of focus include healthcare changes, virtual benefit access, voluntary benefits, caregiving benefits and retirement and savings benefits. And we are seeing more efforts to align flexible benefits with flexible ways of working—e.g., benefits for “work from anywhere” employees.

Finally, 2021 is a year of rethinking what it means to offer equitable career opportunity, through greater focus on representation, flexibility, access to opportunity and skill enhancement. The trend to prioritize listening strategies to understand preferences across a diverse workforce—building on efforts to address workforce equity in 2020—continues in 2021 to better identify what actions to take for whom and how to drive meaningful change.

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