HR lessons from 2020 – the year of remote working

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This was also the year that technology propped up a significant portion of the economy by allowing businesses to continue operating when most of us were told to stay at home.

It’s been a strange one

The strangest many of us can remember. But what has this vast homeworking experiment – with its disquieting undercurrent of existential dread – taught us as HR professionals?

This article was inspired by a discussion on the Facebook group ‘hr open source – #HROS’, which is definitely worth following. One poster asked – what are some of the fundamental lessons you’ve learned during the pandemic? And some of the answers were great:

HR as a communications coach! Nudging managers to check in with their people in more meaningful ways.” – “It’s more effective to segment and target the employee population based on their specific needs.” – “Empathy and small acts of kindness are very impactful in times of crisis.” – Anything you can do to help take care of them as people first will resonate for a long time.”

This year has helped many of us refocus on what’s important, so here are some of our top lessons from 2020.  

‘Culture’ needs a rethink

Is a remote team still a team? In most ways, yes. But in some very important aspects, without careful thought, no.

There’s been real concern at the impact of long-term home working on organisational culture and employee morale. This was illustrated when in the autumn, with the pandemic in the UK still very much in the balance, office reopening became a priority for many business leaders. But that prospect retreats into 2021, thoughts have turned to how culture and morale can be sustained remotely.

We asked ourselves what had been lost when the office culture elements we’ve come to know and love, to expect even – like free fruit, breakfast bars, ping pong tables and beer o’clock Friday – were rendered irrelevant? What do these tactics have in common?  

They allow unstructured interaction. So in the world of remote, we’ve learned to start thinking about how these connections can be made virtually.

There’s no silver bullet here, and hours of internet research suggests that nobody else seems to have come up with the killer solution yet either. What we can do is ensure we’re providing channels that allow employees to interact informally as well as professionally, and that the organisation is using them to recognise success and do its best to foster that broad connection to ‘team’ and ‘purpose’.

However, in many organisations, it’s become clear that it’s not enough to just provide channels. Participation may need to be nudged along. Perkbox’s list of 10 remote teambuilding activities makes for a decent starting point. Dedicated good news chat spaces, daily photo challenges.

It’s not the same. Another thing we’ve learned this year is that for people who rely on the social and emotional value of organisational culture, virtual communication don’t cut it. But with a vaccine-powered end in sight, technology has the power to keep us going.

For more on this, see: Building company culture remotely

Remote HRMS is no longer a nice-to-have

Full disclosure, XCD is in the cloud software business. We offer sophisticated remote technology that allows HR & Payroll professionals and their employees to access information and operational processes from anywhere.

This isn’t just a plug, it’s relevant, because as organisations have come to appreciate the necessity of cloud technology in the ‘new normal’, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in our remotely accessible HRMS.

Last year (which frankly seems like it was ten years ago) PWC revealed that 40% of organisations were already hosting their core HR systems in the cloud. This year, the same Annual HR Technology Survey predicts that by the end of 2020, 72% of organisations will be using (or planning to use) cloud software for HR.

If you’re thinking of upgrading your HRMS to access the remote benefits of modern cloud software, this document lists the questions you should be asking. Moving HR & Payroll to the cloud.

One size doesn’t fit all

The Institute of Employment Studies shed some light on what the switch to remote work has done to employees, with 60% of respondents in their study admitting to exercising less, almost a third to eating a more unhealthy diet, and a 60% reporting an increase in alcohol consumption.

Half of respondents also reported an increase in musculo-skeletal complaints, back and neck pain, presumably from relocating to a kitchen table instead of their office chair.

Crucially, half of respondents claimed to be happy with their new home working lifestyle, while the other half reported a deterioration in work life balance and increased feelings of isolation.

The takeaway? While some have flourished in the unfamiliar environment of 2020, others have not. This year has demonstrated more effectively than anything that a one size fits all approach to employee experience no longer cuts it.

Personal problems and work problems have become the same thing

An uncountable number of home problems, childcare pressures and health concerns have made their ramifications felt, against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty. Average Google search volumes for ‘employee wellbeing’ have been higher in 2020 than any other year.

We no longer have line of sight on employees, meaning it’s much easier for problems that may have been picked up easily to now be missed entirely, and 2020 has taught us to be more receptive to the subtle indicators that people aren’t doing fine.

Technology has helped here too. Given that people have faced vastly different challenges in 2020 – working parents home-schooling, individuals dealing with loneliness and isolation or worry about loved ones – tracking employee performance and wellbeing information has never been more important.

Whether it’s an employee whose behaviour has become uncharacteristic, a manager struggling with the transition to remote working (more about that here), or a team whose productivity has deteriorated – data can help by flagging anomalies, and many of the HR professionals we talk to have learned to be proactive in establishing new systems to address issues before they damage organisations, teams or individuals.

Keep going everyone. We’re nearly through this.


If 2020 has highlighted the need for remote HR & Payroll software – please consider XCD, with advanced data handling, reporting and analytics, powered by Salesforce, the world’s most popular business cloud platform.