(Illustration by Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock by Getty Images)

Over the past few decades, the power position in the workplace usually felt controlled by employers. But with so much turnover across the workforce this year, it’s the employees who are in the driver’s seat, according to Sarah Sheehan, co-founder and president of the HR coaching provider Bravely.

“I myself have been conducting interviews recently, because we’re on a hiring frenzy like most companies, and the tone of the conversations are different,” Sheehan said during a recent From Day One webinar. “People are asking about our culture, the things that we offer in terms of their development, the perks and benefits. I’ve been interviewing and hiring people for over 20 years and it’s just a completely different ballgame.”

This new wave of worker empowerment, manifesting in “the Great Resignation,” has widely been embraced as an overdue shift in the balance of power. However, it has left HR leaders across industries scrambling to fill job openings and meet new expectations.

As journalist and moderator Patrick Cole put it during the webinar, HR Trends in 2021: Key Takeaways for HR Leaders, HR specialists and managers today “are in the eye of this hurricane.” While the winds of change are still blowing at unprecedented speeds, solutions are coming to light from thoughtful minds in the HR field, four of whom supplied their insights. Among the highlights:

The Stressors Were in Place Before the Pandemic

The priority that Americans placed on well-being to ward off a deadly virus seems to have inspired workers to examine the role work plays in their overall health. So the Great Resignation will always be closely associated with the pandemic, but to Ruth Tilley, VP and HR business partner at McKesson, the pharmaceutical distribution giant, change was already afoot long in advance.

“The Great Resignation didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Tilley said. “What we’re experiencing is a perfect storm.” She believes, for starters, that workers were put off over the years by a lack of commitment to diversity hiring on the part of business leaders. Worker burnout had also been a growing concern prior to the pandemic, Tilley noted, and for years workers have felt added tension due to the polarized political climate across the country.

These factors and others are “creating a huge amount of stress on people that we need to solve, to help them so when they come to work, they can still do their best work,” Tilley said. “We in HR are trying to help our business leaders solve for all those reasons and you can’t solve for just one.”

Focusing on HR trends, top row from left: Sarah Waltman of Dentsply Sirona, Ruth Tilley of McKesson, and journalist and moderator Patrick Cole. Bottom row from left: Shahina Islam of Zensar Technologies and Sarah Sheehan of Bravely (Image by From Day One)

Across her interviews with prospects, Sheehan’s noticed some trends. She categorizes the bulk of new employee wants brought on by the Covid-19 crisis as a “need for individualized support.” Sheehan, who was a new mom when shutdowns started, knew firsthand about the crisis in child care. And that was only one of the many difficulties facing workers during the pandemic, such as illness and deaths in the family. HR people addressed all those circumstances in some way, on the fly, over the past year and a half. “Now it’s the new normal for HR,” Sheehan said. “The biggest challenge is figuring out how to offer that individualized support that people have grown accustomed to–at scale.”

Building a Hybrid Work Model, Without Compromising Culture

With social distancing restrictions forcing people to work from home, they became better acquainted and comfortable with the technology that allows them to do so. Now, most workers want to work from home at least some of the time, so HR leaders are going to have to reimagine their workplaces to facilitate such a pivot.

However, in this new all-virtual or hybrid model for the office, “aspects like culture, engagement, motivation … become very fundamental and very important to focus on,” said Shahina Islam, VP of HR at the tech consulting and services firm Zensar Technologies. “How do we deliver that as effectively as we used to in a physical world? That’s something that is keeping us awake at night.”

Becoming More Human-Centric

Sarah Waltman, VP of global talent enablement at Dentsply Sirona, a global manufacturer of professional dental products and technologies, observed that workers today want to feel valued and recognized for who they are and what they bring to the table on an individual basis. Not getting enough of that has been one of the drivers of the Great Resignation, she said.

In seeking optimal employee retention and engagement at Dentsply Sirona, Waltman said, “it’s really [about] preparing and empowering and coaching our leaders to be able to look at each person as a human, with unique needs, and see their most significant role as helping them get to their best.” This approach to HR will prove more viable, she added, “versus more leading in a role-space organization, or a casting of net, or a one-size-fits-all.”

‘The Office As a Destination’

Like a number of forward-thinking organizations, Zensar Technologies has already made a significant pivot in its work-from-home policy. Just 5% of company employees are required to report to a traditional workplace setting, Islam said, with the rest falling under the “work from anywhere” banner. Employee responsibilities are fluid, dependent upon each worker’s role and “customer requirements,” Islam said, “which provides flexibility for managers and the teams to decide how they would like to adapt.”

McKesson has taken a similar approach. The company’s distribution centers, which house and dispense products, still require in-person workers, but there’s also “a large office presence” throughout the U.S., Tilley said. Leaders have reconsidered where offices are necessary and how many are even required.

“We’ve done a pretty substantial minimizing of how many offices we have and where they are,” Tilley said. “We’ve also rolled out what we call ‘Office as a Destination.’” About 90% of these workers are permitted to work from home about as often as they like, but for specific reasons they may be called into an office.

“So if I have a new hire, we will likely meet in the office for a few days just to start to build that relationship,” Tilley said. “When we have our senior leadership meetings twice a year, we’ll go into the office to do those in person, but I can choose to work from home and so can all the other office employees as well.” This sort of hybridity helps mitigate the loss of company culture that might come about with an all-work-from-home policy.

Maintaining Equity in Virtual Work

An important concern that comes with the labor force going virtual is the possibility that work-from-home employees will be more frequently overlooked for advancement opportunities. “We have to be extra intentional about making sure that [virtual work] doesn’t limit some of our employees from being able to move up in the in the ranks at the organization, or take on different and new responsibilities or promotions, because they are virtual,” Waltman said of Dentsply Sirona’s efforts in this arena. “We’ve done a lot of our previously in-person events virtually and put a great deal of effort into making sure that there were different ways for people to participate, that there’s balance there and [that] we remove any bias from our processes.”

Like Zensar, Dentsply Sirona is eschewing any one-size-fits-all approaches to workforce management. Instead, the company is leveraging its department managers to come up with more individualized policies, though there are some company-wide, overarching protocols workers have to adhere to. Waltman said her company leaders have published “guidelines for what we call ‘best work.’”

“​​We wanted to give some parameters of what flexibility could look like across the spectrum,” Waltman continued, “being sensitive that there are still opportunities for managers to provide flexibility, even for production employees or individuals who are considered deskless, and have to come to a physical location or meet with customers.”

Leading Authentically

With great upheaval comes great opportunity, and with so much churn among employees seeking new positions, organizations have a chance to upgrade their workforce–if they are competitive. To do so most effectively, those who are tasked with onboarding must communicate to candidates that their organization is ready to embrace the change that so many workers want to see spreading throughout the workplace.

“How do we cultivate this internally inside our organizations so that people have trust in their leadership, they believe that they have a place within the company, and that their needs are going to be met?” Sheehan asked. “That’s the requirement going forward, and that’s the challenge ahead of us, that this is what people are going to be looking for.”

The panelists agreed that companies will need to be mindful that the previous norm in management isn’t acceptable anymore, that employees want more control over their own destiny within an organization, and that there are more important factors to taking a job than compensation.

“It’s a reawakening for companies to start really understanding that employees are not cogs in a wheel, they are individuals who need a different set of supporting resources to do their best work,” Sheehan said. “There’s a huge opportunity in front of us to lead authentically and to lean heavily into sharing our own vulnerabilities and building cultures around connection, because it’s really the only path forward in a virtual environment.”

Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor. You can read more of his work at MichaelStahlWrites.com, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books.