With 2020 behind us, how should CEO’s, CxO’s, and HR Leaders Prepare for 2021?

Madhukar Govindaraju-
Madhukar Govindaraju

Madhukar Govindaraju is the CEO at Numly™, Inc. He is also an official member of the Forbes Human Resources Council.


2020 has proven to be a decidedly complicated year that has upended the world of work as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. CEO’s, CxO’s and HR leaders globally have confronted multiple challenges this year and are looking towards an equally tough 2021 – especially as the economic realities of COVID-19 continue to impact businesses and economic recovery globally. Plain sailing into 2021 is not an option and HR teams have to be more prepared than ever before to drive resilient and agile organizations.

Certain paradigm shifts are here to stay in 2021. Remote work environments and distributed teams are not going away anytime soon. One of the greatest HR prerogatives for the year ahead lies in helping employees settle in with their new normal and to create initiatives that drive enablement at work where work happens.

This year at Numly, our data showed the following Top 6 Drivers for Employee Engagement, as companies rallied their employees and teams to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and move their employee programs towards Remote Work or Work-from-Home or Work-from-Anywhere.

  1. A sense of purpose and a strong connection to the Core Values of the Company.
  2. Belief in the Organization and its Goals / Trust in its Leaders.
  3. Enjoyment of Work and a Good Work-Life Balance.
  4. Good, Trusting Relationships with immediate Managers & Colleagues.
  5. Opportunities for Re-Skilling, Up-Skilling and Career Growth.
  6. Coaching-centric Organizational Culture – Empathetic, Supportive, Inclusive, and Collaborative.

So, what should be the key focus areas for HR in 2021? From our perspective, here are the Top 5 areas.

1. Identify avenues to strengthen and amplify digital leadership

2020 witnessed a complete shift to a digital and remote environment, a scale never experienced before. A certain part of the year was spent accommodating this shift and the latter part settling into this new normal. The year ahead has to be one where organizations can push full-speed ahead to make up for the lost time and move along the path of profitability.

This, however, can only be achieved with robust leadership and guidance. One of the key HR priorities for 2021 has to be focused on driving initiatives that build leadership capabilities relevant to the COVID-19 (and soon post-COVID-19) world.

Organizations need to identify how to help new managers overcome challenges such as transition anxiety, how to build trust with a remote team, and how to establish a leadership style. They also need to design leadership training to help remote bosses become virtual leaders, and coach leaders to balance operations with future strategic thinking, HR has a tall training order to fill.

Coaching will play a big role in navigating the leadership crisis – it can help leaders adopt a ‘guidance-driven’ approach, help organizations develop a robust leadership pipeline, and help new and existing managers develop creative and effective leadership strategies.

2. Work from Home Burnout is Real – Prevent it

Preventing work-from-home burnout has to be another key focus area for HR teams in 2021. Lines dividing personal from professional blurred, owing to the remote set up. Economic uncertainty, zoom fatigue, fear of job losses, lack of control over their work, and lack of support from managers compounded employee stress levels and increased exhaustion, consequently pushing them closer to burnout. With the United Nations issuing warnings regarding mounting stress levels, HR must have policies and strategies to help employees navigate these stressful times.

 “Employee engagement and productivity are top priorities for all CEO’s globally, especially as companies prepare for 2021. Work-from-Home (WFH) Burnout is real. HR Leaders need to pivot to implementing an Empathetic, Coaching Culture within their teams in 2021, to effectively address WFH Burnout.”

Strategies like helping employees establish healthy work-life balance and assisting managers and leaders develop their empathy will become imperative to drive productivity and employee engagement.

For HR and people leaders, this could mean talking about mental health and burnout more intentionally and normalizing it so that employees reach out for help when they feel they are drowning in stress. However, it is essential to help organizational leaders and managers to develop their emotional vocabulary to achieve this.

The time of plug-and-play training programs is officially over and has to be replaced by personalized, individualized, and contextual coaching programs that help managers and employees navigate challenging situations with clarity.

3. Design New and Fun Onboarding Experiences for New Hires and New Managers

As remote working becomes the new normal, organizations have to change the onboarding experience to engage their new employees and help them build the right connections within the organization. Given the remote set up, inundating the new hire with a truckload of information in a disorganized or haphazard manner can only lead to ‘death by orientation’ and low employee engagement levels.

Onboarding experiences in 2021 have to account for some of the key challenges that employees will face including lack of face-to-face supervision and being isolated from team members. Onboarding has to now become more structured, personalized, and relevant to the employee to prepare them to succeed in their job roles.

Building coaching into the onboarding experience will help HR greatly to build positive experiences with new employees and help them connect with their new roles and new organization in an authentic manner.

4. Fine-tune and Innovate Upskilling Initiatives

With digital transformation and digitalization becoming organizational prerogatives, and the consequent shift in business models, and the emergence of new markets, upskilling initiatives have been a part of HR initiatives for some time now.

In 2021, these upskilling initiatives have to be powered by coaching to ensure that resilience complements competency. Along with technically upskilling the employees, in 2021, HR has to focus on helping employees understand and manage the change these new skills bring to their roles. These initiatives have to be more targeted and contextual. As such, assessments and tests to identify the exact upskilling needs of employees has become the need of the hour.

Further upskilling initiatives need to be complemented with behavioral skill enhancement to drive collaboration via enhanced communication and teamwork. Coaching thus has to become an inherent part of most HR initiatives in the new year, since it is continuous and ongoing and designed to help employees succeed in challenging work environments.

5. Make Sales Coaching a Habit and Build a strong bench of Sales Leaders

In the year ahead, HR will have to re-focus and redesign sales training and sales leadership programs. It is especially so since the world of sales has undergone an upheaval never experienced previously. While 2020 was all about learning new ways to connect, engage and sell, 2021 will be all about strengthening the remote sales force.

Helping these frontline workers cement new selling styles and navigate the digital selling landscape is essential. The organization also has to help them learn new tricks to close the sales cycles with efficiency and internalize the finesse of online communication to build stable relationships with the customers as strategic focus areas.

For this, organizations have to take measured and focused steps to create a coaching culture to drive engagement for remote sales teams, help them navigate the new normal better, and develop their skills to continue along the growth path.

Finally, as the world hobbles out of the crisis, the long-standing social and racial inequalities become even more apparent. If diversity and inclusion were a hot button in the past few years, these are only going to get hotter in 2021. For HR teams, the focus has to be on their diversity and inclusion initiatives. The starting point of this has to be in helping leaders develop authentic leadership that influences and drives an evolved, more inclusive, diverse, and more creative work culture. A better-engaged workforce and higher engagement results will become organic consequences of these efforts.

The burden to lay the foundation of a new workplace and new workplace practices rest squarely on the able shoulders of HR teams. The year ahead presents a great opportunity to fundamentally redesign how work happens and ensure that we move towards a healthier, inclusive, and enabling environment – one which meets the needs of both the business and the employees.

About Numly™, Inc.

Numly™’s mission is to measurably improve employee engagement and talent performance through People Connections, Internal Coaching, and Skills (Hard + Soft) Development. NumlyEngage™ is an AI-enhanced platform that enables coaching as an extension of eLearning, making it possible for organizations to tap into employees’ hard and soft skills and empower them to coach each other in a structured manner while leveraging third-party learning content, expert coaches and built-in, AI-enabled coaching programs tailored for all corporate functional groups such as Sales, Customer Success, R&D/Engineering, Women Leaders, New-hires, New Managers, etc. NumlyEngage™ helps organizations accelerate revenue, increase performance, and improve employee engagement, especially in the post-COVID-19 era of working from home (WFH). For more information, visit https://www.numly.io/.