U.S. human resources leaders’ responsibilities and roles have seen a whirlwind of changes for the past 20 or so months due to COVID-19. HR leaders have had to grapple with the move to remote work, the transition to hybrid work and now a pending federal government COVID-19 vaccine mandate for companies with 100 or more employees, affecting about 80 million U.S. workers. Not to mention — the so-called Great Resignation, where employees are quitting at the highest rate in decades.

This overnight digital transformation rocked many workplace roles. What did it do for HR? What are the top competencies for digital transformation when it comes to those charged with leading employee experience?

“Digital transformation is more than a technology implementation,” said Josh Bersin, HR industry analyst and founder of the Josh Bersin Academy. “It’s actually about changing the ways work is done. Typically, transformation initiatives involve multiple functional areas of an enterprise and impact various segments of the workforce. Ideally, HR should play a key role in any digital transformation initiative.”

So what are the HR skills needed today to address the constantly-changing digital workplace landscape?

Nothing New Here, Except Agility, Speed and Adaptability

Sure, it’s easy to say COVID-19 changed everything, and it did upend the workplace in so many ways. But did it really change that much when considering HR skills needed for digital transformation? Were the HR skills needed in early 2020, when COVID-19 began to spread rapidly, really that different from the skills needed today?

“The required skills themselves didn’t change, but the agility and speed at which they were applied went into hyperdrive,” Bersin said. “COVID required organizations to turn on a dime, whether it was completely revamping call center technology and staffing to support remote work and limited in-person customer interactions, deploying employees to take on new roles or functions, or moving from in-office and in-person work interactions to technology-supported video conferences, collaborations and knowledge sharing.”

HR professionals had to help implement these changes faster, more flexibly and with less preparation and support than ever before, Bersin added. “We’ve prioritized agility and flexibility for years, but in March 2020, these became business imperatives, and they still are today as we confront the moving target of returning to physical workplaces and grappling with hybrid models of working,” he said.

These skills are critical, according to Kirsten Faurot, VP of human resources for Bombora. As we’ve learned in the past 18 months, the most effective HR pros help their organizations quickly adjust to new conditions, she said.

“This requires,” Faurot said, “a curiosity to explore and find new tools for meeting business needs as well as new organization business models. Just as an example, there are new models for talent acquisition that we have been testing at Bombora which have led to faster, more efficient recruitment.”

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Hybrid Workforce Management Skills

Faurot said the big difference with HR skills now is that you need to help your organization succeed in a hybrid environment, which is very different from what most companies experienced before the pandemic.

“The most critical pieces are being hyper-focused on measuring your effectiveness at both onboarding and, even more importantly, engagement,” Faurot said. “We fully revamped how we onboard new employees and implemented more pulse surveys. We work with employees to turn their feedback into actionable changes. The result is that our teams report feeling more connected and empowered than they did prior to the pandemic, despite us growing headcount more than 50% since March 2020.”

Learning Opportunities

Automation and AI are key in helping organizations deal with the increasingly complex challenges such as talent shortages, hybrid work or market volatility that all require better data analysis and better connection between employees, the business and the broader world, according toErik van Vulpen, founder of AIHR.

"HR's role in this digital transition will be to not only identify what roles and tasks can and should be automated and what skills will be needed by employees to carry out those tasks but also help them develop those skills, or hire the talent externally," van Vulpen said. "To that end, the HR department itself will need to undergo a digital revolution to become more connected to the business, its goals and its employees. It will need to upgrade itself in order to lift the company to the next level."

Change Management Skills

Digital transformation initiatives inevitably involve process and workflow changes that affect the way employees work, according to Bersin. HR professionals need to be proactive, he said, as they manage the impact of the changes. He cited the example of HR professionals needing the ability to think through transformed work processes to identify and meet the learning and development needs that will support the new ways of working.

“In many organizations,” Bersin said, “HR teams are responsible for leading the cultural change effort: identifying, communicating and reinforcing behaviors that align with new ways of working and overcoming cultural resistance to change.”

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Managing Employee Experience

Digital transformations have had a massive impact on the day-to-day experience of employees. “HR professionals need to think through and manage the impact of these new experiences and understand how changes might affect other areas of work,” Bersin added.

Technology, Data, Analytics Skills

HR professionals don’t need to be technologists or statisticians, according to Bersin. However, he added, they do need to have a clear understanding of how technology works. That also includes the data available through the implementation of new tools and technologies, and how data and technology enable better information to support strategies, people-related programs and decision-making, Bersin said.

“When companies become virtual, HR professionals need to start using more tools to handle communication, measure employees' happiness, track onboardings, offboarding and recruiting,” said Malgorzata Adamczyk, head of HR at Verve Group.

Communication, Organization, Relationships (Soft Skills)

Adamczyk noted that soft skills still matter when it comes to digital transformation and HR. Particularly, she cited:

  • Effective communication: HR professionals have to be precise when communicating with colleagues, especially since COVID-19 discussions are happening online, through emails, Slack, video calls. It's easy to be misunderstood and create unnecessary confusion, Adamczyk added.
  • Organizational skills: After COVID, HR had to reorganize the way the company operates, starting from offices, work-from-home regulations, internal communication, software. All HR processes had to be changed in a relatively short time.
  • Relationship-building: HR needs to be close to people to be a business partner. It became more difficult after the switch to remote work, Adamczyk added.
  • Empathic skills: An effective HR manager should be able to understand people and predict potential issues to avoid them. It's different now because HR can often observe people only virtually.