All Articles Leadership HR COVID-inspired lessons in HR leadership, development and employee experience

COVID-inspired lessons in HR leadership, development and employee experience

This year has permanently changed workplace leadership, as well as how HR approaches its role. Learn more from a Zendesk talent executive.

6 min read


COVID-inspired lessons in HR leadership, development and employee experience


Activate your free subscription

2020 has brought us so much challenge. The global COVID-19 pandemic; a microscope on diversity, equity and inclusion; political unrest in many countries, and environmental issues, such as wildfires across multiple continents.

If 2020 hasn’t changed you, you’re missing something. And if any leader thinks they have been able to weather this storm without changing their leadership style, they might want to consider doing so now.

Here are six lessons I have learned in leadership and the employee experience this year that will shape how I lead my team in 2021:

1. Soft skills are now table stakes

With the growth of virtual interaction, leadership skills of agility, feedback-giving and remote engagement are becoming increasingly important. These should no longer be considered “soft” skills, but table stakes in our post-COVID-19 world.

We all must become more agile and open to changing our priorities. Planning too far in advance and setting annual goals feel absurd at this time — we must look to setting objectives and key results (OKRs) in shorter sprints as it is much more realistic and in line with our new reality.

2. We must engage employees outside the Zoom box

It’s important as a leader to know what struggles your employees are dealing with beyond the small video conferencing screen. With all that has happened in the world and in our personal lives this year, we must be even more attuned to team members’ personal situations. People are not simply “working from home’” — they are trying to work from spare space in their homes, while living in uncertain situations, with child care, illness, elder care, mental health, layoffs and other concerns affecting their day-to-day lives.

This is a new dynamic that we have been navigating, and a lot will feel like trial and error. But one truth remains: The humans we used to see in person, have coffee with at the office and debate over whiteboards are still those same humans behind the screen. They have lives outside of what we see and challenges that may seem invisible. We must dial up our listening skills and empathy more than ever before.

3.Fostering agility and flexibility is our job as leaders

Change is our new normal. Agility is a core skill that we must all have as leaders, and organizations need to provide psychological safety to support the environment of change. Employees need to be skilled in their ability to anticipate change, respond to it, face it with resilience and thrive in uncertainty.

In order for this to happen, organizations need to play their part in enabling psychologically safe structures and resources and treat employees as people first and foremost.

This year has also proven that treating employees with empathy and seeing them as a whole person — not just a co-worker — is a requirement. It’s not enough to know what your employee is working on. You need to genuinely understand their wellbeing and what are the collective personal and professional challenges keeping them awake at night.

Having this understanding as a leader will ultimately help you as you delegate tasks, set deadlines and outline expectations, as well as build trust and mutual respect with your employees.

“Management by walking around” is now over. You have to trust your employees as they work remotely and empower them to make decisions. Doing so enables a more productive workforce, and you will also meet the needs of the workforce of the future, where flexibility for where, when and how employees work is the new expectation.

4. Employee L&D must be bite-sized and integrated

This year, we have also evolved our learning and development practices. Learning efforts are no longer large-scale offerings that take place in a classroom for a few days (while the rest of your work is put on pause). Learning has progressed to a more bite-sized and integrated format.

The same agility has been brought to our employee feedback practices. Feedback, especially constructive, is harder to deliver remotely. The traditional appraisal cycles of gathering feedback, completing 360s, and structuring formal reviews no longer work in an agile, remote and flexible environment. At Zendesk, we have set up anytime feedback capabilities, meaning that anyone can give anyone feedback, at any time. Leaders are expected to talk to their direct reports on a quarterly basis about their performance and their development—at a minimum.

5. We must approach DE&I efforts holistically and measure by outcomes

In the global diversity, equity and inclusion space, 2020 has emphasized how much work needs to be done by many companies. It’s not enough for organizations to talk the talk — they need to earnestly make improvements to their companywide representation and inclusion efforts.

GDEI must go beyond mandatory training sessions and a few workshops on empathy. As microcosms of society at large, organizations must recognize their role in the community and create safe spaces for employees to feel accepted, empowering them to not only exist, but thrive.

This year, Zendesk introduced a concept called “Empathy Circles.” With multiple crises affecting our employees, we felt an urgent need to create safe spaces where our people could share, feel heard, learn and support each other, discussing issues that affect them and their communities. By welcoming more than 800 participants across the globe and having strong involvement from senior leadership, we created an open environment for employees to share ideas for a more inclusive and equitable workplace.

6. There’s strength in numbers

Finally, I am carving out time to be more consultative of what leaders in other teams are experiencing and what I can learn from them. I have valued authentic conversations with other talent leaders across my organization to better understand how they are approaching challenges and what we can share as emerging best practices.

A great example is forming a “brain trust” with other leaders across teams to understand how they will define and deliver greater flexibility for their employees.

If I have learned one thing this year, it’s that everyone is elevated if we continue to think outside of ourselves. We are all navigating these new waters together. I welcome 2021 and believe that, one day, we will look back and realize what an incredible transformation the world and our workplace underwent this year, and we will all be better for it.


Fidelma Butler is vice president of talent & organization development and centre of excellence integration at Zendesk.

Like this story? Sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails for workplace leaders, HR executives and HR technology, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.