HR professionals: what was your biggest challenge this year?

We asked a range of HR leaders about the most serious obstacle they faced in 2021. Here’s what they said.
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· 5 min read

As we hurtle toward the new year, like Sandra Bullock at the end of Gravity, we thought it would be edifying to hear from you, the esteemed HR professional, to gather a few parting insights on the turbulent, grueling year of swirling space debris that was 2021. So we asked a handful of human resources leaders to open up about their experiences this past year, starting with this question: What was the biggest professional challenge you faced in 2021?

Annette Reavis

Annette Reavis, Chief People Officer at Envoy

My biggest challenge this past year was figuring out how to build a company culture rooted in relationships in a mostly remote work environment. Pre-pandemic, it was easier to engage and connect on a personal level when we worked in the office. We spent time chatting and hearing the latest from our colleagues—their vacation to Hawaii, or how their eldest is off to college.

In isolation for nearly two years, we’ve lost a sense of community cut off from extended family, friends, and work life. And we’re out of practice when it comes to interacting socially because it’s harder to do over Zoom. On Zoom, we tend to get down to the business of getting work done. My goal is to encourage a business plus culture mindset. Reminding people that it’s not just about work or even productivity. Taking a few minutes to ask your coworkers about how things are going, however brief, matters.

When I was working at home alone, I missed that. That’s why I believe in providing space for people to gather a few times a week. To collaborate, share, and problem solve in-person. Being together helps us build closer-knit communities and a sense of belonging.

Alex Buder Shapiro

Alex Buder Shapiro, Chief People Officer at Flatiron Health

When I stepped into the chief-people-officer role in early 2021, I knew that one of my personal goals was to prioritize the sustainability and well-being of my people team. We were all coming off a brutal 2020, where we had done our best to support employees as they navigated their new realities, all while trying to manage the same changes in our own lives. I had told my direct reports for years that we needed to remember to “put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others,” but now I was being entrusted with the helm of the entire HR organization, and this was my opportunity to make that happen.

Yet, 2021 laughed at my best-laid plans, and threw a whole new set of curveballs at our people team. I tried every tool that I had to support everyone—celebrating wins, finding moments of gratitude, offering open lines of communication, providing broader context, championing what the team needed, advocating for moments of recharge, encouraging vulnerability and empathy—but at the end of the year, I think we’re all in need of that oxygen mask more than ever.

Dominique Taylor

Dominique Taylor, Chief People Officer at Axios

We began 2021 cautiously with conservative plans, given the rampant uncertainty due to Covid. However, under our founders’ leadership, our company grew rapidly across the year. The biggest professional challenge I faced was having to quickly shift my mindset and pivot to support and drive this unprecedented expansion. We went from a plan to hire 130 people—at most—in 2021 to welcoming more than 240 employees.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.

The job doesn’t stop with hiring great talent. My team and I have enhanced our onboarding and integration support to ensure all of our employees feel connected and engaged, which isn’t the easiest when we have people in more than 30 states across the country.

Bernard Coleman

Bernard Coleman, Chief Diversity Officer at Gusto

The biggest professional challenge faced in 2021 has been managing the complexities of hybrid work and rethinking how we work from an employee-engagement standpoint. Hybrid work is a harder model—with more variables and open questions than any other option—but we chose it anyway, because putting equity at the center of the employee experience is essential.

Hybrid work impacts every part of the employee life cycle of attracting, hiring, onboarding, engaging, progression, and retaining staff. Revisioning employee engagement so that equity is at the center of that journey is ongoing and truly requires re-examination to ensure we are getting it right.

There are important issues we need to watch out for and processes to build, to be sure, particularly when it comes to visibility, opportunities for advancement, and equitable treatment of team members. But without geographic restraints in finding talent, we can build even more representative teams and leverage different working styles—which helps Gusto deliver on its mission to help empower a better life for our over 200,000+ “Gustomers” and their millions of employees.

Carla Yudhishthu

Carla Yudhishthu, Chief People Officer at Mineral

In many ways, 2020 was paralyzing. There was so much new (scary) information coming out every week that it felt almost impossible to do anything. I was fearful of operating in such a frenetic environment.

I realized going into 2021 that my strongest position was to bear hug the unknown and be open about it. The challenge for me has been straddling the line between not knowing certain bits of information (like if vaccines are effective against new variants) and still making the best operational decisions based on what we do know (and being confident in those decisions). This has been particularly challenging as we reopened our office this year, and it seemed we were constantly re-evaluating based on a constant stream of changing information (i.e., no masks for vaccinated people to masks for everyone, etc.).

I’ve finally gotten to a place where I’m more comfortable testing new things based on available information, and as the pandemic wanes on, I suspect I’ll be walking this tight rope a lot more.

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact John Del Signore via the encrypted messaging app Telegram (@John_Del_Signore) or simply email [email protected].

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.