7 Leadership Challenges to Meet in 2021 to Stay Union-Free

Though the list of top leadership challenges may differ depending on who compiles it, Projections, Inc. offers the following seven for leaders to address to keep the workforce engaged.

Managing people is always challenging but even more so when the talent dynamics are in a constant state of change. The dynamics result from a blend of technology, new generations of workers, increased environmental and social awareness, and a globally networked population. In 2021, add the start of a pro-union Biden administration to the mix, and things get even more complex in the leadership area. Keeping employees engaged and staying union-free may seem like an overwhelming challenge, but keeping a laser focus on employee engagement and positive employee relations remains the key strategy.

1. Successfully managing a permanent hybrid workforce

No one imagined that tens of millions of employees would be forced to work remotely in 2020 due to the pandemic. The challenge in 2021 is that many of those employees want to continue working remotely, even after the pandemic is under control. It’s one thing to manage and motivate a temporary hybrid workforce in which some employees work remotely, and others work onsite. It is another thing to establish a permanent hybrid workforce requiring a permanent change to the organization’s workforce model, processes and communication channels, and leadership approaches to motivating remote teams

The hybrid workforce is here to stay. One study indicates that a minimum of 16 percent of employees who had to work remotely due to the pandemic will continue working remotely. They are added to the people who were working remotely before the pandemic. Global Workplace Analytics projections indicate 25-30 percent of the workforce will be working at home several days a week by the end of 2021.

Most importantly, leaders will need a fundamental change in their mindsets and skillsets to successfully connect, manage, and empower people within the new workforce model. One of the interesting consequences of the larger remote workforce is that it strengthened the resolve of employees to have more control over their work schedules and how work gets done and solidified the belief they must be full participants in decision-making in Human Resources areas like compensation, flexible scheduling and health, and safety. 

Keep Open Lines of Communication

Of course, the first place to start is ensuring the hybrid workforce model is permanently established, and the communication channels accommodate a permanent change in the workforce model. Many organizations were forced to make rapid adaptations to tech-based systems and work schedules and policies that weren’t designed for long-term remote workers. They weren’t always well thought out. Now is the time to revisit all HR policies and procedures and make sure they work for the long haul.

The next step is leadership training that covers everything from the new permanent hybrid workforce model and its incorporation into daily operations to soft skills needed to maintain employee engagement and positive employee relations. Leaders must know how to connect with remote employees as well as they do with in-house employees. 

A Gartner survey found that almost 30 percent of employers were most concerned about maintaining the corporate culture with a hybrid workforce model. Soft skills, important for culture building, include effectively utilizing tech-based communication systems to facilitate open communication among teams; problem-solving through collaboration with employees; agile decision-making; ability to encourage and inspire employees; and emotional intelligence. Without these skills, employees will get or remain disconnected. 

An important question senior leaders should be asking is this: Are my managers and supervisors effectively leading virtually and ready to do so on a permanent basis? Or are they “getting by” in the hopes things return to the traditional workforce model post-pandemic?

2. Proactively and vigorously pursue social justice and equity and address systemic racism

Employees want more from their employees in terms of social responsibility. The year 2020 was a year of turmoil. Still, it also began to crystallize employees’ desire to work for organizations that are willing to review and question all their processes, systems, policies, and procedures to weed out systemic racism. In 2021, employees are unwilling to listen to leaders talk about equality. They want them to take action. If they don’t, then labor unions are willing to amplify employees’ voices. 

How One Company is Addressing Racism

JPMorgan Chase is a very large global company, and its efforts to address systemic racism may seem inapplicable to smaller businesses. However, it’s the process they are going through that sets the benchmark, and it’s a process every company can scale to their size. Briefly, JPMorgan Chase committed $30 billion over the next five years to advance racial equity and provide economic opportunity to Black and Latinx communities. The money will be spent on things like home purchase loans, reducing mortgage payments, financing affordable rental units, making loans to minority-owned small businesses, opening new bank branches in underserved areas, and more.

The JPMorgan process involved identifying the foundation of Diversity & Inclusion already in place in order to build on it. Via data analytics collected from multiple sources, senior leaders identified the areas of opportunity where racial inequality existed, or opportunities improved. JPMorgan leadership evaluated all processes and systems and looked at decision-making that perpetuates racial inequality. 

The review led to the strategic plan, including a number of publicly committed initiatives involving various products and services. It also includes building a more diverse and inclusive workforce through job training and other solutions and holding executives accountable through performance reviews and compensation decisions. Notable about the company’s efforts is that they looked internally and externally to find ways to promote social justice. 

Unions have long claimed social justice and economic equality advocacy as two of their most important principles. The 2020 protests strengthened their argument (from their perspective) once again that they are “the answer.” As employees, usually driven by Millennials, protest over non-traditional union issues like an organization’s internal biased processes or failure to promote racial equity in communities through its practices, either union membership will begin trending upward again, or employees will pursue new forms of unionization, like micro-unions

Your leaders must know how to:

  • Empower all employees
  • Provide effective feedback
  • Be active listeners
  • Be willing to have open discussions on topics like racism
  • Manage employee conflict with a goal of positive resolution
  • Operate on principles of social responsibility, equity and inclusion, and belonging

3. Increasing polarization over global sustainability 

Recently, Girl Scout cookies came under attack for using palm oil that is harvested by children in sourcing countries who drop out of school and work deep in forests under dangerous conditions. Palm oil is used in many products, and human rights advocates want companies or products boycotted. Socially responsible employees want their employers to find alternatives to palm oil or quit making the products. This is only one example of the challenge of leading a workforce that demands employers stop sourcing and other harmful practices to the environment and violate human rights. 

Consumers supporting environmental sustainability want companies boycotted until they stop, and employees are willing to protest until changes are made. Not helping the situation is the fact that there is increasing polarization over global sustainability in and outside the workplace. Some people are not convinced humans can slow down climate change, while others believe the global warming trend can be reversed. Some employees fear for their jobs if their employers radically change supply chains to embrace social and environmental sustainability, while others will only work for a company that embeds sustainability in everything it does.

It is tempting to divide the multigenerational workforce into groups of clear-cut populations of baby boomers versus millennials and Gen Z. Such simplistic assumptions that polarization is based on generations shouldn’t be made because it’s only a new way to stereotype. 

In fact, unions are dealing with the same challenge. For example, the Deputy Director of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative, Kate Gibbs, told Politico that public employees side mostly with environmentalists but, private sector employees side with the unions because they recognize environmental sustainability is important but shouldn’t cost jobs and make life unaffordable. In an interesting twist, unions are often the groups blocking green initiatives because they can lead to job losses. 

Managing Leadership Challenges

This is one of the toughest organizational leadership challenges to manage. It involves employee perspective differences leading to workplace conflict, brand reputation, decisions about materials sourcing, and union influence.

The best way to manage this particular leadership challenge is for the organization to:

  • Clearly communicate the company’s environmental sustainability philosophy
  • Keep employees informed about the initiatives and the goals and action to improve sustainability practices
  • Be transparent on actual actions taken, and progress made, quantifying results
  • Be transparent about the challenges to overcome
  • Engage leaders in helping each other engage in sustainability initiatives
  • Be honest about problems encountered and even failures to make progress

What does this have to do with staying union-free? Plenty! In September 2019, the Tech Workers Coalition called for a global Climate Strike calling for zero carbon emissions by 2030, zero contracts with fossil fuel companies, zero funding of climate denial lobbying, and zero harm to climate refugees. An estimated four million people participated, many of the employees. In November 2019, more than 1,000 Google workers signed a public letter demanding the company commit to an aggressive “company-wide climate plan” calling for zero emissions by 2030.”

In particular, global sustainability and climate change are themes unions are using to attract younger workers. The years 2019 and 2020 environmental sustainability-related protests laid the groundwork. In 2021, a new administration takes charge, and the Democratic party platform makes it clear the United States and employers must become key players on the global stage. Your leaders must know how to navigate employee conflicts to stay union-free. 

4. Managing within a changing political landscape

As just mentioned, the Democratic party is now in charge of the government, and it is strongly pro-union. In fact, it is so supportive of unions that the Biden platform makes it clear the PRO Act will be reintroduced. If passed, 2021 will be a year of enormous change in favor of unions. This act makes significant changes to the National Labor Relations Act and makes it easier for employees to organize.

UnionProof summarized the various ways the act promotes unionization. However, it is important to recognize that the PRO Act is just a piece of the puzzle. Culture is not limited to organizations. A pro-union federal political agenda will influence the state agendas. It will support a country culture that encourages employees to view employers as untrustworthy and to turn to labor unions and the government as their only real opportunities for empowerment. 

To stay union-free, you need to strengthen positive employee relations. Effective leadership is essential, but communication is truly key. Employees will be nervous throughout the year as federal and state laws and regulations change, creating a lot of uncertainty. Will the $15 per hour minimum wage lead to layoffs? Will gig workers be reclassified as employees, forcing the employer to reduce payroll costs? 

These are the kinds of questions your employees will have. It’s important to:

  • Keep employees informed on new labor laws and how they impact the organization and Human Resources 
  • Explain specific changes the organization must make to comply
  • Reinforce the management open-door policy so employees can bring their fears to their supervisors without worrying about retribution
  • Post updates to the union-free website to explain how the organization views changes in laws that promote unionization and why the union is not necessary
  • Regularly reinforce the positive aspects of working for the company
  • Stay in close communication with employees, including listening to their concerns, proactively addressing issues before they become grievances, etc.

It will be tempting as managers to stay behind closed doors to avoid any conflict between employees and management. It’s a strategy that won’t work. Staying union-free requires being honest, transparent, and empathetic with employees. The same applies to dealing with the impact of politics on the organization and its workforce.

5. Need for workforce upskilling and reskilling to meet increasing use of technology 

The World Economic Forum projects 42 percent of jobs will require different skills over the next few years. Upskilling is a process for learning new skills. Reskilling is a process for learning new skills in order to do a different job. Both types of skilling are necessary for 2021. Upskilling and reskilling needs, mostly in response to technology, are certainly about ensuring business productivity and long-term viability. However, skilling is also crucial to employee inclusion and equity. 

How can you offer all employees equal opportunity if they don’t access either skilling opportunities? How can you match new work requirements with the right employees if they have been allowed to fall behind in developing the skills the company needs? Are there unbiased opportunities to learn new skills? 

Online employee (leaders and staff) training and development programs make it much easier to ensure everyone has equal opportunity. You can track who utilizes the programs, capture data for analyzation and identify additional training needs or potential. 

6. Moving beyond inclusion to a culture of belonging 

Your organization’s productivity and reputation will depend on leadership’s ability to create a culture that cultivates a deep sense of commitment and belonging. This is a separate challenge from social justice and systemic racism because it brings to reality that hiring diverse people is not inclusion. A sense of belonging must be a part of inclusion. This is difficult to grasp because many companies’ tout statistics like the number of Blacks or Latinx or women hired as proving Diversity & Inclusion.  

Being hired doesn’t mean the person is included as a full team member. For example, an Asian is hired as an engineer and assigned to a team project. It reflects D&I. However, the employee’s unique experiences and perspectives are not appreciated and usually discounted, and he’s not included in the workplace social network (proverbial water cooler hangout or after work drinks). Without a culture of belonging, D&I will remain buzzwords, and society and younger generations of workers are unwilling to accept corporate buzzwords.

McKinsey & Company surveyed inclusion in June 2020. Inclusion was measured by responses on feelings of authenticity, belonging, and comfort participating in the workplace. Only 50 percent of ethnic or racial minorities and 50 percent of women felt very included. Inclusion, says McKinsey, is strongly linked to employee engagement, and Projections, Inc. would add to the employee experience. Inclusion also impacts the ability to hire talent. The same survey found 39 percent of respondents chose not to accept a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion at the company. 

Your leaders make the difference. Developing a diversity, inclusion, and belonging culture starts with senior leadership. However, it is crucial that leaders at all levels, down to the frontline supervisors, are able to promote and maintain the culture. Leaders need training in engaging, including, and motivating employees. 

The words and acts of all managers and supervisors make a real difference in your organizational culture. The CEO can post videos saying he values all employees, but what is the day-to-day experience of diverse employees? What are your employees saying on social media and to the inevitable union representatives reaching out to them?

7. Utilizing HR technologies to augment talent practices

Technology marches on, and often it leaves leaders behind. What does this mean? Following are some examples.

  • Basic communication tools, like social media and videos, are used to communicate with employees, but the use of new technologies like podcasts for keeping leaders up-to-date on relevant topics like union strategies being deployed and employee training continues to grow slowly. Think about this: Employees want control of how they get work done. What if a company produced podcasts the employee could listen to while walking for exercise on weekends or when it best suits their schedule? It is a leadership practice that engages employees. 

  • How many companies are using Artificial Intelligence-assisted “nudges” that help employees utilize their full capabilities and help managers improve the employee experience?

  • Our employee engagement pulse surveys delivered regularly to promote employee voice and identify developing employee engagement issues? According to the rewards and recognition company Achievers’ 2020 survey, 46 percent of organizations continue to conduct an engagement survey only once a year. 

  • Does Human Resources leverage talent data to automate and augment talent practices that include recruiting, developing bias-free interviewing practices, hiring, training and development, identification of leadership potential, and pinpointing the reasons for attrition. Data and analytics are crucial to deep dives into the employee experience and to predicting positive and negative trends. UnionProof uses considerable resources for union-related data collection and analysis because of the insights it enables us to share with clients in a time of dynamic change.

Meeting Leadership Challenges Together

The seven leadership challenges are integrated and don’t stand alone. For example, social justice depends on giving people equal opportunities to succeed through recruiting, hiring, and training processes that are free of bias. A culture of inclusion and belonging is crucial to managing the changing political landscape. The manner in which employers respond to employees concerning global sustainability will influence employee engagement. Leaders who are adept at keeping a hybrid workforce engaged are utilizing HR technologies for the workforce’s good. 

The ultimate struggle for leaders in 2021 is that they will have to manage through all seven leadership challenges at the same time!

How well organizations meet these challenges will have an enormous influence on whether a company can stay union-free or avoid unnecessary conflicts if already unionized. At Projections, Inc., we deeply believe employers want to treat their employees right, so we developed numerous resources to help them stay union-freedevelop leaders and engage employees. 

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of continuous improvement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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