What impact has COVID-19 had on HR?

Results of the HR Barometer 2021

Dirk Buyens

By Dirk Buyens

Professor of Human Resources Management

11 July 2021

Hudson and Vlerick Business School publish their HR Barometer annually to identify the most significant HR trends and challenges of the previous year. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the past year an exceptional one for everyone. In uncertain times, it was a challenge to set the right priorities. What impact did COVID-19 have on the performance of HR? Our online survey resulted in 104 organisations sharing their experiences and concerns. This year, the HR Barometer covered no less than 363,631 employees in Belgium through these organisations.


3 Top priorities
- Well-being
- The New Ways of Working
- Digital Transformation
3 Lowest priorities
- Employer Branding
- Retention
- Stagnation/Downsizing
3 Key strengths
- Industrial Relationships
- Selection & Recruitment
- Engagement
3 Key areas of improvement
- Digital Transformation
- Diversity
- HR Analytics

Changing priorities

Not entirely unexpectedly, in the remarkable year 2020, we saw many changes in priorities compared to the preceding years of stability. It came as no surprise that Well-being, The New Ways of Working, and Digital Transformation suddenly made it to the Top 3, while these areas were not at the top of the priority list before. Yet that does not mean that the previous top priorities, such as Leadership Development and Learning & Development, have become less significant. On the contrary, these areas appear to be relatively stable and remain a key strength.

Above all, this means that in 2021, HR will be spinning even more plates. Indeed, other HR areas also gained in priority. Teamwork, Performance Management, and HR Operational Excellence all managed to grow in strength thanks to better control.

Although Agility, Strategic Workforce Planning, and Digital Transformation also gained significantly in priority, HR Managers said that they had not yet fully mastered them. This status also shows that HR Departments have more work to do.

Still focusing on growth

Although preparing the organisation for growth was down as a priority, it remained key, as did Selection & Recruitment. Retention and Employer Branding were also lower on the agenda. This is remarkable because Employer Branding was still in the Top 5 priorities in the previous HR Barometer.

Interestingly, preparing the organisation for stagnation or downsizing remained extremely low on the list of priorities – even in these times of crisis. HR Managers are thus showing that there is still a great deal of confidence in the future and the development of their organisations.

Room for improvement

Nonetheless, there are some areas with room for improvement. For example, Digital Transformation and Agility are high-priority HR practices that organisations feel less adept at. Furthermore, businesses do not yet feel fully prepared for strategic human resource planning. Organisations understand only too well how important it is to stay abreast of digital developments and to work in an agile manner.

The impact of COVID-19

It goes without saying that the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and all its related measures has been considerable. Consequently, the health crisis has presented new challenges to HR Departments, particularly in the areas of Well-being, Connection, Teleworking, and Communication. HR Departments had to become more strategic and/or more operational to manage this but also more digital. Overall, the number of challenges not related to COVID-19 remained limited.

We can conclude that COVID-19 has put even more on the plates of HR Departments. More HR areas have become priorities, HR Departments have gained in significance, and the pandemic has boosted their impact.

What will the future hold?

HR Managers expect to focus on Leadership Development and Talent Management once again in the coming year. However, The New Ways of Working, Well-being, and Digital Transformation will stay on the priority list. Not just in the coming year, but also probably well beyond.

About the HR Barometer
The HR Barometer is the result of the close cooperation between HR consultancy Hudson and Vlerick Business School. Ellen Volckaert, Manager in the Hudson Research & Development Department, and Professor Dirk Buyens, Head of HRM Centre at Vlerick Business School, co-authored this report. They surveyed the HR Managers of the Bel 20 and the 200 largest Belgian companies in terms of the number of employees. A total of 104 organisations participated in the survey representing some 363,631 Belgian employees.

Get in touch!

Astrid Vandenbroucke

Astrid Vandenbroucke

Manager GPtW®