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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, human resources jobs were on the automation chopping block. Now they're essential.

The big picture: HR departments across the world have pulled off the incredible feat of turning companies from in-person to remote overnight, and as the pandemic continues to determine the future of work, HR has been elevated from a back-office function to a C-suite conversation.

  • "The new home of innovation at most organizations is not in technology or operations," says Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. "It’s in HR."

What's happening: Many of the tasks typically associated with HR can be fully or almost fully automated, per the consultancy KPMG.

  • But the pandemic has underscored the importance of human intellect in people management, even if some of the rote responsibilities, like payroll management or time-off and attendance tallying, can be done by machines.

Companies are leaning on chief human resources officers to lead the pandemic response and shape growth strategy. And company culture, which falls under HR's jurisdiction, is rapidly becoming a top priority for workers.

  • HR professionals have served as counselors to employees struggling with the anxiety and depression of working from home.
  • They've turned into event planners to organize happy hours or video workout classes to boost team morale.
  • And they've had to become the resident experts on telework in order to virtually recruit and onboard new hires and help executives figure out how to manage people remotely.

What to watch: The spike in workload is rapidly tiring HR departments.

  • "The role of CHRO has always been a lonely and stressful job," says Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify, an HR consulting firm.
  • And 2020 — with the pandemic, racial justice protests and an election — has brought a host of new stressors into the workplace. "All of that is absolutely taxing CHROs, and it’s leading to a lot of burnout," Schmidt says.

The bottom line: Well-resourced HR teams that can manage the transition to the hybrid workplace are now a top competitive advantage for companies in every sector.

  • "This is going to be vital to determining which companies come out of this thriving and which come out looking like they didn't get the memo," says Darren Murph, head of remote work at GitLab, the world's largest all-remote company.

Go deeper with the Harvard Business Review's report on 21 HR jobs of the future.

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Jan 19, 2021 - Economy & Business

New survey shows companies are open to moving to cheaper locales

The Phoenix office tower in Houston, Texas. The Lone Star State was the top stated destination for executives considering moving their operations. Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images

A survey of C-suite executives found more than a quarter are considering moving their operations to another state or country.

Why it matters: The forced march to remote work during the pandemic has shaken loose the bonds that tie large businesses to their home territory — and that could be bad news for high-cost cities and states.

CCP releases two jailed Canadians after Huawei CFO deal with DOJ

Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Two Canadians imprisoned by the Chinese government for over 1,000 days have been released and are expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Why it matters: Their release comes hours after Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice that resolves the criminal charges against her and could pave the way for her to return to China.

Updated 14 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona GOP's private recount of 2020 election confirms Biden's win

Contractors working on behalf of the GOP examine and recount 2020 ballots at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

In an odd coda to the 2020 election, private contractors conducting a GOP-commissioned recount in Arizona confirmed President Biden’s win in Maricopa County.

Why it matters: The unofficial, party-driven recount has been heavily covered on cable news as part of former President Trump's continued effort to sow doubt about the election result.