2021—It’s finally here! I think we can all agree that the last year was both the longest and fastest year ever. One thing we will all remember from 2020 is how work and life collided and converged in an unprecedented way, making the line between work and human experiences more blurred than ever.
As we reflect on all that we overcame – mastering remote work, adjusting to a socially distant lifestyle, battling increased levels of stress and anxiety, and juggling multiple hats including manager, colleague, teacher, parents, spouse all at once – we eagerly wonder what awaits us in the year ahead.
In 2021, HR professionals worldwide will continue to face key challenges as they further adapt to pandemic-fueled norms, while also—we hope— preparing to navigate a post-pandemic world of work. Business and HR leaders will need to prioritize workforce health & safety and continue to adapt the employee experience, all with the goal to make work more human.
This concept of work made human is at the core of our mission and is a critical component to establishing a positive, productive, and satisfactory work environment, and we believe in the year ahead it will be more important than ever.
Below are the five key trends that we believe will drive the future of work in 2021:
The global pandemic has put a spotlight on both physical and mental health for every person, organization, and country around the world. People everywhere are battling increased levels of stress and anxiety both at home and at work, and unfortunately, we will continue to face these challenges in the year ahead.
Additionally, as workplaces begin to reopen, physical safety will be a top priority for HR leaders offices needing to implement stricter health and safety guidelines for the office, including regular health testing and wellness checks, office cleanliness, and new safety training. At the same time, many HR leaders will need to adjust to a new hybrid workforce with many people opting to stay remote, some heading back to the office full time, and others finding some type of in-between arrangement.
These health and safety priorities will result in an increased focus on the types of workplace benefits organizations offer. Workers will no longer be interested in the in-office perks that previously held such high appeal (i.e. ping pong tables, beer gardens, free lunches, in-office yoga classes, etc.) and will instead be searching for resources to improve their personal and family well-being. Perks that promote physical fitness, support mental health, ease remote work burdens, and address the increased difficulties of finding work-life balance will be the most impactful in 2021.
Second, up-skilling and reskilling will need to be reimagined at a much broader scale. While skills have always been important, the pandemic impact puts a spotlight on this priority. As companies seek greater efficiencies by implementing technologies like AI and the cloud, the roles of their employees need to change too. These technical solutions help humans be more productive by allowing them to focus on higher-level tasks, but also require a new set of skills.
Over the past year, many industries were entirely disrupted with hospitality, retail, and airlines taking some of the biggest hits. But from a talent perspective, we realized the potential to leverage relevant and applicable skillsets across industries for new roles and responsibilities. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Scandinavian Airlines to let go of many of their flight crews, it partnered with a foundation to retrain these workers to work in hospitals. Though this may seem like an unconventional path, airline cabin workers possess many skills needed for medical work, such as medical training in case of in-flight emergencies and the ability to handle difficult interpersonal situations (e.g. unruly passengers).
This approach can be applied just as well inside an organization as out. As business strategies transform, employers can find skillsets that support new priorities directly within their existing workforce. But it’s often difficult for employees to accurately pinpoint and describe specific skills, so this is where HR can help. Tools such as adaptive artificial intelligence that develops, infer and normalize skills definitions and job titles, coupled with digital assistants integrated with learning programs can help employees identify, grow and describe their skills aligned to the ever-changing needs of the organization. With that clarity and opportunity, employees can use HR platforms to quickly match to new opportunities – both internally and externally—ultimately fostering career advancement, particularly in a time where that might seem more difficult than not.
Over the past few years, diversity and inclusion (D&I) have risen to be one of the most visible C-level issues. So much to the point that it’s enough – enough talk, now it’s time to take action. The priority around D&I needs to remain a key focus, but 2021 is the time to move from challenge to change.
While D&I initiatives exist, most are still nascent and separate from the business. A recent PwC study found that only 5% of organizations have built mature D&I programs that connect back to business results. Many organizations begin by appointing chief diversity officers and setting up dashboards to track D&I metrics, showing concern about inclusion and equity. This is a great place to start, but these programs feel superficial if they aren’t backed by the real authority to make the change. D&I programs that exist only to comply with discrimination laws or pacify upset workers are never going to achieve anything. It’s time to tap into the “Why?” beyond the metrics and truly begin to mobilize D&I efforts. Businesses need to understand that diversity is not only good for the people, but also for business. In fact, a recent McKinsey study pointed out that companies with the greatest diversity outperformed companies with little diversity by 36%.
To reap the benefits, organizations need to embed D&I into their business practices. That starts with measuring diversity and continues with measuring the impact by cross-referencing with other data about their workforce to reveal patterns of inequity. Using those metrics, organizations can better support a diverse workforce by providing equitable growth opportunities to all employees and fostering a sense of belonging so everyone can do their best work. A diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization does not stop at hiring, and with a true strategy throughout the entire employee lifecycle, we can begin to make more meaningful changes in the year ahead.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to be prepared for the unexpected. Businesses changed a lot in the last year, and as we get ready for 2021, we have to take those lessons learned and get ready for anything. In other words, we need to be agile.
In this new year, all companies will be under pressure to grow and optimize profits, recovering from the year we just survived, while also still navigating new post-pandemic challenges. HR leaders need to take a proactive role in helping businesses navigate those changes by preparing their workforces, being ready for any new obstacle, and being able to pivot to new business models both quickly and easily.
HR leaders can help by locking down their talent management functions including workforce planning, recruiting, reskilling and compensation to guide the workforce through unexpected changes like shifting to remote work, and adapting to new staffing needs or demands. But they can’t do it alone. They need to be connected to—and working in sync with—the other departments including finance, supply chain, and marketing. All departments need to be on the same page by working on a unified platform that shares data so everyone can make decisions with the same information. That is what makes a business truly agile.
As the COVID-19 vaccine continues to be distributed and we start the return to ‘normal,’ we will see a hybrid workforce emerge. Some companies will return to pre-pandemic operations, but many will see increased employee demands for the flexibility workers have been requesting for years now. Remote work has been proven to work, there’s no denying that, and as organizations begin to navigate the inevitable “return”, things will look quite different.
Managing workforces on the way to normalcy is going to be an interesting exercise in duality. On one hand, employees need more support and guidance than ever while uncertainty still looms over their future. Companies will need to help their workforces navigate new health and safety regulations and change their benefits to match the needs of this new remote workforce. On the other hand, employees need more flexibility and personalization in how they can access HR information as their work locations and needs become more varied.
While prioritizing personalization, flexibility, on-demand access, and growth opportunities is a strong start to a positive employee experience, it is not one-size-fits-all. Every country, industry, organization, and the team will have new employee expectations and demands, and it will be up to HR to reimagine them.
There you have it—the five trends we believe will emerge in 2021. Here’s to hoping we can bring a more human approach to the New Year.
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