Jobs & Unemployment

Five Ways the Workplace will Change in 2021

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By Phil Chambers, CEO and co-founder Peakon

No one could have predicted the turbulent events of 2020. 

This year has both accelerated existing trends and brought new ones to light. Amid such uncertainty, it might be foolish to put my name to any future predictions...

That said, 2020 has taught organizations countless lessons, and spurred positive action from employers worldwide. With these new learnings in tow, 2021 could become the year that many leaders start afresh – taking massive strides in building workplaces that really work for everyone, and driving better business outcomes as a result. 

With a data set of more than 140 million employee survey responses, we at Peakon have unique insight into how employees worldwide are feeling right now, and the expectations that they hold for the future. So here’s what I think will happen next:

1. Businesses will be held accountable for their actions around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The events of 2020 – both COVID-19 and the powerful Black Lives Matter movement – have triggered a renewed public awareness around inequality and discrimination. For years we’ve seen growing demand among employees for more diverse and inclusive workplaces. But this trend has now been accelerated, with customers, investors and boards increasingly demanding action too. 

In 2021 we will see many more organizations take a rigorous and data-driven approach to their DE&I strategies – to get to the truth of their current situation, understand what they need to do about it, and analyze the efficacy of their actions.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it will pay dividends too. As mounting evidence suggests, DE&I is the foundation of strong, creative teams and a cornerstone of business success. Organizations simply can’t afford not to make this a priority next year.

2. Burnout will become a significant attrition risk – unless businesses act fast

2020 has arguably done more to accentuate the critical need for wellbeing support at work than any other year. It has pushed many employees to the edge, and revealed the truth about burnout – in its many forms. 

We’ve seen healthcare workers and other frontline staff be profoundly impacted by the pandemic, and reaching new levels of burnout. Parents have struggled to juggle work and childcare – with women being more impacted than men, and Black and Latina mothers shouldering heavier burdens than white mothers. And then we’ve seen managers suffer across the board as they carried their teams through the crisis. 

Many workers, who have had no choice but to push on through 2020, will pay the price for it next year, making burnout a very real attrition risk for businesses worldwide.

We have seen some positive action this year, with employers stepping up their support. In fact, according to our COVID-19 Impact Report, employees felt that their mental wellbeing was 5% better supported during the first half of 2020. Organizations should be proud of this progress, but acknowledge that there’s still a long, long road ahead of us.

When the pandemic does end, the toll taken on employee wellbeing will linger. Burnout may lead to absence, diminished motivation, and underperforming employees who end up seeking new employment. To avoid losing a slew of talent, and facing the high costs of recruitment, businesses need to put proactive and bespoke policies in place now.

3. Remote working isn’t going away, so workplaces will evolve

Spoiler alert: 2021 is not going to bring an end to remote working. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and there’s no ‘going back to normal’ once the pandemic is finally over. 

What this year has proved, once and for all, is that remote working really can work well for some people. What’s more, organizations have discovered that company culture does not only exist within the four walls of a physical office. These learnings cannot be unlearned now – especially if businesses wish to continue to reap the benefits of having a highly engaged workforce, and all that comes with it. 

What it does mean is that we’re likely to see an increase in so-called ‘hybrid working’, where employees are offered some flexibility within a framework – the option to split their time between home and the physical workspace depending on the demands of the work on any given day. 

And without workplaces as an everyday requisite, I would expect that these too will be adapted, and their purpose optimized. No longer will there need to be a desk for everyone. 

In a shift away from the archetypal mundane grey blocks we are used to, offices will be re-designed to better suit collaboration, meetings, and social events. Shared workspaces will also be essential for offering a respite from the potential loneliness and disconnect of working remotely.

4. Office politics is dead; long live office politics

For as long as there have been offices, there have been office cliques. But just because businesses are moving away from that working model, doesn’t mean we’ll see the demise of office politics. Instead, it will mutate. While platforms like Slack provide the opportunity for voices to have an equal-footing, they also afford more room for voices to go unheard. Moving into 2021, complacency around employee visibility will not be an option. 

The danger is that social lines won’t be dissolved by workplace instant messaging apps, but that they will become stronger. Without the opportunity for in-person connection – from casual office chit-chat to an after-work drink – those who onboard remotely risk being ostracized from their peers. Without existing bonds to ground the array of channels and private group chats, connecting to company culture might feel impossible. 

For managers this is particularly pronounced, since there are more hurdles when it comes to connecting and integrating with a pre-existing team in a digital-only space. This is an issue where scale only exacerbates the problem; the larger the company, the larger the problem this will present. Listening intelligently to your employees, and discovering the cracks where voices are being lost – that’s how you avoid breeding division.

5. Lack of professional development will ruin employee engagement

During the height of the pandemic we surprisingly saw all elements of employee engagement improve. That is, all except one: Employee growth. Scores to our professional growth question stagnated globally. 

COVID-19 has undoubtedly clouded many employees’ perception of how their career might pan out, and dented confidence around promotions and progression. In some cases, it has made people feel their skills are less important; the pandemic has certainly accelerated the shift towards digitization. 

The risk for 2021 is that as many businesses focus on their COVID-19 recovery plans or their new working models, learning and development efforts will take a back seat. This will be the catalyst for frustrated employees – lacking in confidence and motivation – to take a back seat themselves, triggering a drop in engagement and productivity. 

Up-skilling and retraining will be crucial to reinvigorate employee growth. Businesses will also need to quickly get to grips with training people digitally, so they can ensure all their people get the skills and knowledge they need, regardless of where they are working. 

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.