As we have transitioned into 2021, many workplace changes witnessed in 2020 will further evolve to meet the needs of the future.
Will the work from home (WFH) model sustain across organizations? Will companies decide in the favour of a hybrid work model or will they fall back to old ways of operating? Reflecting on the advent of COVID-19 in early 2020, many workplace trends that were only beginning to make their presence felt had to be adopted full-scale and with immediate effect. From developing remote work policies and easing the technology transition for remote workers to devising a robust strategy for employee wellness and productivity, the year had been an extraordinary stretch of time for the workforce at large.
COVID-19 - disruptor and catalyst
The onset of COVID-19 enforced world-wide work from home. Formerly considered a privilege, WFH was suddenly “the new normal”. Age old myths and practices were shattered, establishing beyond doubt that physical proximity is not a requisite for employee productivity.
Employee engagement and wellbeing have come into sharp focus. Organizations have learnt to operate from a place of trust. Employees are empowered to select their paradigm of engagement with work and home, to be able to strike the balance that suits them individually.
Organizations are also cognizant of the future implications of COVID-19. This includes crisis induced mental health issues, professional insecurities and health-related apprehensions. Genuinely human-centric organizations are rising to the occasion with measures that are not merely about productivity but about creating a healthier world.
Having already stated that the pandemic as well as the future of work remain an evolving situation, we do foresee some trends that are likely to shape workplace culture and practices in 2021:
The future is virtual –
Today, virtualization is a mandate of the “socially distancing” populations. While the transition to 100% virtual was quite seamless for retail and other transaction-driven businesses, areas of work such as education and health care keenly felt the lack of in-person connection.
Innovation is the answer to this conundrum. Companies with a focus on innovation will come out ahead of the curve. Talking specifically about health care, pandemic or no pandemic, enhancing virtual capabilities will help assuage the inequity of healthcare dissemination.
WFH, with a few exceptions, is here to stay –
Necessitated by COVID-19, the stigma around WFH is purged for good. The fact that variable working models reflect the flexible mindset of an organization is epitomized by companies that have always had policies for WFH, return to work etc.
Establishments that only adopted WFH to keep the business running, are likely to fall back to old ways and would perhaps have to work more rigorously to bring about the true nature of virtual working or else they run the risk of not being an attractive brand..
Another important consideration is the relevance of WFH in 2021 and beyond. The demands of the future could be very different. Organizations are moving beyond the initial euphoria generated by the success of WFH and are working to arrive at an optimum hybrid work model – one that retains the flexibility element of WFH and allows employees to reap the benefits of in-person interactions at the workplace.
Democratization of the employment/operating landscape –
The pandemic saw a lot of talent in India pick up and work at jobs based in foreign shores. However, this may not mean permanent freedom from the same-location sine qua non, especially if varying time zones are involved. If continued, this trend of location-agnostic hiring will be a great opportunity for global talent.
This may stimulate gig working as well, which as of now is based mostly out of western shores or is preferred by experienced, specialized and senior talent in India for the flexibility that is provided. Contract-based employment or project-based employment as a part of return to work programs may also gain in popularity amongst those wanting to return to the workforce.
Recruitment will evolve based on accelerated digitization –
In HR (and across all functions really), the biggest skill changes will entail learning agility, growth mindset and uncertainty and ambiguity comfort.
Investing in elaborate interview set-ups and weekend hiring are things of the past. Organizations, however, need to ensure seamless virtual interview and onboarding processes to provide an inclusive, hassle-free experience to the prospective and new recruits.
In the absence of physical office premises, an organization’s online employer brand will be at the front and centre of recruitment strategies. Potential employees will heavily rely on the organization’s digital presence to form an opinion about work culture and other meaningful attributes.
Tech to enhance new-hire experience
Technology will enable enhanced new-hire experience to be able to adequately replace an in-person welcome. Logistical elements such as technology support, laptop allocation, induction program, joining formalities need to be considered.
AI and analytics have until now been little more than buzzwords in human capital except for using predictive analytics for talent market scans. Some organizations may use advanced technologies for bias-free and data-driven CV parsing and word analysis. Analytics will help with dip sticks, gauging employees’ experience and connecting to people at large in a virtual environment. Overall, the big and the best in this space is yet to come.
Increased efforts for at-home employee engagement and wellbeing –
With the WFH resultant obscure demarcations between home, work and kids’ schools, organizations were compelled to push the hard-reset button on employee engagement. Wellness and employee assistance programs will rule the roost. Frequent employee experience surveys will help prioritize areas of concern. Accordingly, corrective measures will also evolve.
Companies are increasingly focusing on providing employees with meaningful incentives to replace programs designed for in-office employee engagement and wellness such as the provision of a day-care service, gym, healthy meals served in the office cafeteria and other elements that made up the experiential aspect of working in a physical office.
Augmented efforts to prevent burnout –
While inter-office celebrations, water-cooler and coffee conversations are missed and reminisced, the virtual get-together of today does not suffice as a replacement.
Strategies such as a mandatory holiday after a certain number of working days; ‘No Meeting Day’ once a week; a fixed lunch hour; online mental health and wellness sessions and even encouraging employees to take regular breaks from screen-time, will be further explored in 2021. It will be interesting to see how some of these initiatives shape up.
Bringing in diversity will be easier; inclusion will require increased intentional focus –
Diversity will become easier with a work-from-anywhere and flexible hours model, which will continue to bring in fresh and diverse talent. Inclusion, however, will have to be actively pursued.
At a basic human level, we tend to gravitate towards people we are familiar and comfortable with. All of us have our own biases that deeply pervade our belief systems. Conscious effort is required to identify and eradicate these biases, which may be more of a challenge in a virtual environment. Unconscious bias trainings, discreetly calling out biases and sharing experiences to enhance collective awareness, make a good starting point.
Certain specialized skills will be in popular demand –
With the ongoing outbreak catalysing digital transformation, organizations as well as individuals will continue making significant investments in upskilling and cross-skilling to build, strengthen and even diversify their skills.
The boom in data literacy skilling will continue. It is quite relevant and useful in a virtual workspace as it brings in a common language of data within a team, easing comprehension and seamless operations.
Data privacy and cyber security will feature among top business priorities and organizations will invest more in training and hiring pros in this space. With the wealth of information being generated, analysed and managed in remote working, strengthening data privacy and security measures will be of paramount importance.
Expertise in areas of user experience, visualization, app development will be in high demand. These skills will charge a premium in the market and will also be able to influence organizations to provide them more flexibility.
A return to the labour law books –
The pandemic has also identified the need for HR professionals to decipher labour law intricacies besides learning succession planning, talent management and recruitment. Becoming well-versed with the lay of the land, including legislation and ways of operating, employment law etc. has certainly become important.
Many of the trends outlined herein were already rife in the pre-COVID-19 workplace. The widespread implementation of remote working exacerbated their implications.
These trends lean towards an evolving employee landscape, opening a window to new opportunities and possibilities, owing to advancements across the world of work. However, with the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing pandemic situation, businesses will need to remain agile and adaptable in their quest to provide best-in-class experiences to their employees in 2021.