6 Trends That Will Shape Workplace Practices in 2021
by Elizabeth Owens Bille, JD, SHRM-SCP
If you had asked leaders last year what they would be focusing their energies on in 2020, likely a pandemic, economic disruption, nationwide social unrest, and a mental health crisis were not at the top of their lists. Indeed, one of the many lessons learned in 2020 was that it can be very difficult to predict what the future holds. Although we don’t have a crystal ball to gaze into, here are six trends that we believe will shape workplace practices in 2021, as well as tips for what you can do to prepare for them.
- New responsibilities for HR and Compliance
- Broader focus on employee wellbeing
- Sustained action to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Continuation of remote work
- Increased compliance complexity
- Business pressure to elevate workplace practices
1. New responsibilities for HR and Compliance
In the fall of 2020, I had the privilege of facilitating conversations with about 60 CHROs and chief compliance and ethics officers across the country. It was clear that the year’s events had required HR and compliance professionals to address issues that were once considered outside of their purview, such as politics, mental wellness, parenting, availability of education systems and childcare, and social justice. These challenges expanded the roles of HR and compliance professionals, and it is likely that these new responsibilities are here to stay.
Be prepared for employees looking to HR for childcare support/resources and for information about how the company is combating bias and fostering inclusion. Compliance professionals may increase their focus on mental wellbeing and diversity, equity, and inclusion as critical elements of their workplace safety, health, and speak-up culture efforts.
2. Broader focus on employee wellbeing
The pandemic of 2020 required organizations to rethink what it means — and what it takes — to have a safe and healthy workplace. To ensure workforce sustainability going forward, many employers will continue to move away from the traditional focus on injury and illness prevention toward a more holistic view of employee wellness. For some employers, this may include new programs and amplified benefits related to employee mental health, physical wellness, child care, elder care, PTO, or flexible work arrangements. Others will reimagine the design and use of workspaces and gatherings to maximize both employee connection and safety. To prevent burnout, many will amplify their focus on times to unplug from work or be meeting-free.
Be prepared by having proactive conversations about how to support employee wellbeing; reviewing policies, practices, and benefits; training managers on handling workplace accommodation requests; and providing employee education on health, safety, and wellness.
3. Sustained action to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion
Immediately following the outpouring of concerns about acute and historic racial inequity in 2020, many companies made strong public statements and committed to ongoing action to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Indeed, many hosted conversations on these issues and created positions solely dedicated to DEI in the workplace. In 2021, employees will look to their employers to deepen and broaden their internal work, focusing on: increasing diversity throughout their employee and leadership ranks, examining processes that may create barriers to equity (such as recruitment, development, and advancement programs), fostering inclusion and belonging, and preventing both subtle and egregious acts of harassment and discrimination.
Be prepared to address DEI and bias in new ways across the employee experience. Consider examining recruitment, hiring, compensation, development, and advancement policies and practices to ensure they are inclusive and have safeguards against bias. Involve all employees in the effort through DEI training and other programs that create an inclusive workplace.
4. Continuation of remote work
The direct impacts of COVID-19 — government restrictions and companies’ desire to safeguard employee safety and health, particularly until a vaccine is widely available — will continue increased levels of remote work into 2021 by necessity. But requirements aside, many organizations are determining that some degree of remote work can be win-win for the future. Productivity remained steady or even increased in 2020, although managers reported struggling with leading remote teams. Surveys show that 80% percent of employees want to continue working remotely at least occasionally, and 58% hope it will be their primary way of working. It’s no surprise, then, that 74% of CFOs plan to make remote work permanent for some portion of their employees post-COVID.
Be prepared to build new skills and implement new processes and technology solutions to enable team management and collaboration, facilitate compliance efforts, deliver workplace training, and drive culture and employee engagement, among a dispersed workforce.
5. Increased compliance complexity
As many organizations are keenly aware, states and even cities are increasingly passing legislation to address perceived gaps in workplace law and practice. From new mandates related to COVID-19 safety, anti-harassment training, pay and promotion transparency, and data privacy, to new protections against hair discrimination and whistleblower retaliation, the breadth, depth and pace of these changes can create compliance challenges — particularly for multistate employers.
Be prepared for continued regulatory activity on the state and local levels, particularly to combat bias and inequity (such as hair discrimination, pay practice transparency, and salary history-related bans), and regularly review your policies, procedures, and training to ensure they reflect the latest requirements.
6. Business pressure to elevate workplace practices
Although regulatory mandates are powerful drivers of workplace policies and practices, business pressures play an increasingly prominent role. In the war for top talent, employees are prioritizing a company’s brand as an employer: 86% say they would not apply for or continue to work for an organization that has a bad reputation. As a result of the #MeToo movement, calls for social justice, and the Business Roundtable’s recent reimagining of the purpose of a corporation, employees, applicants, boards, shareholders, and the public will continue to scrutinize a company’s practices and workplace culture in 2021.
Be prepared to consider assessing your values, policies, and practices to ensure they are aligned in support of an inclusive, ethical, and sustainable workplace. Organizations may wish to benchmark their practices against comparable organizations and amplify where appropriate to drive business success.