5 Predictions on the Future of Work in 2021

Blaise Radley
5 Predictions on the Future of Work in 2021

No one could have predicted the turbulent events of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated existing trends while bringing entirely new ones to light. And though there’s a pervasive hope across the globe that 2021 represents a turning point, some of those changes are here to stay. 

The most obvious upshot for workplaces has been the number of staff working from home, but that development has been on the horizon for some time. A 2019 report by Buffer found that 99% of employees would choose to work remotely if they had the option. It’s hard to see that figure changing now so many of us have experienced remote working firsthand. 

If there was one takeaway from 2020 for organisations, it was to expect the unexpected. Making predictions after the most unpredictable year in recent memory may seem foolhardy, but at Peakon we specialise in adaptive, active insights. Drawing from our data set of more than 140 million employee survey responses, here’s five directions we see 2021 taking. 

1. Businesses will be held accountable for diversity, equity and inclusion

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 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 demanding action too. 

Moving into 2021, companies will need to prove that their social media support wasn’t hot air. Organisations must take a hands-on, data-driven approach to their DE&I strategies, establishing their existing situation, analysing the ongoing efficacy of their approaches, and building trust with employees.

Not only is it the right thing to do ethically, but it will pay dividends too. The benefits of a sustained approach to diversity, equity and inclusion are undeniable — organisations can’t afford to ignore this next year. 

2. Burnout will become a significant attrition risk

2020 has accentuated the critical need for wellbeing support at work. In a survey of over 8,000 employees globally, Peakon found that 29% of workers were on the cusp of burnout at the end of last year. Many workers, who had no choice but to push through 2020, will pay the price for it in 2021, making burnout a very real attrition risk.

We’ve seen healthcare workers and other frontline staff be profoundly impacted by the pandemic, 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. 

In a survey of over 8,000 employees, we found that 29% of workers were on the cusp of burnout at the end of last year.

Peakon

Fortunately, we also saw some positive action in 2020, 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. Organisations should be proud of this progress, but acknowledge that there’s still a long road ahead.

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 policies in place now. 

3. Remote working isn’t going anywhere

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”. What this year has proved, once and for all, is that remote working really can work — even if just for some people. 

That doesn’t mean 2021 won’t see modes of working evolve. We’re likely to see an increase in so-called “hybrid working”, where employees are offered flexibility within a framework. People will have the option to split their time between home and the physical workspace depending on the demands of any given day. 

Without workplaces as an everyday requisite, these spaces will adapt too. No longer will there need to be a desk for everyone, and no longer will we be beholden to grey tower blocks. Offices will be re-designed to better suit collaboration, meetings, and social events, offering a respite from the potential disconnect of working remotely.

4. Office politics are 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 model, doesn’t mean we’ll see the demise of office politics. Instead, they will mutate. While platforms like Slack provide the opportunity for voices to have an equal-footing, they also afford 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 social — those who onboard remotely risk being ostracised from their peers and the wider company culture. This is particularly pronounced for managers facing the hurdle of integrating with a pre-existing team. 

It’s important to recognise that scale exacerbates the problem; the larger the company, the larger the potential for employee invisibility. Listening intelligently to your staff, and discovering the cracks where voices are being lost — that’s how you avoid division.  

Workplace predictions for 2021 illustration; woman remote working

5. Lack of development will dent engagement

While 2020 has been universally acknowledged as a tough time, at Peakon we actually saw employee engagement scores improve in nearly all areas. That is, except one: employee growth. Scores for our professional growth question stagnated globally. 

COVID-19 has undoubtedly dented employee confidence around progression. For many, being furloughed or the prospect of redundancy has derailed their plans for forward movement. For others, it has made their skills feel less relevant; the pandemic has greatly accelerated the shift towards digitisation. 

The risk for 2021 is that, as many businesses focus on their new working models, their learning and development efforts will take a back seat. This will be the catalyst for frustrated employees to take a back seat themselves, triggering a drop in engagement and productivity. 

Upskilling 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. 

Building the future of work in 2021

These five predictions can mean one of two things. Either businesses will take notice of the potential pitfalls, and turn these into positives, or they’ll go unheard and lead to employee disengagement and attrition. 

The best way to tackle these issues head on? With an active listening platform like Peakon. 

Regardless of the extent to which the above predictions come true, 2021 will be defined by adaptability. The companies that perform best will be those that remain agile, responding swiftly to stakeholder and employee concerns. That’s where the to-the-minute insights provided by Peakon’s employee engagement surveys are invaluable.

If you want to become a people-forward business in 2021, book a demo of Peakon today. We’re here to make the unpredictable manageable. 

Forfatter - Blaise Radley