Workplace trends in 2021 are being shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as long-term dynamics.
Here are 8 major trends to watch. We’ve included some tips on how to adapt to these developments.
1. A Flexible Working Model Is Replacing the Office Commute
The beginning of the pandemic saw a significant increase in the number of employees working remotely at least part of the time, a trend that continues into 2021 and looks to become a permanent part of the modern workplace.
The new workplace model can be described as geographically flexible, with both on-site and remote work figuring into the mix. This may be one of the most important effects of change in the workplace stemming from the pandemic.
Employers and employees both support the new flexible hybrid of on-site and remote work, but differ on how much of the workweek should be allocated to remote work. A January 2021 survey by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found employers tend to favor workers coming to the office 3 days a week or more. However, employees prefer to work remotely at least 3 days a week.
Employers Want Employees in the Office at Least 3 Days a Week
- 29% felt workers need to be in the office 3 days a week to maintain a strong company culture
- 21% wanted workers in the office 5 days a week
- 18% preferred 4 days a week
- 15% said 2 days a week
- 6% said 1 to 3 days a month
- 5% said 1 day a week
- 5% didn’t think workers needed to be in the office to preserve company culture
Clearly, the majority of employers favor having employees in the office between 3 and 5 days a week.
Workers Want 3 or More Days of Remote Work
Among employees, preferences lean toward more remote work:
- 29% want to work remotely 5 days a week
- 19% want 2 days a week
- 16% want 3 days a week
- 10% want 4 days a week
- Interestingly, 10% want 1 day a week
- 10% want 1 to 3 days a month
- 8% don’t want to work remotely
Preference for remote work remained strong among employees in a June 2021 survey by the World Economic Forum. When asked what they would do if employers told them to come back to the office 5 or more days a week starting in August 2021:
- 57.8% of workers said they would comply and return
- 35.8% said they would return but start looking for another job that allowed them to work from home
- 6.4% said they would simply quit even without another job
The changing values of the workforce with respect to virtual workplace trends suggest the flexible workplace is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Employers who can offer workers the opportunity to work from home 3 or more days a week will enjoy advantages in employee recruitment, retention and productivity.
2. The Flexible Workplace Includes Flexible Hours
The new workplace will be flexible with respect to time as well as location, research firm Gartner predicts based on a survey of human resources leaders released in January 2021. Gartner’s research found that whereas employers who followed a conventional 40-hour workweek saw only 36% of their employees delivering high performance, this rose to 55% among employers offering flexible work hours.
Gartner sees this signaling a trend where employees will be evaluated in terms of their productivity rather than the number of hours they put in. This trend dovetails with the shift toward remote work, in that employees who work from home can continue to be productive during hours outside the normal 9-to-5 office schedule. Employers who can offer remote workers scheduling flexibility will find it easier to attract and retain workers.
3. Digital Transformation Is Reshaping the Workplace
A remote workforce depends on a digital infrastructure that allows employees to work online. This parallels a digital transformation of commerce that has advanced as consumers have done more of their shopping online in response to the pandemic. Both these developments are aspects of a broader digital transformation of business, which ranks high among the new trends in workplace dynamics accelerated by the pandemic.
Online sales increased 32.4% in 2020 over the previous year, accelerating the growth of ecommerce by the equivalent of 2 years, according to ecommerce research firm Digital Commerce 360 based on data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. This trend continued into the first quarter of 2021, which saw a rise of 39% in online sales compared to the first quarter of 2020.
To keep up with these changes, companies have accelerated their adoption of digital technology since the pandemic began. Digital adoption took ”a quantum leap” forward in 2020, according to a survey of executives and senior managers by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. In North America, the average share of customer interactions that are digital rose to 65% during the pandemic, accelerating digitization by 3 years in this category. The share of products or services which are partially or fully digitized rose to 60%, an adoption acceleration of 6 years.
These developments have 38% of executives planning to invest more in technology to gain a competitive advantage. Companies that prioritize digital transformation will position themselves to emerge from the pandemic with a stronger advantage.
4. Office Transformations Call for Upskilling
The digital transformation of the workplace calls for new skills in the workforce. However, workers with the required skills can be difficult to come by. A McKinsey survey conducted at the start of the pandemic found that 87% of companies already were experiencing skills gaps or expected to within the next 5 years.
The digital skills gap “worsened during the pandemic,” according to research conducted by online educational provider Coursera.
One of the most efficient ways to address the skills gap is by upskilling current employees, which bypasses the long and expensive talent search needed to find new employees. A survey of human resources leaders by information technology trade association CompTIA found that 42% of companies plan to initiate new efforts to upskill and reskill current employees in 2021.
Experiencing a skills gap? Reviewing the skills and aptitude of your current staff may be the fastest and least expensive solution.
5. Specialist and Temporary Workers Will Help Fill the Skills Gap
While upskilling can help alleviate skills gaps, many companies find that they can’t retrain employees fast enough to meet their labor needs. Companies listed 33% more skills on jobs ads in 2020 than they did in 2017, according to an analysis by Gartner, reflecting how heavy the demand for new skills is.
To address this, Gartner predicts many companies will rely increasingly on temporary workers to fill skills gaps. Some companies will pay premium prices to hire highly skilled workers only when specific needs arise. Others will turn to recruitment firms and partnerships with other companies to hire workers temporarily.
If upskilling your staff isn’t sufficient to meet your labor needs, then consider these alternative strategies.
6. Digital Transformation Will Redefine Office Real Estate Strategies
Many employers are rethinking conventional real estate strategies. A digitally oriented office staffed partly by remote workers requires less physical space. In 2021, more than 1 in 5 companies plan a reduction in office space, according to a survey of business executives by the American Institute of CPAs, an accounting trade organization.
If you’re looking for alternatives to conventional offices, several options are available. These include executive office suites, coworking spaces and office incubators. Also, note that some apartments and condominiums include private office suites designed for working from home.
7. Workplace Hygiene Is a Top Safety Concern
As employees return to offices, maintaining a safe work environment is a top safety concern that will occupy employers’ attention.
To make the workplace safer, the Office of Safety and Health Administration recommends employers implement a hierarchy of safety measures, ranked from most to least effective:
- Excluding infected employees from the workplace
- Adopting engineering measures that discourage infection, such as improved ventilation, plexiglass barriers and adjusting workspace distances
- Implementing administrative controls, such as limiting the number of workers on-site per shift
- Using personal protective equipment
To address these issues, consider conducting a workplace safety review. If you need help, a workplace safety consultant can assist you.
8. Mental Health Support Has Become a Health-Care Priority
The pandemic has had an impact on employee stress and emotional health as well as physical health. This led employers to place a higher emphasis on mental health benefits and support.
Among human resource leaders, 68% consider employee mental health and well-being a top priority, according to a survey by health-care software provider Lyra Health, Boston University and human resources training organization Future Workplace. Noting this trend, 41% of employers plan to increase mental health benefits in 2021, according to a survey of human resources professionals by Care.com.
So, what does this mean? For one thing, employees increasingly will expect mental health-care benefits to be provided by companies. Employers also should consider offering mental health-care assistance to present an attractive benefits package.
Track Today’s Workplace Trends to Thrive in Tomorrow’s Economy
One of the biggest workplace trends in the wake of the pandemic is the shift to a flexible working model. This includes an increase in the amount of time spent working from remote locations and more flexibility in working schedules.
Both the needs of a digital environment and other factors are prompting employers to rely on:
- Temporary workers
The pandemic also has encouraged employers to adopt new strategies for using physical office space and protecting the physical and mental health of workers.
In short, employers who proactively adapt to these trends will enjoy an advantage moving forward.