2021 Workforce Predictions

I don’t suppose anybody has bothered to look back at articles that were written at the end of 2019, predicting how the world of work and HR would change in 2020. Surely, they were all wrong?

Well, I spent 10 minutes having a quick look and what struck me was how many of those articles were actually right or at least pretty close. Take this article on Industry Week, which had business leaders offering these five predictions:

  1. Remote work will no longer be treated as a perk, but rather a necessity for employee retention
  2. Leading through rapid change will be a critical skill to master
  3. Inclusion will be at the forefront of Diversity and Inclusion efforts
  4. Predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) will be used to improve HR outcomes
  5. Virtual Reality (VR) technology will become more prevalent in leadership training programs

I’d argue that’s not a million miles away from what actually happened in 2020, even though nobody could possibly have imagined the impact that COVID-19 would have on all of our lives, both inside and outside work.

COVID-19 and the effect on workforce trends

What COVID-19 has essentially done is dramatically speed up many of the digital and workforce trends that were already happening within organizations. Businesses have had to transform their operating models to serve customers and stay relevant in a digital-only economy. And alongside that, across all sectors, employers have had to move to a distributed workforce model, almost overnight.

It’s been a challenging, tumultuous year for HR employees, business leaders and the wider workforce. The speed of change has been phenomenal and employers have had to think on their feet, ensuring that their employees have the support, technology and skills to work effectively and happily from home. Of course, some businesses have fared better than others (and employees likewise), but as we move into 2021 and the uncertain picture continues, what can businesses expect in the 12 months ahead?

Yes, that’s right, I’m sticking my neck on the line!

Here are my five predictions for HR and the workforce in 2021:

1. The hybrid workforce model will become the dominant model, as and when the pandemic passes. We’ve swung from predominantly on-site workforces to remote workforces in the space of weeks. Now the pendulum will swing back and land somewhere in the middle. Employees will demand much greater choice about when and where they work. The challenge for employers and HR departments will be to establish the cultures, behaviours and processes that facilitate this and lead to improved engagement, wellbeing and productivity. That’s going to mean a major re-think of current employee value propositions, even from where they are now


2. Employers will focus on and invest in new initiatives and tools to re-energise and motivate staff after an exhausting year. This will be a massive priority for business leaders who are rightly concerned about wellbeing and engagement across the workforce. Digital tools and AI-based sentiment analysis will be introduced so that employers can take a more proactive, preventative approach to wellbeing, identifying issues at individual, departmental and organisational level

3. HR departments will look to re-ignite career development and personal development plans after a year in which many people have felt stagnant in their careers. To achieve this, HR leaders will embrace new digital platforms which optimise performance management across a distributed workforce and align PDPs to competency frameworks and culture. Significantly, employers will start to recognise the value of continual, real-time feedback loops within a remote environment, something that will radically transform out-of-date review and appraisal processes. As part of this, we’ll see the consumerisation of performance management, with digital platforms making feedback processes more interactive and intuitive

4. HR will continue its meteoric rise up the value chain, as business leaders increasingly lean on HR departments to deliver operational agility and resilience in a turbulent marketplace. Most large organisations already take a strategic approach to People and HR – this will now be replicated across SMEs. To support this, businesses of all sizes and in every sector, will increase their use of employee data to offer enhanced employee experiences, optimise resources and plan for the future

5. There will be a spike in innovation in relation to workforce management and employee engagement, driven by urgent need. Many businesses have now reached the limit of what they can achieve on Zoom or Teams – and they’ve seen the limitations of simply trying to re-create the old office environment in a virtual space. Instead, new channels and techniques will emerge to engage and motivate staff in a remote and hybrid environment. And this will happen at every stage of the employee journey from digital onboarding, through to performance management, compensation. In order for this to happen, expect to see far greater integration between HR systems and platforms, as businesses search for solutions that best suit their needs.

So there we have it. Five predictions for HR and business leaders to mull over as we head into 2021. I hope that when I look back in a year’s time, at least a couple of these will have been right! But more than that, I hope that I’ll be looking back on a safer, easier and more enjoyable year for HR departments and workforces everywhere!