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5 Workplace Predictions for 2021 to Start Planning for Now

Published: Dec 21, 2020

Among the challenges organizations and professionals faced in 2020, none were more momentous than those having to do with the way we work. Professionals around the world quickly learned how to shift to video-conferencing platforms, juggle parenting with work meetings (often in the same room), and accept that business travel was nonessential—all while maintaining a high level productivity.

So what’s in store for 2021? And how will it impact your career?

Below, based on my 25 years as a staffing industry executive as well as research gathered over the last few months from the 325 global offices that comprise the MRINetwork, I’ve identified what will likely be the top workplace trends in 2021 (purposely excluding “remote work” because I don’t think anyone needs a reminder that remote work will continue into the New Year).

It’s important to have a handle on these trends now, so you can immediately begin to make strategic moves that will help grow your career—in 2021 and beyond.

1. A focus on mental health

Employers will find new ways to handle mental health disruptions that may carry over from the pandemic. They will need to be prepared to address fear, depression, alcoholism, social isolation, and everything in between, from divorce or death to video-conference fatigue. In September, the Journal of American Medical Association reported that signs of depression among U.S. adults tripled since the start of the pandemic. Employee health insurance with a mental health option will not be enough. We will see solutions range from full-time wellbeing-focused executive roles within HR to on-site mental health professionals for those companies returning to a physical facility.

2. EQ over IQ

Hiring managers will look at job candidates through the lens of smart and flexible versus the traditional focus on technical skills. A candidate’s emotional quotient (EQ) will be more critical than what pedigree or school they came from or what position they last held. According to Psychology Today, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” Considering EQ in the hiring process was trending before 2020, as research showed that top performing employees scored well in both IQ and EQ. But the need is only rising in today’s world of work. The bottom line is candidates’ ability to problem solve and adapt will be key assets.

3. An emphasis on over-communication, empathy, and compassion

Employers will review lessons learned from the pandemic (just like they did post 9/11) and apply them to post-Covid business management. They will find ways to ensure their teams are safe and over-communicate with their workforce. Employees returning to an office will have high expectations about safety protocols, such as regular deep cleaning of facilities, socially distanced workspaces, daily temperature checks, mandatory mask-wearing, and many on-site hand-cleaning stations—not to mention the disappearance of the shared employee refrigerator. More nuanced will be how employers communicate with their employees. In a report released earlier this year by McKinsey & Company, business leaders need to demonstrate awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion in order to set the stage for business recovery.

4. A focus on organizational DNA and DE&I

More conversations—and action—around diversity, equity, and inclusion will be driven from the top as a core value, not a reactionary program or initiative to tick off a box. The social justice demonstrations that have been taking place this year were a parallel phenomenon to the pandemic and are likely to be longer lasting. Chief People Officers will need to be advocates and leaders, not because of society’s increasing expectations but because of what’s right when it comes to building purposeful and impactful companies. As Deloitte recently shared, the social and business imperatives for diversity and inclusion have become even more apparent in the light of the pandemic.

5. An emphasis on employee data analytics

The pandemic caught many C-suite executives flat-footed. They didn’t have the information they needed to respond intelligently to the sudden and dramatic disruption. Moving forward, businesses will analyze data gathered during the pandemic to identify, build, and roll out customized working models based on new best practices, with a focus on refining employee training and development. Fortunately, as a recent KPMG study found, while employees have concerns about privacy amid Covid, most are willing to share their personal information to keep others safe and to return to work faster. Big data and, more importantly, business intelligence will undoubtedly be used to evaluate productivity, as employees continue to work from home, and to determine what workers need to cope with the pandemic.

Ironically, while 2020 turned workers' lives upside down, it also has set the stage for their empowerment in 2021—and employers will need to work to respond to employees’ needs inside and outside the workplace.

Bert Miller joined MRI Network in 1995 as co-founder of leading search and recruitment firm Protis Global, specializing in the food and beverage, consumer packaged goods, cannabis, and hospitality industries.

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