Wondering what’s next? These 4 predictions will help you navigate the new year.
John D. Rockefeller was arguably the world’s first remote worker.
In the mid 1800s, the oil baron laid down telegraph wire between his office and home so he could spend afternoons with his family. He later credited this arrangement for his long life and career.
It’s an interesting historical tidbit, but what I find truly fascinating are Rockefeller’s motivations for installing that telegraph wire in the first place.
In the words of biographer Ron Chernow, he “mingled work and rest to pace himself and improve productivity.” Rockefeller himself observed, “It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling and go along at an even pace.”
As we stop to reflect on this past year’s grand experiment and turn a fresh eye to the future of work, Rockefeller’s words are worth remembering. With that in mind, here are the top workplace trends I believe will impact organizations in 2021 and beyond.
1) Return of the 9 to 5
Remote work’s flexibility is among its biggest benefits, but that flexibility has supercharged today’s “always-on” culture. In 2021, employees will rebel against the idea that they aren’t always working but are always available.
This availability appears harmless, but as far back as 2018 a study on employer expectations found that the mere assumption that employees will monitor and respond to emails during non-work hours is enough to generate stress and lead to burnout. That’s why I believe we will organically return to an earlier era of more structured workdays.
This doesn’t mean flexibility will disappear. Instead, employees will communicate stricter boundaries—for instance, an expectation that emails after six will go unanswered until the following day.
2) New technologies for knowledge work
While remote work has its flaws, I don’t see an en masse return to the office once the pandemic is contained. That’s because the flaws are not inherent to remote work, but rather the result of how we are working while remote.
In 2021, a key part of the employee experience will shift from where you work to how you work.
I suspect there are a few billion-dollar ideas out there that address this reality (though unfortunately, I don’t have them myself). What I can say with confidence is we’ll see the accelerated adoption of tools that mitigate some of the friction that arises in a dispersed world.
Digital workflows are one example of these tools. When paired with artificial intelligence, they are incredibly powerful—handling important yet repetitive work and bringing structure, automation, and efficiency to other daily operational tasks.
3) A new take on talent hubs
What was the new normal is on the brink of becoming just plain normal. And the accepted norm of remote work will fuel a continued shift in what’s perceived as a talent hub.
From a historical perspective, talent hubs—geographic locations rich in qualified employees—are something of an anomaly. After all, it was only with industrialization that we urbanized and began working similar schedules and days. Talent hubs are also a self-fulfilling prophecy: Organizations establish themselves where the talent is, yet the talent is there because that’s where organizations establish themselves. (I’m looking at you, Silicon Valley.)
The pandemic provided an opportunity to rethink this location-based, “talent attracts talent” calculus.
Casting the hiring net beyond the distance of a daily commute can also help alleviate urban ills such as high housing costs and traffic congestion. It might even help create a more equitable society. Tapping into talent from non-traditional locales provides opportunities to qualified candidates who might not be able to afford living in a high-cost urban area.
In time, the concept of talent hubs may disappear entirely as employees pick the most desirable places to live and business leaders realize the most talented candidates don’t necessarily live within a 40-mile radius of company headquarters.
4) Rising concern about video platform data
In this dispersed environment, video chat platforms will remain among our most valuable collaboration tools. At the same time, they now host millions of hours of conversational video footage, much of it confidential or sensitive in nature.
In 2021 we’ll recognize the risk this poses, with privacy advocates and business leaders sounding the alarm about its potential for misuse.
While similar to concerns over smart speakers like Amazon Alexa recording private conversations, the threat from video footage is far more dystopian. Consider, for instance, an algorithm that determines emotional state or truthfulness and reports that information to HR.
We’ll wake up to these Orwellian possibilities in 2021.
While I predict that these trends will define the year to come, I’d like to close with one mega trend: Remote work and the technology it spawns will reshape the corporate landscape in ways that are yet to be understood.
In other words, buckle up. We’ve just begun. That’s why, of all the trends I’ve discussed, it’s the ways work shifts that I’ll be watching most closely in 2021.