2020 has become synonymous with COVID-19 and with vaccines being released towards the end of the year, many celebrated the arrival of 2021 like it was an end of the pandemic and a return to some kind of normality. This is, of course, not the case. While we continue to make remarkable strides to end this pandemic as soon as possible, it will take much longer to vaccinate enough people to end this crisis.
The impact of pandemic disruption will endure far beyond this year. While 2020 was about reacting and adjusting to the “new normal”, the developments of 2021 will be about reshaping our society for the long-term. At the center of this change will be our workplaces and how we work.
"People will continue working remotely from anywhere. We won't see 100% of companies go back to the office in 2021, and we also won't see 100% stay remote. Employees will have the autonomy to decide where they want to work and enterprises will need to take the security measures needed to make it happen,” predicts Bill Harrod, federal CTO of zero-trust security company, Ivanti. “The stagnant desktop employee will no longer be a reality."
The workplace must develop greater flexibility to meet this new long-term reality. An ADP Research Institute study found that 44% of employers now have official flexible working policies in place, up from 24% pre-COVID-19. The study also revealed that 65% of workers are upbeat about the flexibility of opportunities they will have in the future. However, this new flexible reality changes the paradigm of employee comfort, wellness, and productivity strategies that had been developing for decades leading up to the pandemic. Employers around the world will now have to rethink the ways they entice, maintain, manage, and motivate their staff in the new age of flexible and remote work.
"As the workplace evolves, perks [once] used to engage and retain employees will be [increasingly] less effective. Successful HR leaders will lean heavily into the art and science of intrinsic motivation. The pandemic places unprecedented levels of psychological stress, intrinsically motivating work energizes employees,” says Kristen Hayward, head of people at email-based communication solution provider Superhuman.
According to Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign it will be the responsibility HR departments “to rethink how to accommodate, engage and empower employees in today’s distributed workforce and ultimately how teams connect. We have a unique opportunity moving forward to live and breathe a culture felt in and out of the office, and embrace the digital tools that can help,” she said.
Digital workplace tools have been a savior for many, if not most, companies during the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that have kept employees away from the physical office during the pandemic. Just imagine what 2020 would have been like without virtual meeting technologies such as Zoom, Skype, and Teams. While in the office, occupancy analytics, video surveillance, and a range of novel cleaning technologies are proving to be compelling options for virus mitigation and employee safety. Employers will use every tool at their disposal with the simple goals of maintain safety and driving productivity during these turbulent times.
"The burden for productivity will shift further towards leadership. This requires an end-to-end tool, workflow, and communications audit to ensure direct reports have what they need and are able to share work early, often, and transparently,” says Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab. “HR professionals can help employers be ethical and [recognize] that a support system is required to move beyond the skeuomorphic approach of merely pasting the office environment into a virtual space."
For most employers in 2020, the adoption and proliferation of virtual communication tools were aimed at recreating the physical office in the digital world. However, that approach is inherently limited as the digital workplace can be so much more if applied as a new way of working rather than a way of maintaining the old ways. As restrictions ease and hybrid solutions emerge, we must begin to view physical and digital workplaces holistically, as spaces that combine into much more powerful and flexible ways to operate businesses. Those managing workplaces will, therefore, need a entirely new skillset in order to thrive in this new world.
"Companies have to adjust their policies to include flexible work arrangements to help stay competitive. Technology will continue to shape new hybrid work models, and businesses must increase the level of digital literacy among employees," says Marina Alekseeva, chief human resources officer at Kaspersky, alluding to an accelerated data age that will be thrust upon our hybrid workforces and the HR departments that manage them.
“If an HR professional doesn’t understand the data they’re inundated with, they can’t drive their company forward, and if an HR team isn’t data literate from the start, it’s already behind,” says Matt Norman, chief people officer at developer cloud company, DigitalOcean. “Identifying the relevant and important data and relating it to your people is imperative, and it’s something that the smartest AI system can’t do.”
The adoption of advanced digital workplace technologies is not enough, companies must also develop the digital skills required to apply and manage those systems. An effective hybrid workplace is both physical and digital, therefore effective management of hybrid workplaces will require both physical and digital workplace skills. Occupancy analytics, AI, cybersecurity for remote work, UV light cleaning, and all the other technologies we are utilizing to overcome the challenges of the pandemic existed before 2020. The real challenge for 2021 will be developing the human skills required to operate the digital technologies that will help workplaces survive and thrive in this new world.