Trends defining work in 2021 and beyond

In January 2020, 4.7 million people already worked remotely at least part of the time. Then came March, with COVID-19 shutdown forcing companies to pivot entire workforces — in many cases — to a 100% remote work environment.

A growing digital economy has supported remote work as a long-term opportunity. Many high-profile companies plan to remain remote in the long term, like Twitter, Shopify, Square, and Dropbox. Others like Zillow are opting for flexible, hybrid approaches.

A survey from Enterprise Technology Research (ETR) predicts the  percentage of employees working virtually will double in 2021. A recent Gartner CFO survey found 74% of companies plan shifting employees permanently to a work-from-home status permanently once the pandemic ends.

2020 to 2021: A Year of Transition

2021 has become a year of transition as workplaces evolve to embrace a different vision of normal. Forces shaping business in 2021 and beyond include:

Employers shifting from managing employee experiences to managing life experiences of employees. Business leaders have gained more visibility into their employees’ personal lives. When provided with strong support, employees perform better, benefitting their companies, who’ve seen a 21% increase in the number of high performers compared to businesses electing not to provide that same level of support. Gartner’s 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey found that 23% of employees receiving support from their companies reported better mental health. An additional 17% reported better physical health. This year — and beyond — should see employers placing more value on supporting mental, physical, and financial health.

An increased number of companies adopting firm positions on current societal and political debates. Employees are attracted to organizations whose values align with theirs — a growing trend accelerating for a while, now. Gartner research learned 74% of employees expect their employers to increase their active involvement of current debates. But making statements isn’t enough: Employees’ engagement increases from 40% to 60% when they work for organizations with CEOs willing to spend resources and act on specific societal issues.

The gender wage gap increasing as employees return to work. The hybrid workforce may be here to stay: a scenario that, according to many CHROs, shows men more likely to choose working in the office and women more likely to remain working from home. While a recent Gartner survey indicated 64% of managers believe office workers perform at higher levels than remote workers, it’s more likely that in-person employees will receive higher raises.

Yet other data from 2019 and 2020 (pre- and during the pandemic) shows full-time remote workers are in fact 5% more likely than full-time in-person workers to be productive. So. If more men choose to work in the office and a bias remains favoring in-person employees, they’re more likely to receive promotions and wages, widening the gender wage gap even further — at a time when, as Harvard Business Review says, the pandemic has already significantly negatively impacted gender equality.

A growing number of new regulations limiting employee monitoring. The pandemic accelerated many organizations’ adoptions of new technology. In fact, more than one in four companies purchased new tech to passively monitor and track employees. But the challenge remains on how best to balance employee privacy with the new tech, concerning and worrying employees. Gartner found fewer than a50% of employees trust their companies with their data; 44% have received zero information about the data collected. In 2021 and beyond, it’s likely that state and local governments will dedicate resources and time developing regulations limiting what aspects of their employees’ work employers can track.

More time flexibility. With many more companies and employees choosing remote work (either full- or part-time), the next wave of flexibility involves when employees can work. In companies with a standard 40-hour work week, only 36% of employees rate as high performers. Organizations allowing employees to choose when, where, and how much they work identify 55% of their workforce as high performers. Perhaps the trend is shifting to measure employees not by the number of hours they work but by their output.

Offering mental health support as the norm — not the exception. The benefits companies offer their employees has extended over the years to include expanded parental leave, for example, or flexible workdays/hours. Even prior to the pandemic, many organizations were choosing to increase well-being budgets by 45% and allocating those funds for mental and emotional well-being programs. By early April 2020, 68% of organizations had introduced at least one new wellness benefit to help their employees navigate the pandemic. Now many companies have implemented additional policies, like shutting down the company for a full day to offer “a collective mental health day” to raise awareness about this critical issue.

Contracting talent to fill skills gaps. Employers have continued to increase the number of skills they expect. In fact, companies listed 33% more skill requirements on job adverts in 2020 than just three years earlier. It’s a logistical impossibility for companies to re-skill their existing workforces quickly enough to meet evolving needs. Some companies will likely hire — at a premium — people with the skills they need. Others will opt to offer short- or long-term contracts or expand partnerships with organizations to “rent” employees to fill in skill shortages in the short-term.

Competition among states to attract talent in lieu companies. Historically, states and cities have offered tempting incentives to lure companies to relocate. Their justification? Businesses that open in their areas bring more jobs. But with remote and hybrid work likely here to stay, employees don’t necessarily have to live where they work. Some theorize that cities or states will instead opt to offer tax credits designed to entice individuals to move to their jurisdictions.

For example, there’s Choose Topeka, which launched in 2019. Five thousand people have applied for this program, which has awarded 40 people who’ve moved to the city a $15,000 incentive. Recently, the program partnered with Airbnb so folks considering relocation can stay for free to explore the area. Other states including Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arkansas, Maine, Arizona, and Michigan, have also launched “Try before you buy” programs to individuals considering relocation.

A reduction in office space. Some experts predict companies will gradually decrease their physical footprints as the need to accommodate many employees in one place decreases. TransparentBusiness Chief Transparency Officer, Moe Vela, says, “Completely remote companies with no headquarters will continue to form as other organizations decide to reduce their office space for hybrid teams or forego one altogether to save on costs.”

What the Future Holds

It’s really impossible to make a blanket prediction about the future of work — whether in-person, remote, or hybrid. But advances in communication technology and internet access has led to a modern workforce that’s increasingly collaborative, dynamic, and mobile. In general, employees appreciate the option — a Global Workplace Analytics survey found 37% of remote employees willing to take a 10% pay cut to continue working from home. Companies save money when they need less physical space — and they see costs savings in replacing employees, too, as telecommuting reduces attrition.

Ultimately, companies opting for a hybrid or all-virtual approach will benefit from making the most of talent regardless of its location, lowering costs, and elevating the performance culture. Employees have overwhelmingly indicated their preferences for flexibility and options based on their own preferences and a desire for positive experiences.

Whether your company’s 100% virtual, 100% in-person, or a hybrid blend of both, its needs may have evolved. If you’re taking the next step in digital transformation or reconsidering space requirements, you should talk to the members of CREA United. Our organization partners professionals within the commercial real estate space. Each brings a specialty in a different CRE sector, whether healthcare or corporate, medical and healthcare, or industrial. Talk to one of our experts in technology, interior design, financing, construction, and more.

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