12 predictions for HR and the workplace in 2021

Predictions for what’s ahead in the job market and the economic potential of the country are popular at year-end. But this year has proved to be a conundrum with observers’ opinions skewed, hampered, or dictated by the decidedly complicated and unpredictable current state of human resources (HR). The most recent deep dive into job openings revealed a drop in November, significantly, in the world of technology. 

We asked HR leaders and executives for predictions for 2021 and found support for remote work and its impact, a look at the world’s inequities, an experienced skill set that may soon trump advanced degrees, a reassessment of expectations, and deeper empathy for employees. Here are the detailed responses we’ve chosen as the most appropriately predictive:

  • Bill Harrod, federal CTO, Ivanti, a zero-trust security company, thinks that “people will continue working remotely from anywhere.” Harrod added: “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. The stagnant desktop employee will no longer be a reality.”  

  • Justin Black, head of people science at Glint, thinks diversity, inclusion, and belonging will start at the top. “A world in crisis lays bare long-standing social and racial inequities embedded in everything,” Black said. “Leaders who welcome everyone to bring their authentic selves to work will reap the benefits—richer culture, higher engagement, more creativity, and better business results—the energy that’s critical to build a better world.” Melanie Collins, chief people officer at Dropbox, said Dropbox will become a virtual-first company to “give employees more flexibility and freedom in terms of both how and where they work while preserving the essential human connection. HR will lead the charge, drive the strategy, and build a strong foundation for new workplace practices that uphold a culture of inclusion. There’s a massive opportunity to redesign how we fundamentally work together in a more inclusive, holistic way that better meets the needs of both employees and the business.”

  • Erica Lockheimer, vice president of engineering, learning at LinkedIn (online courses), said: “As the workforce transitions, recruiters and hiring managers will begin to focus more on skills learned by candidates than on their previous employment history or formal education. 2020 has reinforced the importance of adaptability among businesses.” 

  • Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, said: “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. 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.”  

  • Kristen Hayward, head of people at Superhuman, said: “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.” Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign, also believes HR’s responsibility will be 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.”

  • Tom Moran, chief strategy officer, Prodoscore, employee visibility software, thinks that annual performance reviews are relics of HR past. “Learning management solutions will be a requirement across all businesses. Companies will include AI teams to assist with digital portfolios. On-premise technologies will fizzle and be dominated by cloud strategies. Technology can ensure “the highest levels of communication, guidance, and effectiveness.” 

  •  Ajay Rane, vice president of business development at Sigfox, an IoT (Internet of Things) service provider, says the IoT will play an increased role in managing HR tasks and that HR needs to make [remote workers] feel comfortable and safe. “HR can provide IoT-enabled connected bracelets to employees to ensure social distancing and privacy, assured contact tracing solution for the organization, and track cases. Other workplace IoT applications include monitoring room temperature and humidity, desk occupancy, and air-quality monitoring.” 

  • Nani Vishwanath, people team manager Limeade, makers of employee software, thinks virtual happy hours will become a thing of the past in 2021: “The Zoom happy hour has hit its expiration date,” with “too many long days of virtual meetings for months.” Employers will “gift employees with time back in 2021, such as canceling recurring meetings or blocking a day for ‘no meetings’ and encouraging your team to recharge.”

  • Matt Norman, chief people officer at DigitalOcean, the developer cloud, thinks HR data will drive companies forward in 2021 by getting back to the basics. “Data collected by AI becomes increasingly important for non-technical careers. 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. 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.”

  • Isabelle Dumont, vice president of market engagement at Cowbell Cyber, a cyber insurance provider for SMBs, believes that remote work can rapidly result in a communication vacuum if not proactively addressed by company executives and managers: “Face-to-face communication and feedback are core to fostering trust, especially when onboarding new hires. HR has a fantastic opportunity to expand its role and become a linchpin that maintains the cultural cohesion of a distributed organization.”   

  • Marina Alekseeva, chief human resources officer at Kaspersky, cybersecurity solutions and threat intelligence, thinks next year will bring about an evolution of traditional working patterns into adaptable options based on individual needs. “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.” Because communication platforms and shared data multiply, “it’s essential in cybersecurity awareness, where there’s a rising demand for job seekers with relevant skills.”

  • Timur Kovalev, CTO of Untangle network security solutions, believes many businesses will not return to working as they did pre-pandemic: “Virtual interviews will become the norm for recruiting, as will building strong processes and use of online tools for virtual onboarding. I see a stronger reliance on virtual productivity measurement tools as it becomes harder to measure contribution for some roles. In order to keep people having a sense of ‘team’ whilst working remotely, HR will need to find creative ways to promote team building and social activities, leveraging online platforms for activities, company gaming, etc.”