11 Trends Shaping the Future of Work

Kate Lee By Kate Lee

We are at an inflection point; our future and the future of work will not be a return to the status quo.

September 11, 2001 is an inflection point – there was life before the terrorist attacks and there is life after them. From air travel to security to immigration to geopolitics to public health, the devastating events that killed nearly 3,000 people changed the fabric of American society and changed the world.

We are at another inflection point. There was life before the COVID-19 pandemic and there will be life after the pandemic. As with 9/11, life after will not look or feel the same as it did before.

One of the biggest changes we will see is where people work. The number of employees permanently working remotely globally is set to double in 2021.

The largest remote work experiment has shown that remote work can increase productivity (15%-40%), reduce absenteeism (40%), decrease turnover (10%-15%), reduce real estate and resource usage expenditures (+20%), increase engagement, and increase performance. Given this, it is not surprising that 83% of employers say the shift to remote work has been a success and that less than one in five executives say they want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic.

Employees do not want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic. One study found that 61% of employees want their employer to let them work from home indefinitely even after the pandemic is over. Twenty-nine percent of respondents even went so far as to say they will quit their job if they are not allowed to continue to work remotely, and 62% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement: “In the future I will give preference to employers that offer remote work.” Research by OWL Labs and Global Analytics Workplace found similar results: 80% of full-time employees expect to work from home at least three times per week, with nearly half of respondents reporting that if their employer did not allow remote work post-pandemic, they would look for another role.

While pre-pandemic location was a differentiator for organizations, post-pandemic, location will no longer play the same role. As the research shows, post-pandemic, employees will give preference to organizations that offer remote and hybrid work – and will go so far as to leave organizations that do not offer these models.

Post-pandemic, leadership will also look and feel different than it did pre-pandemic.

The pandemic exponentially accelerated trends including online learning, virtual health, virtualization of the workforce, and e-commerce. In some cases, changes that were projected to take years, occurred in months, weeks, and even days. At the same time, uncertainty has been omnipresent as have economic, health, and logistical crises.

Dr. Aneel Chima, Director of Health and Human Performance and of the Stanford Flourishing Project, and Ron Gutman, speaker, writer, advisor, serial entrepreneur, angel investor, and Stanford lecturer, suggest that as much as we would like to think of 2020 as an anomaly, it may not be. They put forth that post-pandemic, change will be much more rapid, continual, and ubiquitous and that this three-dimensional (3-D) change will define effective leadership – effective leaders will be the ones who can navigate this new reality.

Post-pandemic, effective leaders will be characterized as “being wise, sagacious, and discerning in navigating change while also being humane in the face of change that can often feel alien. This kind of leadership emphasizes — counterintuitively — an anti-heroic leader.” Further, effective leaders will need to “exhibit authenticity, humility, and vulnerability, inspiring the necessary trust and psychological safety that drives shared learning and intelligence, resulting in enhanced collective performance and leading to a better future for all.”

For close to 40 years, Brimstone has worked with leaders to excel at change. The characteristics and qualities Chima and Gutman outline are the ones we work with leaders to cultivate – they are the characteristics and qualities of leaders that excel at change and drive performance and profitability while at the same time energizing the organization.

In our work, we have also seen the importance of alignment. The alignment of the senior leadership team and the organization is critical to navigating change and to effective leadership. Now, and post-pandemic, leaders who place alignment as a priority will be more effective than those who don’t.

A Managing Director at a Fortune 100 multinational investment bank and financial services company shared with me that “Leading a team in this environment forces one to be more human. Whether you want to or not, you develop closer relationships, and get to know each other on a very different level.” For close to a year, our work has been in our homes and our homes have been in our work. We have, collectively, experienced unprecedented tragedy and disruption. We can’t ignore this experience, nor can we return to a model of leadership that is not human. Post-pandemic, leadership will be more human than it was pre-pandemic.

Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice, sees nine additional trends that will shape 2021 and the future of work:

  1. Employers will shift from managing the employee experience to managing the life experience of their employees.
  2. More companies will adopt stances on current societal and political debates.
  3. The gender-wage gap will continue to increase as employees return to the office.
  4. New regulations will limit employee monitoring.
  5. Flexibility will shift from location to time.
  6. Leading companies will make bulk purchases of the COVID vaccine for employees — and will be sued over COVID vaccine requirements.
  7. Mental health support is the new normal.
  8. Employers will look to “rent” talent to fill the skills gap.
  9. States will compete to attract individual talent rather than trying to get companies to relocate.

Like the shift to remote and hybrid work and the characteristics leaders need to embrace and model to lead (and excel) post-pandemic, these are trends leaders need to take on proactively. Leaders who take a wait and see approach will find themselves at a disadvantage, while leaders who act proactively will be at a competitive advantage.

While it is not yet clear what life will look and feel like post-pandemic, what is clear is that we are at an inflection point; our future and the future of work will not be a return to the status quo.

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