Top workplace trends for 2021

Expect changes in compensation strategy, work culture, and office design

In one form or another, remote work appears to be here to stay. According to a December survey by freelancer hiring platform Upwork, hiring managers estimate that more than a quarter of the American workforce will be fully remote by the end of 2021.

Nearly all companies, 94%, reported they have maintained or improved productivity amid the shift to remote work. But they face significant challenges in the new year, from rethinking or moving office space to rebuilding culture with a hybrid workforce.

We asked several experts to identify the workforce and workplace trends they think will matter most in the year ahead.

1. Rethinking compensation for remote workers

Heading into 2021, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to remote-work compensation. Some companies will use the coming year to re-evaluate their approach to salaries as a competitive advantage. While that could mean paying more for critical talent regardless of the worker’s location, it could also mean adopting different strategies based on cost of living for remote workers.

Evaluating location to determine how to adjust compensation for remote workers is complicated. Should you pay workers according to where the business is located, where employees are located, or against the national median for a specific position? Is it unfair if team members contributing the same value on the same project are paid differently based on where they live?

Every company will have to answer these questions, but one thing is certain: The most successful compensation strategies will be tightly aligned to both short- and long-term business strategy, and must include remote workers.

Shelly Holt
Chief people officer, PayScale

2. Turning off the “always-on” culture

In 2021, we will experience a backlash to our always-on work culture. This culture existed well before the pandemic but has been turbocharged now that so many employees are confined to their homes. As a result, employee burnout is rising. To combat that, we’ll see an organic return to more structured workdays in which employees specify when they’re available.

This won’t necessarily mean a return to the office. Instead, there will be a continued shift in what’s perceived as a talent hub. Ultimately, the concept may disappear entirely as employees pick the most desirable places to live and companies downsize their office footprints.

In this new world of work, video chat platforms are among our most valuable collaboration tools. At the same time, video platforms 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 potential misuse.

Dave Wright
Chief innovation officer, ServiceNow

3. More human-centric workspaces

I expect to see a hybrid of work-from-home and office time based on the tasks you need to do. Spaces will be designed more for choice and individuality. They will be highly tuned in to health and wellness, safety and security, mentorship, and professional development.

We’ve been dreaming of mainstreaming these changes for a very long time. So, if there is one good thing to come from 2020, it would be the accelerated adoption of a more human-centric way of designing the workplace.

Melissa Hanley
Co-founder and architect, Studio Blitz

4. Creative human-AI teaming

The pandemic has given everyone a shove toward digitizing and reducing dependence on human presence. In some cases, the shove was overdue, and processes will stay entirely digital. In other cases, we’ll revert to the old ways of doing things.

Our research on AI finds that neither of these absolutes is optimal, as the best outcomes blend AI and humans. Leaders are adept at multiple ways of combining humans and machines and have the managerial understanding of what combination of people and AI best fits each idiosyncratic process.

Without the constraint of human presence, people will be much more creative about using AI across all industries for micro-tasks rather than full jobs. It may be hard to see, but many pervasive, even trivial, micro-tasks will likely add up to substantial productivity gains.

Sam Ransbotham
Professor, Carroll School of Business, Boston College

5. Beefed up security for a distributed workforce

Throughout the pandemic, CISOs have adopted best practices of work-from-anywhere hygiene, such as ensuring employees use separate devices for work needs and personal needs, continuously updating security software, and patching holes in employees’ endpoint devices.

While they will continue to preach that gospel in 2021, I expect CISOs to take new steps to secure a distributed workforce. They will accelerate their adoption of cloud services and SaaS, decrease their reliance on (and the capacity of) on-prem data centers. With a continuing shortage of cybersecurity talent, they will also dive into partnerships with third-party providers to cover increasingly complex security challenges.

Drex DeFord
CEO, Drexio Digital Health