The COVID-19 pandemic, an economic recession and calls for social justice prompted many companies to begin workplace transformations in 2020. Many lessons learned from the crises — such as maintaining a focus on the well-being of employees, the importance of inclusive work environments and keeping abreast of compliance matters — are also some of the workforce trends for 2021, based on a compilation of 2020 ADP research.
Flexibility will remain paramount in 2021 as customized work schedules and flexible pay will accelerate transformation, according to ADP. Approximately 44% of employers now have official flexible working policies established, up from 24% prior to the pandemic, an October ADP Research Institute study found. More than half (65%) of workers said they felt positive about future flexibility of opportunities, according to the study. ADP data also showed that employer calls for guidance on flexible work and pay options rose 116% year over year.
At the onset of the pandemic, "we saw a combination of real-time responses and an acceleration of transformations in progress," Tara Wolckenhauer, DVP of Human Resources at ADP told HR Dive in an email. Many companies had to adapt to brand new workflows once there was a shift to remote work, meanwhile other companies "simply accelerated systems they had started building leading up to these events," Wolckenhauer said. ADP had already been working toward a more flexible workplace including remote work and "the systems needed to empower teams within our business and the businesses we support," Wolckenhauer said.
Resilience is another key trend as employers focused on workers’ needs, including ensuring a safe return to work, ADP found. At the onset of the pandemic, 39% of employers surveyed by ADP with 1,000 or more employees reported that workers' fears about health was a top concern. Workers also became more resilient over time, according to ADP’s Global Workplace Study 2020. Employees who experienced at least five changes at work amid the pandemic were 13.2 times more likely to be highly resilient, the study found. Employees who felt psychologically safe and had confidence in a leaders’ ability to "anticipate the future, communicate and follow through on commitments," were among the factors that indicated an employee was highly resilient.
"We're seeing HR professionals and HR as a function playing a more strategic role in businesses," Wolckenhauer said. Examples of this practice include advising leaders on how to introduce change into the workforce and communicating the types of support required to "nurture and maintain a thriving workforce," she said.
"The human element is playing a more profound role at work," Wolckenhauer said. "There is a renewed sense of ‘humanity’ in our work and priority placed on understanding and honoring the ‘full scope’ of an associate's experience."
Many companies committed to focusing on diversity, inclusion and equity (DEI) as national calls for racial justice took place over the summer. This focus on DEI will continue in 2021, with the use of timely data and insights that will remove blind spots, according to ADP. The company saw a 74% increase in searches by employers regarding data insights on the racial and cultural demographics of their workforce. In regard to circumventing racial inequality in the workplace, employers will also need to use emotional intelligence skills to manage employees effectively in 2021, ADP recommended.
Compliance will also be a major trend as regulatory complexity increases and businesses seek expertise. Employer calls for guidance on compliance questions "jumped more than 1,500% over last year," ADP found and the pandemic led to more than 2,000 regulatory changes, according to the company. Amid the pandemic, many companies faced compliance challenges such as figuring out how to fulfill notice posting requirements.
Agility will also be an important trend going forward as both employers and workers focus on recovery and learn to accept change. The majority (84%) of workers surveyed still feel optimistic about the next five years in the workplace, down slightly from 86% prior to the pandemic, according to ADP’s October report. And 75% felt upbeat about the year ahead.
"Change has always been and will continue to be part of the equation for HR and for businesses overall," Wolckenhauer said. "Working together, HR increasingly offers the necessary expertise to usher in smoother transitions and successful transformations."