Workforce predictions for 2021

It’s no coincidence that I release my workforce predictions for 2021 on Martin Luther King, Jr Day, a day of hope. Despite all of the uncertainty and chaos lapsing into this new year from last, there are signs of hope – some still faint, but others more apparent. Much of 2021 will be about fixing what went wrong in a most tumultuous 2020. But we’ve a lot more awareness of those problems and that’s where rehabilitation starts. Plus, the fact that you’re reading this means you weathered the most chaos one year has dumped for decades. As my grad school professor and mentor used to say, “Hope springs eternal.”

But I’m not in denial. There are still many, complex and critical issues that don’t (and didn’t) magically “go away” with a new calendar. In statistical terminology, we still have a number of “main effects” exerting considerable and all-encompassing influence on human behavior – including work and the way it’s conducted. Among the most impactful are,

    1. a relentless, growing, global pandemic that’s been around for over a year,
    2. a hyper-polarized, angry, and increasingly aggressive, US population divided on, and driven by, political ideology,
    3. a dramatic increase in technology-enabled communication (substantially driven by #1)
    4. an increase in technology “hacks,” breaching data and disrupting infrastructure,
    5. massive unemployment (substantially driven by #1)

These aren’t independent of each other, as noted for a couple, but true of all. Nevertheless, each of these (i.e., 2-5) has evolved as formidable and life changing forces that now exist beyond the pandemic (i.e., they would continue even if the pandemic magically “went away”). Moreover, these main effects have predictable, if not already commenced, domino effects.

So, yes, some predictions for 2021 are almost “no-brainers” because we’ve already seen some of the effects they have had, and will have, for some time.

On the other hand, the impacts of these “main effects,” may not have fully revealed their potential for even further disruption, or mitigation, thus making predictions also tenuous. {I’ve started this list three times since the new year for just this reason.}

Nevertheless, regardless of this era in which we've witnessed the emergence of nearly instantaneous, global chaos, one has to put a stake in the ground.

So, these are my workforce predictions for 2021:

  1. “Boundarylessness” becomes as ordinary as the meals you’re now eating.

Work/life balance goes “completely gray” with location and environment now added to time of day as being independent of work. Work has just so much sympathy for anything else that is likely to be going on in your less-than-optimal home office: i.e., children enrolled in online classes, others also working from home, etc. This falls into the category of "once you’ve been there, there’s no going back." Yes, work and academics will return to the office/classroom – but not “like it was.”

  1. Increased levels of psychological stress.

As one of the most social of all animals, many people grapple with the risk of infection vs the pain of social isolation. This is a domino effect arising from the pandemic, and for many may be more affecting than the virus itself. And it applies to the social work environment as employees grow impatient with the equivalent of a work “time-out.” Implication: Short tempers and aggression “out of nowhere” for some; decreased energy and engagement for others. (And both can happen for the same person at any time).

  1. Influence via technology changes how and who emerge as leaders.

People (employees) differ in terms of their comfort, skill and use of virtual communication and technology. Nevertheless, to the extent possible, work is increasingly, or entirely, going “on-line.” That Millennial that used to send a text to the person sitting next to them will no longer be “the introvert” as the rules of social engagement change. Leadership will increasingly favor the tech-savvy in terms of skill and use of the latest technology.

  1. Move over, geeks, charisma back in demand.

Of course, I state the above with full respect – and “geeks” will continue to be in high demand in an increasingly digital labor market. But individuals with the “it factor” will make a dramatic comeback as positive role models and inspiration to employee and customer. As old text tells us, “light can conquer darkness.” Have we lived in darker times?

  1. Creativity (mostly team-level) will suffer a net loss.

Although some will experience an increase in terms of creativity in a virtual work environment (mostly social introverts), team creativity is likely to decline. This is due to the challenge of communicating something new over the internet and the lack of “sparking” off other’s ideas more conducive to, and productive in, the banter of face-to-face settings.

  1. Greater demand for traditional leadership.

As organizations have become increasingly flat, with wider spans of control for leaders and more shared leadership within teams, the nature and frequency of influence from leaders changed to be less “hands on.” Now with all the new and rapidly evolving changes facing people, leaders will need to do more to reduce uncertainty and maintain productivity and engagement.

  1. Active management, even policy, to protect differences arising from political views.

The political divide really IS dividing us, and the impacts can be expected at work. Protections will be implemented to mitigate adversity and adverse treatment based on political view.

  1. Chronic over-dependence on individual, character-based resilience will strain even the most adaptive/self-preserving, thus creating the need for policy and practices to build workforce resilience.

There won’t be a single solution to supporting employees. Leadership and HR will spend more time with individuals to hear their challenges and offer support. Guided meditation, childcare, and cleaning services among others will be used to take off real pressure due to overload or social isolation.

  1. Increased demand for craftwork/ers.

As production becomes increasingly about scale and efficiency, and impersonal by consequence, (e.g., automation, imports) “made by hand” will be the new “made in the USA.” Efforts previously used to enhance the “meaningful value” of work by “humanizing the customer” will increasingly be made to “humanize the worker."

  1. Recyclable, revolving office spaces.

We aren’t going back to the same office we left (although some were already working in non-fixed office space). Organizations will move from entirely “WFH” to a hybrid model, pacing the return and presence of office workers. For example, if no office employees are “let go,” the same number will be working in a mix of benches, cubicles, and offices requiring less space that may be scheduled or allocated in terms of who goes where and when. No more empty conference rooms.

It shouldn’t need mentioning that if it’s not sold online, it isn’t selling. This movement was well down the road before the pandemic catapulted it over the finish line.

As implied in my introduction, these workforce predictions for 2021 are less futuristic than they are “swelling and jelling.” The challenges of our new world are enough to keep many of these “predictions” in play as we continue to adapt to the most significant, immediate, and encompassing changes of 2020. Hopefully, this will be the case. We need time to heal and deal with the events of 2020 that would be challenging even if spread over a decade (or more).

Finally, my disclaimer: These predictions and rationale are entirely my views. And they are “Predictions,” not “Prescriptions.” Any or all of these may or may not play out. But that’s what makes lists like this fun.

And remember: "Hope springs eternal!"

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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