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Five Trends That Will Reshape the Way We Work

March 4, 2021, 9:00 AM

The pandemic instantly proved that remote work is possible for a large swath of workers, but also brought a sharp focus on issues such as mental well-being, team engagement, productivity, data privacy and cybersecurity risks, and much more.

Simultaneously, as businesses were trying to adapt to Covid-19 and the practical and economic challenges that came with it, the horrific killing of George Floyd triggered one of the most profound moments of the year, bringing the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, along with demands for universal justice and equality.

Given these dramatic changes, leading multinational organizations are rethinking the meaning of modern employment. In the fall of 2020, we surveyed 250 human resources directors and employment legal counsel to discover how Covid-19 is accelerating change for multinational employers.

Here’s what we expect to see in 2021 (and how to meet the moment!).

Unlocking Flexibility

As an immediate step at the beginning of Covid-19, many companies put remote working options in place, providing flexibility to benefit both people and organizations. During the pandemic, many Fortune 500 CEOs found that working from home works.

The majority of employment leaders (74%) say a dramatic reshaping of the workforce is necessary. Companies are focusing on flexible delivery models, new technology, and financial stability. Many think they can access new pools of talent with fewer geographic constraints and significantly reduce real-estate costs. For others, the focus is on how creativity, collaboration, engagement and productivity can be maintained in a remote model.

Monitoring Productivity

Employee monitoring is a hot topic. Our global survey of HR directors and legal counsel showed that concerns around employee productivity, and how to monitor it, is a top priority. This can range from monitoring email and internet usage, to keystroke monitoring, or even remotely accessing webcams and microphones

However, many countries have laws governing the monitoring of employee communications and information and employees’ right to privacy, and there are hefty fines for non-compliance. The question is one of balance—what is a legitimate business tool, and what is an intrusion of privacy.

Fostering Diversity & Inclusion

In the rapidly changing environment precipitated by the global pandemic, a successful diversity and inclusion program is an important part of any business’s resilience and recovery strategy.

The overwhelming majority (84%) of companies say they will put purpose at the heart of change—with diversity, inclusion and fairness core to transformation. Race and ethnicity will continue to be a particular focus in 2021 and beyond, and organizations are also thinking about diversity in its broadest sense, including such topics as social mobility and neurodiversity in order to ensure that they attract and retain the very best talent.

We also predict a continuing focus on physical and mental well-being, and related topics such as the impact of domestic violence.

Employee Activism

Consumer and employee activism, an expanding regulatory framework and political pressure at both the global and national levels are combining to force ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues to the top of the board’s and management’s agenda. In our survey, two-thirds (65%) of respondents rank ESG as a change-making factor, and eight in 10 (81%) also cite ESG as a top-five risk to their organization.

When we asked companies about their plans to use external resources (e.g., legal counsel), employee activism/whistleblowing came up as the top area of investment and a key area of risk (60% of respondents).

Millennials and Gen Z are much more vocal about their values and advocating for their employers to speak out (e.g., there have been employee walkouts at tech companies over internal disputes relating to D&I, and broader concerns about the use of company technology out in the world). There is a critical need to address discord and conflict in the workplace, requiring robust social media policies, strong whistleblower policies and procedures and more.

Alongside this trend is a growth in union activism, with campaigns focused on issues such as pay equity, Covid-19 measures, health and safety and working conditions more broadly, as unions strive to stay relevant, reverse declining membership, and gain a foothold in the next generation of workers.

Restructuring

The global pandemic has certainly brought focus to optimal staffing in any business. With production and services slowing down, employers were forced to critically evaluate headcount. While some restructuring has happened already, a substantial majority of companies (75%) expect further restructuring and downsizing. A number also reported fears of the impact that restructuring may have on the culture of the organization and on diversity.

While redundancies abound, many employers are also keeping their gaze on the horizon, to plan for the eventual upturn in business. To that end, creative solutions to job losses are finding favor.

With a significantly diminished likelihood of securing alternative employment in the short term, many employees are forced to be more receptive to alternative work arrangements to stave off redundancies. Such arrangements include salary cuts, deferring bonus payments and other benefits, even agreeing to a period of unpaid leave in an effort to retain employment.

Businesses that can unlock the solution to retaining staff at a cost suited to the business may find not only a repayment in employment loyalty when work starts streaming in again, but also trained and experienced staff at the ready to ramp up production in no time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

John Evason, Monica Kurnatowska, Susan Eandi and Michael Brewer are employment partners at Baker McKenzie.

The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Caroline Burnett, senior knowledge lawyer, with this article.