Extreme Challenges, Extreme Opportunities

Four shifts that have the potential to become norms in 2021.

By Sabrina Williams

2020 was an extremely challenging year for the HR industry. From rapidly adjusting and supporting employees through the transition to remote work to responding to country-wide calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace as police brutality and the resulting protests took center stage over the summer, HR departments have had to step up and completely re-envision the futures of their organizations.

The beginning of 2021 is a time of hope, but it is also the year HR professionals must put into action all of the grand plans they have been making in regard to company culture, remote teams, and becoming anti-racist organizations. 2021 must be the year of tangible action. With that in mind, here are some predictions for what lies ahead.

1. Remote work is here to stay and recruiting and benefits will shift accordingly. While the COVID-19 vaccine will bring some normalcy as the year progresses, it will be many months before it is safe to be back in the office. And even when it is safe to return, many employees who enjoyed working from home will want to opt-in to remote or hybrid work models rather than returning to the office full time. As a result, the size of the remote workforce will likely increase, with a Harvard Business School study estimating that 16% of the workforce will remain remote long after COVID-19 recedes.

Many employers have also seen the benefits of a remote workforce and have no desire to return to the way things were before the pandemic. From reductions in office rent and utility overhead to virtual recruiting and artificial intelligence-powered onboarding, companies have saved thousands of dollars in travel and other costs. They won’t be looking to give up on those savings anytime soon.

This will also impact employee benefits. With fewer employees working in the office, commute stipends and on-site amenities like gyms and catered cafeterias will no longer be necessary and will instead shift to benefits more helpful to remote and hybrid employees. Such perks include flexible work hours, childcare support, Wi-Fi/cell phone reimbursement, food delivery stipends, and virtual fitness benefits.

2. Employers will expand mental health resources. The last year has been tough on everyone, forcing employees to balance work with increased family responsibilities, cope with the loneliness of quarantine bubbles, and engage in important dialogues about racial justice—and this will continue into 2021. As a result, employers will take on more responsibility for providing mental health resources and support.

This will exhibit itself in a number of ways, including the widespread acceptance of mental health days and access to subsidized or free mental health therapy. Managers will also begin to place a larger focus on employees’ overall well-being by setting up regular wellness checkins instead of only focusing on how successfully they’re tackling work projects.

3. The breakdown of barriers between work and home will bring DEI further to the forefront. In 2020, companies across the country committed to increasing their focus on DEI, and in 2021, they’ll have to put those promises into action. While it used to be possible to keep real-world events outside of the workplace, now that remote work has blurred the lines between work and home, these conversations are taking place and will continue to happen with increasing frequency, whether they’re about racism or simply the struggles of living alone in a pandemic or balancing work with being a parent.

In order to facilitate these conversations in a positive manner, managers will need to be equipped with the tools to properly address and champion for DEI in their teams. This will lead to the creation of programs and trainings in areas such as implicit bias, microaggressions, and more.

Another area of focus will be diverse hiring. By being able to hire employees from anywhere through remote work arrangements, employers can greatly increase their candidate pool, enabling recruiters to push even harder for diversity in their workforce.

4. The debate regarding remote workers’ salaries will intensify. It used to be assumed that if an employee worked for a company located in a big city, they’d have a higher cost of living and therefore a higher salary than an employee based in a smaller town. But with remote employees able to work from anywhere and having fewer commuting expenses than in-person employees, some employers are beginning to argue for adjusted remote wages.

However, studies have shown that remote workers are more productive and save employers money in rent and other overhead expenses, presenting the argument that employers should offer raises accordingly. In addition, remote work was already the trend for many organizations prior to the pandemic and those employees didn’t get pay cuts for going remote, so it will be a hard sell to convince employees to take pay cuts for jobs that haven’t changed in terms of responsibilities.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but one thing to keep in mind when determining salary for remote employees is that this has the potential to be a win-win for everyone involved. Even when keeping salaries the same, employers are still saving money through the reduction of overhead costs and increases in employee productivity.

2020 was a year of dramatic flux, and 2021 will see the dust begin to settle as normalcy starts to return. Which changes stick and what reverts to the way things used to be in this new normal still remains to be seen. Here’s to a year of exciting new possibilities in the HR world! HR Insight


Sabrina Williams is chief inclusion officer for Curriculum Associates.

Posted February 16, 2021 in Workforce Management

Leave a Reply