3 trends that will define the world of work in 2021

This month, HRE is helping HR leaders prepare for the year ahead with a series featuring insights from industry experts, thought leaders and others about what we can learn from 2020 and the challenges coming in 2021. Read the series here.


This year has brought HR a host of unprecedented issues to navigate: employee safety concerns, engagement in a newly remote world, legal considerations and even the reshaping of the HR role itself. With all of that change just in the last few months, many HR leaders are looking to 2021 with a bit of trepidation: What’s next?

Johan Maestri
Johan Maestri

Johan Maestri, manager of benefits at Noven Pharmaceuticals, says the lessons HR leaders learned in 2020 about moving fast and in an agile manner are setting the stage for next year. Maestri, one of 2020 HR’s Rising Stars, recently spoke to HRE about vaccine strategy, remote work trends, workplace safety and more that will shape HR’s work in 2021.

What was HR’s shining moment in 2020? Where did HR leaders possibly make some missteps?

HR was definitely front and center this year navigating the challenges brought by the COVID pandemic. Just how quickly HR and company officials defined the essential worker and decided which jobs could be effectively managed on a work-from-home arrangement set the stage for the safety of employees and the continued success of the company throughout the pandemic. Companies that were quick to allow employees to safely work from home and implemented important safety protocols and measures for those on site were able to minimize cases and the spread of the virus. Implementation of COVID screenings, PPE requirements, social distancing requirements, disinfecting stations and plexiglass dividers in common areas are a few examples of practices where HR had an important implementation role.

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Managing paid leave for those personally affected by COVID (or with affected family members), as well as coordinating their return to work upon testing negative was another. In addition, HR was responsible for quickly updating policies and benefit plans to comply with Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act, offering employees the help, support and information they needed during this pandemic.

HR missteps might have happened by failing to implement quickly and/or properly any of the above-mentioned practices.

See more HR insights for 2021 HERE.

What will the world of work look like in 2021?  

  1. There will be a significant increase in work-from-home arrangements, split on-site/off-site flexibility and shared office spaces.
  2. Recruiters will have a larger pool of candidates to choose from with the expanded remote opportunities, and vice-versa, candidates may be more open to jobs or career opportunities they may not have considered previously due to long commutes.
  3. For those essential positions that require employees to be on-site, the concept of social distancing will continue even when a vaccine is available, as not everyone will feel comfortable enough to take the vaccine right away.

What should HR’s first priority be in 2021?

First, HR should work with the company’s group insurance plan to get COVID vaccines added to the plan and covered at no cost. As company strategic goals are set for 2021, HR should work with the executive team and any outside sources to also determine how the vaccine will be promoted (and enforced if the industry requires it).

Related: HR’s next big job: Convincing employees to get COVID vaccines

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Simultaneously, HR should focus on re-engaging employees and aligning organizational design with company goals. With many employees still working from home, and some moving to permanent work-from-home arrangements, it’s important to keep them engaged and connected to optimize productivity and support a happy workforce. HR should work with management to set a clear roadmap on how to accomplish this. Video meetings should be highly encouraged between colleagues, regularly scheduled manager check-ins are a must and employee activities (whether in-person or virtual) should continue to be on the priority list.

From an organization perspective, HR should assess if/how the direction of company goals have shifted in light of the pandemic and should work to align employee positions and performance objectives with these goals. The year-end performance management process and beginning of year initial goal-setting process provide great opportunities to accomplish this.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].