How to treat remote work as an opportunity, not obstacle

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?

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What did HR leaders get right in 2020 when it came to leading remote and hybrid workforces? What can they improve upon?

George Penn, vice president, advisory in the Gartner HR practice

Penn: Many organizations were successful at rapidly moving to remote and hybrid environments once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This is largely due to embracing several critical shifts: Organizations embarked on unprecedented data collection and analysis, which enabled them to understand employee situations, preferences, and engagement drivers to rapidly adapt their strategies in the areas of wellness, inclusion, performance and rewards.

HR functions implemented agile methodologies into their operating structures to create more responsive and dynamic programs to support hybrid and remote workforces. Also, organizations recognized that employee experience is at the heart of successful remote and hybrid working environments and prioritized talent investments accordingly.

Related: 4 culture strategies for creating a hybrid workplace

Many employers have committed to employing a hybrid workforce indefinitely–or permanently. To be successful, organizations will need to address the following:

  • Many leaders have a gap between the perception and reality around employee performance in different work locations. Success in a hybrid work environment requires employers to move beyond viewing remote or hybrid environments as a temporary or short-term strategy and to treat it as an opportunity.
  • To thrive in today’s new work environment, leaders must embrace open communication, collaboration and clarity around roles and goal setting to build trust.
  • Companies that track time spend, activity logs and face time as productivity metrics must shift their focus to outcome metrics that reflect high-performing organizations. It’s about performance, not productivity.

What will work look like in 2021?

Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice

Kropp: In 2021, the employer-employee relationship will continue to evolve due to the experiences of 2020, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and the social issues around diversity, equity and inclusion.

Employers will shift from managing the employee experience to managing the life experience of their employees. More than ever before, business leaders and managers are aware of the struggles that employees have faced when it comes to working from home, from balancing raising kids and working to caring for family members. When organizations support employees in their personal lives more effectively, not only do employees have better lives, but they are higher performers. As such, 2021 will be the year where employers’ support for mental health, financial health and sleep will become the table stakes benefits offered to employees.

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Next year will also likely see an increase in the gender-wage gap as employees return to work at the workplace and a shift in flexibility from location to time. Employees who return to the workplace are more likely to get higher raises and promotions than those who continue to work from home. Men are more likely than women to return to the workplace. This combination will worsen the gender-wage gap in 2021. While working remotely has become commonplace across 2020 (and will continue into 2021 and beyond), the next wave of flexibility will be around giving employees flexibility over when they work. In 2021, we will see a rise of new jobs that don’t center on an agreed-upon set of hours to work and instead focus on a set of outputs to achieve.

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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].