Sage-Gavin: Why 2021 is the year of change

By: | January 20, 2021 • 7 min read
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

Few people were sad to close out 2020. But as 2021 gets underway, it is already clear from the unprecedented events on Capitol Hill, as well as the escalation of the pandemic in parts of the world, that there will be a great deal to challenge governments, communities, businesses and individuals in the months ahead. Strong and compassionate leadership has never been needed more.

And even now, in what for many people are the very darkest of days, there are reasons to be hopeful. That is because in 2021 there will be profound change on several levels. And where there’s change, there’s an opportunity to make things better.

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Our biggest opportunity is global health and addressing the pandemic aggressively with all the tools at our disposal. We can expect to see COVID-19 vaccination programs pick up pace worldwide. There will be bumps on the road. Supply chain problems may arise, and in some countries, government agencies and health providers will need to address vaccine skeptics’ concerns. But there is real hope that soon, thanks to vaccination, we can begin to see workplaces reopen. Some will seek to welcome employees back to the workplace, while others will adopt a hybrid model that combines elements of on-site and remote work.

There is also a historic level of geopolitical and social change occurring globally. In the U.S., we’re welcoming a new administration, including Kamala Harris as vice president, the first woman, and the first woman of color, to hold that position. The U.K. is starting a new life outside the European Union, something that will have a significant impact on the lives and jobs of people on all sides of this new relationship. Climate change will continue to be at the top of the global agenda, and with COP 26 scheduled to take place in November, it is likely we will see increased commitment to reducing carbon emissions worldwide.

Last year was tough for most of us, but I feel hopeful for the future. 2021 feels like it could be a year of catharsis, where we can rebuild and even improve on the political, economic, environmental and social underpinnings of communities worldwide.

None of this will be easy, and business leaders will once again be called on to help their companies and workers navigate a fast-changing world. One clear opportunity will be the need to help reinvent business workforce models immediately.

A new workplace for a new world

During the pandemic, an impressive number of companies proved highly effective at adopting remote workforce models and making public environments COVID-safe. However, once a critical mass of people has been vaccinated, and shared spaces become fully viable again, business leaders will need to think through a phased return to work.

See also: No. 1 way to encourage workers to get COVID-19 vaccination? Education

Not everyone will want to come back to the workplace, no matter how safe. According to one study, the share of working days at home is likely to triple after the pandemic ends—rising from 5.5% to 16.6% of all working days. In my view, 2021 will likely see numerous businesses adopt a hybrid or distributed workforce approach, one where traditional, office-based work runs alongside distributed and virtual working. For instance, a team meeting may be attended by several workers sitting in an office, with others joining via video link.

In some workplaces, it may not be necessary for people to come back in the same numbers as before the crisis. Take retail as an example. More than 50% of people worldwide plan to shop online more frequently after the pandemic is over. Many retailers are reconsidering their staffing requirements in light of this change. Some retail workers, for instance, may find that they’re given opportunities in new areas related to digital, such as delivery or warehouse management. This change will require learning new skills and navigating new environments.

CHROs will be called on to help ensure that all people are supported in whatever work approach is a best fit for their teams and organizations. Because if 2020 taught leaders anything, it’s that their workers are their most important stakeholders, and by enabling them to work in ways that support them and leave them net better off, business can unlock workers’ full potential.

Finding hidden talent

Another fundamental change emerging in 2021 is how business leaders and HR teams approach hiring and retaining workers. One of the many egregious outcomes of COVID-19 is that economic inequality has increased globally. A large number of potential workers who had not been recognized before the pandemic have found their situation has only worsened.

“Hidden workers”—people who want to work but cannot find jobs—have suffered dramatically in 2020. Research suggests that 52% of low- and middle-skill workers have found employment even more difficult to secure during the crisis. Ninety-seven percent say that their specific barrier to finding work made things equally or more difficult. These barriers stem from their situation, such as caregiving responsibilities, a lack of education or skills, or a lack of “fit” due to language, cultural or social issues.

For too long, too many people have been marginalized, discouraged and disconnected from the workplace. As the post-pandemic recovery gets into gear and businesses start hiring again, there will be a significant opportunity to pay closer attention to these hidden workers. Employers will have new tools and technology to widen talent pool outreach to look for adjacent skills and lifelong learners. Businesses have long reported skills gaps in critical areas; these can be addressed by welcoming all available talent, wherever it is found.

The power of positivity and purpose

These practical considerations aside, I also think there will be less tangible—although no less significant—changes in the year ahead that business leaders can drive. Some of these changes will come about as desire for positive change societally. We’ve had such a tough time recently that any good news provides an enormous psychological lift. Whether it’s something profound, like news of successful vaccine rollouts, or the no less significant boost we get from knowing what that rollout means: that soon we will be able to meet friends and family freely; go on holidays; see our children back in school and playing team sports; and visit museums, galleries and other attractions.

I believe that the positive momentum that comes from good news and people having social engagements to look forward to will potentially lead to greater productivity in the workplace. This is certainly in line with evidence that suggests positive workplace environments tend to improve productivity. If business leaders and HR teams can play into post-COVID positivity through incentives and benefits that make the most of our regained freedoms, this can be a powerful accelerator.

As leaders, we should also consider how people have changed during the pandemic. This once-in-a-generation event has caused many to reassess their priorities, and many have gone on journeys of self-discovery or been forced to consider life changes. Many people will think differently about work and life and expect their employers to respond to this change and recognize how their priorities have shifted.

Related: Managing the COVID stress with finesse, compassion

Therefore, I expect to hear the word “purpose” being used a lot this year. We’ve known for some time that many people want to work for companies that have a strong ethical or social purpose, and many would even take a pay cut to do so. In a post-COVID world, I believe worker demand for purpose and responsible business will continue to be a priority for multi-generational workforces.

Let there be change

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In 2020, we learned something important: We can adapt at speed and scale in a way we did not know we could. Our lives were turned upside down, and most of us saw our families, communities and workplaces impacted. People showed resilience and a commitment to keep going, sometimes in the face of tragedy.

In 2021, we can use our capacity for change to move beyond resilience to recovery and reinvention. This year will be about new work modes, new skills and new opportunities for all—including previously hidden workers. CHROs will play a central role in enabling people to navigate the change that lies ahead. By this time next year, my hope is that we will be looking back on 12 months in which people were empowered to change, workplaces adapted to meet new needs, and people, businesses and communities came together to drive an economic recovery. 2021 has already shown that leaders face serious challenges in the months ahead, but I have every faith that we can rise to these challenges and create a stronger, fairer and safer society.

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