7 trends that shaped the workplace in 2021

As clichéd as it may sound, it cannot be denied that 2020 and 2021 completely upset all business models, priorities and plans as organisations were forced to navigate a rapidly changing business environment. From managing work from home/remote locations to marketing methods and hiring techniques, almost every practice has been overhauled. Certain changes appear to be here to stay. And from where we’re standing now, 2022 doesn’t look very different. Only time will tell whether this will finally be the year of stability or one of continued transitions.

7 trends that shaped the workplace in 2021

Here’s a look at some of the workspace trends that marked 2021 and are very likely to continue in 2022.

1. Productivity, remote work and tools

The hybrid work model appears to be here to stay. It is already transforming the business world and affecting the global economy.

  • The pandemic has increased the size of the remote workforce many times over, and flexibility now extends to flexibility in time too. With the change in outlook, employees are becoming more empowered and are demanding flexibility. Organisations are responding favourably too. This has created new work opportunities for many.
  • With remote work becoming so big, developments in technology are booming, both in terms of business as well as tools. Better cameras, sound equipment, video tools and connectivity tools are being designed and manufactured at a fast pace.
  • Although a hybrid work model is feasible for many industries, it obviously cannot work for frontline workers in healthcare, public service, transport, security and retail, to name a few. However, the tools they use to collaborate and provide better services have become virtual in many cases. Online consultations in healthcare is an example.
  • A Microsoft survey found that while employees appreciated the flexibility offered by remote work, they craved in-person time with their team too. In fact, Glint data shows that about 81 per cent of employees prefer to work remotely at least half of the time, and with a team at the office the rest of the time.
  • It has been widely reported that overall employee productivity increased during the pandemic. However, employees are known to have sometimes felt demotivated and stressed. Mental health concerns of employees can no longer be swept under the carpet.
  • Unfortunately, many have either lost their jobs or have had to leave the workforce to provide care for children or older family members at home. Women seem to have been more impacted than men.
  • In some cases, the absence of adequate tools to work from home has forced people to leave their jobs too.

2. Skills and demand

With changing needs, the demand for skills continued to change too. Managers are being encouraged to focus more on skills instead of roles. While organisations are encouraging employees to upgrade their skills, there has also been an uptake of freelance workers with the right skills being hired on demand. This has opened up a multitude of opportunities for the freelance workforce. It’s not surprising then that the gig economy appears to be here to stay.

3. The gig economy

The gig economy matches business needs and opportunities with individuals with the right skills. It offers flexibility, variety in terms of tasks and organisations, and good wages. Individuals have the option of completely moving out of a full-time job and taking on one or more additional jobs. The phenomenon has been growing steadily. From USD 204 billion in 2018, the worth of the global gig economy is expected to reach a massive USD 455 billion in 2023.

Design and technology are the two areas most popular among freelance workers, contributing to about 59% of the gig economy. In the US, other successful sectors are transportation services such as Uber, asset-sharing platforms such as Airbnb, handmade goods and household services, and professional services. About 79% of independent workers have reported to be happier working on their own rather than doing a traditional job.

Of course it’s not all rosy. Most gig workers do not receive any employer-sponsored benefits, and are generally more anxious about their financial security. And if we look at the gender divide, only 40% of women depend on the gig economy as their primary source of income.

Women in the present economy

4. Women in the present economy

Safety at work for women has always been a matter of concern. In the freelance sector, it is even more so given that there is no panel to which to report. For example, drivers of taxi service are known to have been assaulted by customers hundreds of times. The drivers are background checked and vetted but obviously the customers are not. Women are naturally concerned about their personal safety first, and some might prefer to avoid this type of work even if it means giving up lucrative wages.

More women have probably left the workforce because of the pandemic than ever before. Most women need flexibility to remain in the workforce under the existing conditions. Further, in a gig economy, career growth is not well-defined. Any advancement requires skill advancement. However, in a W2 gig economy model, gig workers have access to full-time in-house opportunities. This translates to significant career advancements. Women often prefer these types of opportunities where there is flexibility as well as constructive opportunity. It allows women to work in a flexible environment and take up challenging roles.

In the midst of all these challenges, 41 women CEOs broke all records and took up positions of power in leading Fortune 500 companies in 2021. They shone as strong leaders and took firm decisions in favour of supporting diversity in the workspace and helping employees manage their work-life balance.

5. Hiring and retaining talent

  • Workforce restructuring has become a regular phenomenon during the pandemic. While 2020 was a year of uncertainty for many, 2021 was a little more hopeful. The trend is expected to continue in 2022.
  • The ‘Great Resignation’, also called the ‘Great Reshuffle’, has been too big to miss. A Microsoft survey, done in 2020, said that 41% of the participants planned to leave their existing employer in 2021. And sure enough, in September 2021, a record 4.4 million people in the US left their jobs.
  • Leaders are diversifying by employing people with different skills and backgrounds such as those with disabilities, those with military backgrounds, skilled personnel from the LGBTQ pool and from new geographies. Skills are clearly not limited by gender or geography.

6. The gender-wage gap continues to exist as employees return to office

Many organisations are already on the hybrid work model and employees have started returning to the office. A trend that has been observed is that given a choice, more men are returning to office while more women, especially those with children, are continuing to work from home. Unfortunately a pre-existing belief that employees perform better at office and, therefore, deserve better rewards may worsen the gender wage-gap that already exists. However, data collected during the pandemic shows that remote workers have been performing better than those working at the office. It’s time to bridge the gap.

7. Boosting mental and physical wellness of employees

Boosting mental and physical wellness of employees

  • Employers have had a far closer look at the lives of their employees during the pandemic years than ever before. As employees continue to grapple with professional and personal difficulties, organisations have had to shift their outlook and begin helping their employees manage their life experiences too.
  • Employees who received organisational support in their personal lives clearly performed better. In fact, Gartner’s 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey showed that supportive employers saw a 21% growth in the number of high performers.
  • The definition of wellness has now expanded to include mental health. The pandemic has brought home the critical importance of employee health, both physical and mental health. The Gartner survey showed that organisations with support systems saw a rise of 23% in the number of employees with better mental health and a rise of 17% in the number of employees with better physical health.
  • Just as mental health is being de-stigmatised in the wake of Covid-related stress, the importance of sleep is being discussed too. Sleep, a subject rarely discussed earlier, can no longer be ignored.

Change is here to stay

At the end of the day, the challenges facing the world today are new and unpredictable. The hybrid work model, the great reshuffle and the gig economy are all creating fundamental changes in the workspace. History shows that there is always opportunity in turbulent times. Organisations that are quick to adapt to evolving changes and ready to innovate will come out of it shining. Retaining talent will continue to be a challenge and only those organisations that consider both the bottom line and employee benefits will retain the best.
The stresses of 2020 continued into 2021, and many will continue in 2022. Most organisations have handled challenges the best way they can. As they continue to address the evolving needs of the workforce as well as the economy, long-term solutions will continue to emerge.