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Now Is the Time to Redesign the Future of Work

January 27, 2021 Leadership
Stacia Sherman Garr co-founder and principal analyst RedThread Research
By Stacia Sherman Garr, Dani Johnson
Are you one of those folks who would like a pass on 2021 and to skip right to 2022? It’s definitely easy to feel that way, especially with the rough start to this year.

However, there are encouraging and exciting signs for what's ahead. We all have a chance to rethink, redefine, recraft, redesign and re-energize — to rediscover the humanity that drives our businesses and build systems that reinforce it. Last year blew the status quo away and gave rise to the new world of work, a future that was once on the horizon but today stands right outside our door.

What does it look like? Gleaned from decades of experience and discussions with people practitioners and vendors, our research identified the trends that will shape 2021. Here are five to help you rethink how you're approaching this year:

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

These four words are transforming how we work together and relate to each other. The events of the last year, including the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting job losses, and widespread social unrest following the killing of George Floyd, forced many of us to start having more targeted and even tough conversations about how working remotely impacts us, how to include everyone in a more equitable and less biased way, and how everyone feels about these transformative events. 

And the work of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, or DEIB, is only just beginning. Too few organizations have a clear and relevant DEIB strategy that incorporates a clear sense of purpose as well as the relevant DEIB technology. In addition to addressing the critical issues of social justice and gender equity, organizations will also be faced with three critical needs:

  1. Enabling civil conversations at work.
  2. Bringing back caregivers as the pandemic recedes.
  3. Proving their 2020 DEIB pledges were more than just words. 

Managers: The Critical Connectors

In this new world of work, managers are the connectors between the company and its people. In late 2019, we researched the role that line-of-business managers play and repeated the exercise in the fall 2020. Here's what we found:

  • Employees reported higher levels of autonomy (to be expected due to widespread remote work).
  • Managers are much more open to new ideas. 

But a major problem became clear: Every other metric of support declined over the year. With the rise of remote teams, managers have become more important — acting as the connector to the organization in a way that wasn't nearly as true when managers and employees worked together face to face. 

Even when people can eventually safely return to offices and workplaces, the experience of working from home will likely result in many more employees working remotely. Further, some people will work remotely while others are primarily in the office, making the manager's connector role even more challenging. This situation – plus the fallout from the high levels of stress and burnout of the last year — is likely to make managers’ jobs more important than ever. 

Related Article: 5 Ways to Have More Effective Performance Conversations

Redefining Learning: Time for a New Name and Mindset

As HR evolves from silos to interconnected people practices, a broader discussion needs to happen across the organization about how to help people advance. With this change comes the need to reinvent the definition of learning. 

Learning and development functions, at last, are asking some critical questions: How do we help people discover what they need? What does it take in order to help them plan? How do we help users experiment? How do we use learning to engage people? How do we do all of this effectively in a digital environment? 

This also feeds into a new way of thinking and talking about skills as enablers of development. Organizations need to focus less on the top 10 generic skills they’ll need in 2021 and more on what capabilities the organization needs to get the work done and achieve its goals – and how to find, develop or acquire those skills. 

Personalizing Learning

“A personal experience” has been the go-to phrase for companies for years. It initially appeared in the consumer arena but personalization has been finding a home in most other areas of our lives. And now it’s time for learning.

The spotlight is on companies to individualize the learning experience. Especially in a remote environment, workers must have access to the learning they need to do their jobs today and to improve their skills for future roles. 2021 will finally see that needle move.

Related Article: Where Learning Analytics Fit on the Digital Workplace Agenda

Data Is Here to Stay (Get Used to It)

Data, data, data: That’s all you hear in organizations today –– but not often enough in people practices. Until fairly recently, too many organizations used gut feelings to determine whether to hire somebody, move a person to a new role or judge how they're performing. With data and technology, organizations have a more unbiased view that helps them to make better decisions. It also helps individuals make decisions more effectively. 

We sometimes think of data as being inhuman, cold and exacting. But data is actually being used to help humanize HR. People analytics and the tech that enables it are more important than ever. Particularly for employee engagement and experience, think of 2021 as the year to bring in data. If you haven't already, start the analysis and plan for it to positively impact business outcomes in a large and meaningful way.

Final Thoughts

We’ve been saying for years that the human part of human resources is a really important thing – and the last year proved it. From the rise of DEIB to managers connecting people to the organization, to data helping humanize work through better, less biased decisions, businesses are waking up to what that really means. 

As we go through these next few difficult months, hold on to this focus on humanity. Our connections to colleagues and our ability to recognize the unique and challenging situations we are going through has helped get us this far.

Now, we need to design sustainable systems that will enable us to continue that human focus while also meeting the needs of an evolving business. 

About the Authors

Stacia Sherman Garr is co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research and a thought leader on talent management, leadership, diversity and inclusion, people analytics and HR technology.

Dani Johnson is co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, and has spent the majority of her career writing about, researching and consulting on human capital practices and technology.


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