Flipping over block from COVID 2020 to 2021

HR Tech Trends for 2021: Moving on from a Chaotic 2020

Rachel Stewart Johnson, Ph.D.

Psychologist | Driven by communications about human behavior in Work

In 2020, year-end reflections are unique. One can’t help but think of the puzzlement our 2019 selves would’ve experienced if presented with the realities that have now grown routine.

What “color,” “tier,” or “alert level” is your county in?

What’s the 7-day positivity rate this week?

Moreover, the cultural dynamics that shape our lives would’ve stunned us in December 2019:

Family gatherings are controversial.

Most children and teens don’t attend school five days a week.

Movie theater date nights -- what are those?

Among those segments of daily life greatly impacted by pandemic mitigation efforts: the way we work.

Workplaces have been upended, whether that has meant scattering once side-by-side coworkers or introducing risk-taking and grit to a heretofore unremarkable work setting. When it comes to life in this acute phase of COVID-19, the December 2020 arrival of vaccines provides a steady pulse of hope that the “beginning of the end” has begun.

That brings us to a familiar year-end ritual: identifying and examining trends to watch in the new year.


Video conference during COVID-19 pandemic

Trend 1: Zoom goes back into its lane

With shared office spaces largely remaining lights-out for nine months and counting, organizational leaders have had to commit themselves to digital transformation on a speedy scale. Everything that once had a face-to-face component -- from progress updates to mentoring -- saw an abrupt shift to remote platforms.

That has meant the use of corporate video-conferencing software, most notably Zoom, for a range of tasks outside its original mission. While the technology has enjoyed wide adoption out of necessity, its actual nimbleness may come under heightened scrutiny in 2021 and beyond.

Look for online education for students from kindergarten to college to see growing pushback as the one-year anniversary of its widespread use nears in March.

For workplaces, online operations will recede over the course of the year, retreating from supplanting each and every office interaction and settling back into a narrower focus. As risk mitigation measures gradually lift, expect to see the renewal of the live face-to-face experience for key parts of the employment lifecycle.

The first to revert to their old ways are the components of business operations in greatest need of nuance, spontaneity, and rapport: candidate interviews, early onboarding, collaborative brainstorming, and team-building. Simply put, look for humans to conclude that not everything we do as social and professional beings is translatable to a video-chat platform.

Some pandemic-control policies will be slow to lift, such as the avoidance of crowds and limits on business travel. This will mean 2021 will continue to require innovation to replace the pre-20s culture of trade shows and industry conferences. Leaders will fill the void by building social capital outside of the well-worn webinar and podcast formats that predominated this year. Think smaller, targeted events with hybrid components as a start.


Gen Z spending time with good friends

Trend 2: Gen Z continues to rise in influence

A year ago, we at Traitify predicted that the early 2020s would see the rising importance of Generation Z in workplaces.

As the oldest Millennials hit middle age, they are likely to catch less media attention as the “it” drivers of the cultural narrative. At the same time, the young adults of Gen Z, those born since the late 1990s, will gradually step in as the next big thing.

While this is consistent with longtime cultural bias favoring youthful influencers, some impact of the youngest workers during the late-stage pandemic period will be purely practical. Young workers ages 18-24 have a higher likelihood of holding in-person “essential” jobs than their older counterparts. They are even overrepresented among some roles such as janitorial workers and cashiers.

Given these realities, it’s important to consider what distinguishes Gen Z, and how this should shape employer initiatives in the new year and beyond.

As we discussed last year, climate change mitigation is a vocal concern for this young cohort. The widespread shift to remote work among some sectors -- and the months-long trial period of a commute-free life -- will likely see employers re-thinking traditional five-day-a-week schedules company-wide, thereby boosting one piece of the climate change discussion.

Also important for Gen Z: mental health. A summertime report from the CDC noted a startling rise in serious depressive symptoms among the 18-24-year-old age group, with a remarkable 25.5% reporting having seriously considered suicide in the preceding 30 days.

While the global population in general has suffered widespread mental health impacts as the pandemic continues on, an acute burden appears to be borne by young adults.

In the workplace, assuring job security, meeting practical needs such as paid sick leave, and cultivating community (via mobile messaging, remote mentoring, and personalized engagement tools) may help.


Truck driver using an app on mobile

Trend 3: Emphasis on mobile-first engagement

Despite the historic rises in unemployment claims nationwide across 2020, data indicates that the chronic problem of high turnover isn’t being swept away with this tide.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the “quit rate” in October 2020 was similar to the year before, ticking upward in the fall after a dropoff at the June 2020 report.

Whether that reflects a new set of concerns driven by the pandemic era (such as workplace safety or the degree of public interaction required) or the continuing robustness of the so-called “revolving door” of the American worker is unclear.

What remains are the persistent need for solutions. The pandemic-era push to online platforms is likely to have a mixed legacy, as discussed above.

Likely to stick from the rise of online-everything: an appreciation of the portability of content.

With the use of mobile phones to access everything from job applications to healthcare to entertainment, the average person has long been accustomed to hand-held tech. That expanded this year, as previously immobile employees and students began to work and study from “home,” subsequently sometimes turning “home” into the local park or distant outposts once reserved for leisure stays.

Analogously, we can expect that today’s worker expects to conduct workplace matters on the go, whether filing documents at onboarding or accessing performance feedback.

This expectation can be leveraged to combat the turnover problem.

With mobile access to workplace teams, employers can send guidance in the form of “life hack” texts, for example, or provide interactive development content that allows for a meaningful back and forth between supervisors and team members. Other considerations: apps for employees to report problems, offer feedback, or ask questions.

By taking a customer service-style approach to employee management -- drilling down on a “What can we do to help?” ethic -- savvy employers will empower employees and encourage loyalty.


Post-2020: moving on as a changed world

Of course, 2020 taught us that “expect the unexpected” is a wise credo, and we’ve all had a year like no other.

Further trends include the continuing recognition of “soft skills” as predictors of workplace success, with the earlier months of the year particularly reliant on workers with high emotional stability and optimistic, growth-oriented mindsets.

The human spirit, though tested this year, has long been characterized by dogged determination and a bounce-back ability. Don’t forget that the “Roarin’ 20s” of a century ago followed the highly lethal Spanish Flu pandemic.

Although living through trying periods of history is indisputably tough, 2021 and beyond will see us bear witness to a fundamental truth: adversity makes us stronger.


If you’d like to learn how Traitify solves for these emerging trends like mobile-first engagement, reach out.


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