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PHOTO: Fábio Lucas

The year 2020 has been game changing for the modern workplace. It has brought about disruptive changes in the way we live, work and interact — and many of these changes are here to stay. With the constraints occasioned by COVID-19, working from home, cashless transactions and other technology solutions became imperative. Even as the prospects of a vaccine become imminent, some of these changes have become part of the way we do business and will shape the workplace of the future. The four key trends below will shape our workplace in 2021 and beyond, and will influence the way our organizations respond and prepare for the upcoming year.

Trend #1: Embracing the Digital Workplace While Retaining the Physical

While embracing technology seems like the obvious choice right now, each organization will customize the technology to suit their needs. We will see a growing demand for remote technology and products as organizations settle into remote working a norm. Businesses and governments alike will need to build long-term relationships and tangible products that address future demands.

Recent surveys have shown that while the office might be here to stay, designing a workplace solely around a physical space is no longer a viable option. Expect an upsurge in digital technologies like video conferencing with facial recognition, virtual workspaces, online avatars and increasing cyber security software even as a subset of the workforce returns back to physical workspaces.

Related Article: Will We Ever Go Back to the Office Again?

Trend #2: Greater Emphasis on Employee Safety

An increasing demand for employee safety, health and well-being will prevail in the workplace in 2021. Over the last decade, mental health issues, burnout and workplace stress have become widespread. The pandemic further exacerbated these as the line between work and home dissipated, employees reduced their vacation time, all while working longer and longer hours.

Stress, loneliness and mental health issues are now front and center in the employee well-being conversations. Many organizations have already put in place access to virtual health programs along with online team building events. Additionally, we've seen a notable uptick in the number of businesses offering training around areas like mental health and resilience.

Employment lawyers Michael Massiatte and Marc Katz predict that “the first two quarters of 2021 will look a lot like the last several months of 2020, regardless of the emergence of a vaccine." Having survived COVID-19 partly through social distancing, regular handwashing and sanitation, employees will demand that proper safety protocols are in place to limit their exposure. A survey by ADP found that safety will remain a major concern among employees and that a significant number of workers feel it may never be safe to return to work.

Related Article: Moving Forward With a Grit and Growth Mindset

Trend #3: Collapsing Geographies to Build a Globally Dispersed and Diverse Workforce

While we have already been moving towards a globally diverse workforce and a gig economy for more than a decade, the pandemic has accelerated this trend by leaps and bounds. As remote work becomes the norm, more and more companies are likely to use the entire globe as their playing field.

More than 83% percent of employees would prefer to relocate to less expensive areas and 20% have already done so either temporarily or permanently. Companies like Nationwide and REI have already decentralized their offices while large consulting giants are reconsidering their travel policies in favor of remote working. Despite salary freezes and pay cuts, there is an upsurge in job satisfaction as flexible workspace arrangements and work from home policies become the norm.

In addition, advancements in technology have given rise to multiple online talent markets for freelance workers. As a result, we will see an expansion in the gig economy as workers now have unparalleled flexibility to decide their hours and location. Expect to see coworkers from across the globe hired for a specific task rather than as regular employees. In 2021, the workforce will continue to disperse, and this spontaneous side effect will become the norm.

Related Article: What Gig Workers Bring to Forward-Looking Companies

Trend #4: Reskilling of Employees

COVID-19 disrupted the global economy in 2020 like no other event in the last century and further widened the skills gap in the process. All over the world, organizations are now exploring new technologies and innovative ways of doing business as they seek to remain competitive and profitable. Moreover, the dramatic increase in remote working has necessitated job automation. With remote working forecasted to continue well into 2021, organizations must now ensure that employees obtain the requisite training to not only remain relevant but to also grow and thrive. Gartner reports that only 16% of new hires possess the skills needed for their current jobs and the jobs of the future. The most in-demand skills as we head into 2021 and beyond, as outlined by Dan Schawbel on LinkedIn include cloud computing, disaster recovery, machine learning and artificial intelligence, among others. In every industry, upskilling and retraining employees will be a priority in 2021 as employees get back to their traditional way of life, in many cases to a much smaller and reduced workforce.

Look for the Silver Lining

Without a doubt, 2020 will go down as the “master of all disruptors.” As the world recovers from the pandemic, there is a silver lining in some of the workplace trends introduced this year. Many of the measures enforced in response to the pandemic will continue to have a huge bearing on workplace practices, policies and behaviors in 2021. Embracing a digital workplace, reskilling and retraining, flexible working arrangements, establishment of health and safety protocols as we move towards a globally dispersed and diverse workforce are some key workplace trends that will shape the workplace of 2021 and beyond.