Future of work: Five new features of your remote workplace in 2021

Nothing about work during 2020 has been normal. So what does 2021 have in store? Here's what the experts told ZDNet.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

COVID-19 has turned the world of work on its head, with many of us having spent most of 2020 separated from our colleagues and logging-in to greet each other every day from our bedrooms, living spaces, and other cobbled-together places of work. It's a year that has asked a lot of us all, and with 2021 now – somehow – on the horizon, many will be wondering what the next 12 months has in store.

One thing seems certain: the new remote-working landscape hastily hammered out by 2020 won't be disappearing any time soon. In fact, working from home at least part of the time looks set to be the new way of doing things for the foreseeable future. And while organizations might have a better grasp on the technical challenges than they did at the start of the year, there is still a litany of issues to overcome if we want to make this "new normal" truly work.

SEE: Working from home: The future of business is remote (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Working from home: How to get remote right (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Here's what experts are saying about the future of remote work in 2021 – and beyond.

Technology is combined with leadership to aid wellbeing

With office spaces being rethought around the notion that employees will be working from home some – or even most – of the time, businesses will need to think about how they can recapture some of the benefits that come with having a shared space to collaborate and communicate.

Fiona Camenzuli, people and organization leader at PwC, says that businesses will need to find intuitive ways of combining technology with empathetic leadership skills, not just to bolster productivity, but to counteract the isolating effects of working from home long-term, which have been well-documented throughout 2020.

"The first few months of the first UK lockdown saw warm weather and, for many of us, ditching the daily commute," Camenzuli tells ZDNet.

"Technology held up and there were reports of increased productivity, agility and collaboration. However, as the days have shortened and restrictions have worn on, the pandemic has taken its toll on mental health and 'the magic' of collaboration has seemed ever harder to find.

As we move into 2021, the focus on wellbeing will continue, but needs to be accompanied by more than just technology, says Camenzuli. "Empathetic and human leadership will be key. Companies must think about the role of the leader and line manager in genuinely caring for their people's wellbeing and this needs to be embedded in the organization's culture."

Agile businesses realize the value of freelancers

Remote work has the potential to affect the distribution of the workforce geographically, says Adam Ozimek, chief economist at freelancing site Upwork. In fact, analysis already shows early indications of this: in a recent survey, Upwork found that 6.5% of households in America are planning on moving to a different area, due to the greater ability to work from home.

As businesses become more comfortable working remotely, they are also overcoming one of the potential concerns of working with remote freelancers, says Ozimek. With agility likely to remain a priority for many businesses in such uncertain times, hiring workers who can be paid on a per-gig basis will be more appealing than taking on salaried, full-time staff.

SEE: 10 tech predictions that could mean huge changes ahead

"Since the onset of COVID, we've already seen a significant increase in demand for hiring remote freelancers on work marketplaces like Upwork," Ozimek tells ZDNet.

"Hiring managers are expanding how they think about their teams and, as a result, I think we'll see this demand for independent talent continue through 2021."

Reskilling, upskilling and role consolidation

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent office exodus forced many organizations to accelerate their digital ambitions in order to survive. As companies began switching on new automation, cybersecurity, cloud and machine-learning capabilities, the demand for new tech skills surged.

Anu Madgavkar, partner with the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), believes that organizations in 2021 will begin thinking about how they can consolidate necessary skills into singular, "super-specialization" roles, capable of handling a number of specific business-process roles remotely. At the same time, workers will be able to reskill or upskill in particular specialties without having to retrain for their entire occupation – improving employment prospects and job mobility in new, tech-driven workforces.

Madgavkar explains: "As you start unbundling down to the activity level, you realize it's not just about taking some activities that can be done remotely: there's also a question about whether these activities can be consolidated, and put into a specialized person who performs only these activities.

"More people can reskill and move into new jobs and occupations without going through complicated, multiple-year education programmes: which is not even possible for most people who are already in the workforce."

PwC's Camenzuli says that reskilling and upskilling will be a priority in 2021 – and not just for digital. "Softer skills such as compassionate and authentic leadership will also be critical too," she says.

"Retraining and upskilling workers will become even more of a need heading into 2021 as markets shift, investments in new technology increase and the human touch becomes ever-more important."

Remote hiring drives talent acquisition and job democratization

While video interviews and remote assessments have long played a part in the hiring process, digital tools became the foundation of recruitment and onboarding in 2020 owing to the new realities caused by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Now that companies have established these end-to-end virtual-recruitment processes, many will be eager to continue getting value from tools they've devoted so much time and effort to, says Mark Lobosco, vice president of talent solutions at LinkedIn.

"Now that companies have built the framework – and experienced the cost and time savings associated with it – there's no real reason to turn back," Lobosco tells ZDNet.

"While a hybrid hiring process that combines virtual and in-person elements will likely become the norm once onsite is an option again, some candidates could experience a completely virtual hiring process, not setting foot in the office until they're onboarded – if then."

SEE: Digital transformation: The new rules for getting projects done

According to LinkedIn's latest Future of Recruiting Report, 81% agree that virtual recruiting will continue post-COVID and 70% say it will become the new standard. Lobosco says: "As companies look to attract and retain talent in 2021 and beyond, it is clear that remote hiring and remote work will remain with us – and recruiting will be at the forefront of both."

Similarly, workers who might not have had the means or desire to move to high cost-of-living areas may have access to jobs outside their area. This will improve the democratization of job opportunities, and the movement of skills. 

Karin Kimbrough, chief economist at LinkedIn, says: "Companies will have access to different skills and talent. Remote-work options could help companies source diverse talent more easily, especially from groups that are underrepresented in their area, or for skills that are locally less available."

Digital workplaces get smarter

New, 'virtual' workplaces driven by data and technology open up exciting new prospects for balancing productivity and performance with employee engagement.

Scott Buchholz, emerging technologies research director and government and public services CTO at Deloitte Consulting, believes innovations such as people analytics solutions, AI assistants and workflow management tools will remove the clunkiness from traditional workplace procedures, and open businesses up to a new era of workplace digitization and customization.

"In the same way that streaming music services offer individual users customized, data-driven experiences based on personal tastes, remote workforce data and predictive analytics can help organizations provide employees with high-quality, customized experiences – a mix of benefits, rewards, assignments, and learning based on personal experiences and tacit and explicit preferences," says Buchholz.

This same digitization also opens up new possibilities in employee coaching and engagement, Buchholz adds. This includes AI-powered coaches that can identify the skills and experiences that each employee needs to feel challenged, and offer suggestions to improve their experience of work. "The digital coach of the future – enabled by organizational AI – could offer employees assignments predicted to be both interesting and aligned with their skills," he says.

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