What the workplace in 2021 will look like and what this means for you

2021 will be a very interesting year! If all prognoses are correct, sometime in the next six months we should have developed a grip on COVID19. 

For 2021, I foresee three trends in the workplace. Although none of these trends is initiated by COVID19, the pandemic will definitely act as a catalyst.

Trend 1 – The great divide

To start with the most negative trend, as a result of the impact of COVID19 on the economy, I expect companies will stronger distinguish between employees in core and non-core positions. Core positions are jobs that are critical for the performance of the organization, and will often be directly related to the primary processes that provide companies with competitive advantage. Examples include R&D staff in pharmaceutical companies, consultants in professional service firms, and software engineers in IT companies. 

For people in these positions, the future will continue to look bright. Employers are likely to compete for them in hiring processes, invest in their development, and start Employee Experience (EX) programs to retain them.

For employees who do not work in these core positions, the future is likely to look less bright. As a result of the economic uncertainty as a result of COVID19, I expect companies will be very prudent to hire staff on permanent contracts. At the same time, they have experienced that virtualization works. During the pandemic many companies acquired new types of services, many from new suppliers, which were all delivered virtually. 

As a result of these two factors, I expect many companies will become more active on the demand side of the ‘gig-economy’. Simultaneously, a number of the people who will become unemployed as a result of the pandemic (McKinsey expects 60 million in Europe alone), will have no choice but to present themselves on the supply side of this market.

In the past couple of years, we have gotten used (and have accepted) a race to the bottom for blue-collar workers. We will now also have to get used to a race to the bottom for white-collar workers. For these people, their job security will last as long as the specific project they were hired for – usually somewhere between 6 – 18 months. The situation of independent contractors in the Netherlands (‘ZZP’ers’) after the pandemic, forms a perfect example.

Trend 2 – Organization structures will become more organic

The predictable (and reliable!) organization structures we created during the industrial revolution have proven to be extremely valuable for establishing responsibilities, ensuring predictability by ‘command and control’, and communications. These structures will not disappear, but the way in which they operate will. Covid 19 made level skipping, both upwards, as well as downwards, to initiate action and/or to obtain information, a necessity. 

The increasing speed with which changes take place in our VUCA world will have to be mirrored by the way organizations operate. The increased need to act in an agile manner will create more ad-hoc structures and ad-hoc leadership positions. 

These parallel universes already collide frequently now; I expect that the frequency and intensity of these conflicts will increase and that organizations will need to find new ways of accommodating them.

Trend 3 – Leadership will become more necessary and complex

Given the economic uncertainty organizations face, the quality of leadership at all levels of the organizations will become increasingly important. In recent years, a number of tasks have been added to leadership roles. Already years ago leaders needed to learn how to coach, instead of instruct. Recently they were also expected to provide their staff with a sense of purpose and last year COVID19 added the need to demonstrate empathy (hashtag humanity). Add the requirement to manage more diverse teams to this mix, and it will become clear that the role of leaders will become increasingly complex.

What does this mean for you?

Since the start of the 21st century, more and more employees have become aware, sometimes quite harshly, of the fact that they are ultimately responsible for managing their own careers. However, given the dramatically increased uncertainty of the economy in the coming years, this awareness will not be enough; they will also need to develop the ability to manage their own careers.

Not just companies will need to develop themselves to keep up with their environment, but employees will also need to do this in order to secure their professional future. In this context, three things will be important for employees.

Imperative 1 – Self-Awareness and soft skills

In case you have not read the memo yet: soft skills are becoming more and more important in hiring and performance management processes. Therefore, obtaining feedback about your soft skills is very important. In the workplace, this feedback can be obtained from line managers, peers and direct reports. Your friends and family can also be great sources. If you are lucky enough to work for one of the companies that enables you to obtain 360 feedback, you should take that opportunity. 

The same applies when your company offers you the opportunity to obtain (virtual) coaching. Long gone are the days where coaching was only reserved for senior executives, or associated with having performance issues. Nowadays, professionals in the workplace need coaches for the same reason as athletes: to improve their performance. There is an abundant amount of data suggesting that coaching can have a significant impact on someone’s performance.

Imperative 2 – Upskilling and Reskilling

In the good old days, CV’s were a collection of job titles, demonstrating the education and career progress of the holder. Nowadays CV’s are portfolios of experiences. In this context, it is not only important to focus on training and education, but also on actual experience. There are a number of people who have a certification of some kind in agile ways of working. However, the number of people that actually have practical experience in this area is a lot smaller. 

To which degree do you master the skills that are in demand now, or will be in the foreseeable future? An overview of the hard skills most in demand can be found here

The most relevant question however is how you can stay current in your profession. If you work for instance in a global consulting firm, staying current will be quite easy. Your company will need to innovate in order to be competitive and your clients will want you to innovate as well. However, if you are working as an independent contractor, or for an IT department that works with dated technology, this will a lot harder.

There are several strategies to address this, ranging from (low-cost virtual) training, requesting a transfer to another project or department, to more drastic scenarios, like moving to another company. However, all strategies start with you taking action, e.g. by engaging in the right conversations. 

Imperative 3 – Networking

From a professional perspective, gathering knowledge about the status of your soft skills, hard skills and experience will be a good start to 2021. Actively working on enhancing them will be even better. However, all this work might be in vain unless you make the labor markets on which you are active aware of your capabilities. This is true for both the internal labor market (the company which you are currently working for) as well as the external one. 

Creating this awareness requires networking.

Networking used to be seen as something sleazy, and is still experienced as such by a number of people. Unfortunately, however, there is no alternative. Just like manufacturers need advertisements to ensure the general public is aware of their products, potential customers of your capabilities also need to be aware of what you have to offer.

Although the topic of networking deserves a separate post, here are a few quick tips that might help. When you (start to) network, think about:

  • The value you can add – Which information, insights, and perspectives do you have that might be beneficial for the person you want to add to your network?
  • What makes this person interesting – What would you genuinely like to know or learn from the person you want to add to your network?
  • The longer-term – Networking is not about hunting, but about farming. It is about investing now in order to secure a return in the future 

Remember that, after all, “It’s not (only – red) what you know, it’s who you know.”

Thank you for reading this article, I wish you a happy and successful 2021! 

© Dirk Verburg 2020

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author

Illustration: Hand with Reflecting Sphere by M. C. Escher. Lithograph, 1935.

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