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A look at HR and Employee Engagement Trends in 2021

January 19, 2021

woman wearing mask sitting a laptop

See HR and employee engagement trends in 2021.

The goals for companies in 2021 will likely be direct reflections of what happened in 2020. Despite vaccinations and possible returns to the office at some point this year, the events that took place in 2020 will impact the HR and employee engagement trends in 2021. 

Last year we were introduced to our “new normal.” That normal included hybrid and remote workplaces, an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and changes to how companies gather employee feedback.

In our latest edition of the  Modern People Leader podcast, we discussed what will stick in the new year, and what other HR and employee engagement trends we can expect in 2021. In this article we’ll share a recap, but make sure to tune into the podcast for the full conversion. 

The remote and hybrid workforce 

Without a doubt, the biggest change in 2020 was the remote and hybrid workforce. Never before have we had an experiment like it. Much of the United States, and countries across the world, changed the way they worked overnight. 

A lot of companies adopted the remote work approach quickly, and a number of CEOs have mentioned how much success they’ve had. They’ve learned their workers are resilient, and realized how quickly people can adapt to new ways of working. Seamless changes happened across various job roles and industries. 

Looking at the data, many employees want a hybrid working model. They want the flexibility of remote work, but also the occasional socialization of an office environment. It’s very likely that’s where we end up, because to start 2021, 70 percent of workers still don’t believe it’s safe to return to the office. Keep your eye out for 2021 being the year that redefines the future of work. 

Employee feedback cadences are changing 

In the past, it was common for companies to get employee feedback once or twice a year. Usually they’d get it during annual engagement surveys and employee reviews. Because of the pandemic, companies started reaching out to their employees with a faster cadence.

We’ve seen an emergence in pulse surveys—which are short surveys between 5 – 10 questions each. They’ve become a staple in organizational feedback strategies, and they let companies get feedback that they can act on quickly.

In 2020, Pandemic response task forces relied on these surveys. They also gave employees a channel for critical topics that they wanted to weigh in on, ranging from diversity and inclusion, workplace resources, to wellbeing. The reality of our evolving world is that companies need to understand their workers, and they need data to make informed decisions.

A new life to the diversity, inclusion, and belonging conversation

Because of social unrest and the racial conversation that started over the summer, a new light has been cast over the diversity, inclusion, and belonging conversation. A top priority for many companies in 2021 will be to start programs of their own, or to reprioritize the ones they already have.

One of the reasons this shift is happening is because younger employees have higher expectations of their workplace. They’re sharing feedback to executive and HR teams, and the feedback is popping up in company meetings and surveys.

Young employees are also more likely to seek out companies that match their values, and the impact they’re hoping to leave on the world. Because of the combination of the cultural conversation and the workplace requirement for young people, diversity and inclusion is a sure bet for an HR and employee engagement trend in 2021.

Wellbeing and mental health

The unfortunate reality is that we’re in the middle of a wellbeing crisis. Mental wellness is a major problem. It’s certainly a factor in the workplace, though companies are still understanding the extent of issues and what’s going on,

Wellbing used to be a small function in HR, but it’s becoming clear that companies have to take action. HR programs will have to invest in wellbeing since the way everyone works has been impacted (like the massive shift for many parents who are doubling as workers and educators).

Education on mental health resources in companies is an important part of this. The companies that are succeeding are engaging in dialogue, and they’re de-mystifying the topic. This helps give employees the courage that’s sometimes needed to be vulnerable and take advantage of resources.

Talent and performance management 

One of the areas that was down in 2020 was talent and performance management. Managers were having less 1/1s, and internal feedback to employees was down. The modern worker wants feedback to understand their standing and performance, and it’s likely companies re-emphasize this in the new year.

A trend we did see was toward 360° feedback surveys, particularly at the manager level. These are surveys that give a full view of performance. They’re especially crucial since managers started doing something very new in 2020—managing from home.

In 2021 we’ll continue to see a rethinking of engagement and employee experience strategies. This will likely include more pulse surveys, changes to feedback gathering, and adjusted onboarding plans. There’s never been a better business case for a single platform that connects all employee feedback on one tool.

The future of employee learning 

Acquiring the best in your industry means getting skilled workers who are knowledgeable before they join your team, but also workers who learn new skills and resources while they’re at your company.

In 2021 we’ll likely see more growth in the technical learning space, and we may see more and more workers learning skill sets across business units. Expect an uptick in data science, machine learning, and programming, and expect a higher demand for these skills.

Companies may even change how they acquire workers with these skills, including upskilling employees internally. This is often tied into “digital transformation” efforts, where companies are looking to harness and take advantage of all the digital tools at their disposal.

Looking at the year ahead 

The trickle effects of 2020 are still with us, and we’re still grappling with the changes and obstacles it has caused. Whatever additional change happens in 2021, it’s likely it becomes the year where we start to settle into our “new normal.”

We look forward to being part of these changes and conversions with you, and we’ll continue to highlight HR and employee engagement trends in 2021. Follow our blog and the Modern People Leader podcast to stay up to date.