Predictions for 2021

By David D'Souza, Membership Director

It’s true to say that 2020 was full of learning and the opportunity to reinvent for many, but it’s equally true to say that it was full of pain, loss and uncertainty. Over recent years I’ve regularly been asked for my predictions for the upcoming year for the profession, by both students and publication. At the end of 2019, I gave my standard answer that, all too oftenwe underestimate the impact of external events and the extent to which they dictate the focus of our work. That has never been more clearly the case than in the last year when every person and organisation will have been impacted in a meaningful way by the events of the year. Many of those events have yet to run their full course, so whilst there are some ideas we can assume might be prudent to have as working assumptions – or even aspirations – it’s also true that the last year should be a salutary lesson to us all in terms of the need for our organisations and their planning structures to be flexible and, more importantly, for our assumptions about the world to be too. 2020 being over does not close a chapter, it signals the start of implications (that still need to become clear) and the changes still to come. There is also hopehope is the first step to a better future.

Prediction 1 – Organisations need to focus on inclusion and fairness regardless of the level of external scrutiny

Equity, equality, inclusion, diversity and/or belonging. Whilst they are subtly different concepts and some of those differences between them are crucial to understanding, there’s no doubt that the central notion that comes to mind when you hear any of those words – that of fairness – will remain at the heart of many of the challenges of the coming year. There are some interesting conversations about naming conventions and the power of words, however it’s clear that the most energy still needs to be expended on bringing about change, rather than reframing it. In this case language is both an enabler and a distraction. Organisations need to ensure that progress in how to talk about a problem isn’t mistaken for progress towards resolving it.

The death of George Floyd brought into sharp focus for many organisations the level of justified frustration about systemic inequalities that can be seen in a host of reports and studies – but also is the lived existence of many black colleagues. If all lives matter, then black lives matter – and the level of contention over that statement shows how much distance is still to be travelled. People’s race and ethnicity makes a difference in ways that it simply should not. This is just one aspect of the unfairness and injustice that we see in society and workOrganisations that responded during the summer should be reminded that the key to progress lies in driving systemic change in an unrelenting way over time, rather than limited initiatives, one off interventions or grand positioning.  If the attention on a problem is reducing in the media that isn’t the same as a problem being solved. In the same way, we need to recognise that giving people a voice to air their grievances is not progress if we do not work to resolve those grievances. We have seen how resilient the gender pay gap is – that should be a lesson to organisations when looking at all aspects of inequality. There is so much hard work to be done.

You can read more about our support materials on race specifically and on our broader viewpoints on diversity and inclusion.

Prediction 2 – Wellbeing, compassion and the role of the organisation

People matter. As human beings, if we see people in close proximity to us suffering, we will overwhelmingly intervene. This year has been one that’s shown us that, societally, we’re more resilient than people may have believed and how much we rely on support and community for that resilience. The next year will be challenging economically and many organisations will be struggling to survive.

Outside of work, the restrictions to freedoms, sense of isolation and the impact on family and friends of the pandemic are felt differently and to different extents but also universally. We have different experiences of a shared experience. We have seen throughout this year wonderful examples of organisations investing time, effort, thinking and resource into supporting their people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Whilst you may see coverage of poor practice in the media, the reasons these stories cut though is precisely because they are not the norm – in the same way that a lockdown breach will gather media attention more readily than you deciding to comply with guidelines in order to keep others safe. The positive solutions that organisations have put in place to support wellbeing can be a real step towards better recognition of the complexity and needs of people. Not just the duty of care that organisations have towards people, but the organisational benefits of being a place that people want to work – rather than have to work. The next evolution of some of this work will be to genuinely ensure that it’s a holistic effort to support wellbeing taking into account a range of factors; from job design to line manager capability that can impact positively or negatively. This systemic approach is particularly key to improving mental health support and there have been positive steps in 2020 that may well lead to a significant and sustained improvement in coming years.

Prediction 3 – Overly confident over reaction

This may seem a slightly perverse prediction in a list like this, but a key prediction has to be that many of the predictions that are currently confidently being made by CEOs, white papers, journalists or futurists will prove to be wrong. That doesn’t mean that we should rely less on expertise, but it does mean that it’s important to have the humility to realise that a society, organisation or individual in turmoil is ill-placed to know what decisions or choices they will definitely make in a year from now. Or even which choices they made yesterday that will hold out to be correct.

Is it likely that we will see more remote working? Almost inevitably. Will it be at the levels currently predicted? Let’s see what happens over time. Whether it’s the ‘death of the office’ or the ‘levelling up’ of areas outside of London or the end of the High Street, it’s clear that whilst bold claims make headlines, these should clearly be labelled as  ‘possible scenarios’ rather than framed with the level of inevitability that they often are.

There are some more positive scenarios that we may strive for (eg greater enablement of flexible working, better recognition of key workers) but that doesn’t automatically mean they’ll come to pass without choices and investments being made. The profession has a key role to play in remaining evidence based and helping the organisations we support make informed, balanced and principled choices that are shaped by organisational need, not headlines. A key prediction for next year is that the most dramatic headlines of this year turn out to be only partly true. Reality and opportunity often exist best in the complicated middle ground that doesn’t support unequivocal headlines. It’s our role to help separate the signal from the noise.

Prediction 4  Workplace and space

This year has seen a significant and enforced change in working conditions for almost everyone. Whether that is different safety guidance or equipment or a shift to working from home. The most focus has perhaps been on the move to working from home and that has been a big change.

Iis, however, important to recognise that this hasn’t been the reality for many people and that although many organisations can provide that option for some, others are required on site. Even where people have been working from home, we know that experience has been wildly different based on living conditions and how the organisation has approached the construct of work and support for people. Whatever the industry, it’s clear that most organisations will be reflecting on how and where people work. Many organisations have seen the opportunity provided by technology for helping teams work together over the past months and also the limitations of it. There are some old habits that need to be broken and also some things we should never lose.

Organisations should be reflecting on their options – some of which will be driven by economic necessity – and staying in communication with their people to understand the best way of supporting their work. 2021 will be a year of change in the workplace and hopefully, if vaccine roll out is progressed, organisations will be reflecting on how to best use space to give people access to the environments they need to thrive. Ensuring there is a balance in terms of investment is key. Organisations that find the funds to support remote working and a refit of the headquarters should also be able to find the funds to invest in frontline staff where they can’t provide those options   including in their access to learning, development and career opportunitiesCreating better environments for more rather than creating greater inequality of experience.

Prediction 5 – Voice and trust

All the above challenges and opportunities for the profession and organisations have key enablers in voice and trust. We can’t understand how best to react without understanding peoples thoughts and views  and we can’t understand that without having the systems in place to create safe spaces for them to raise and share their voice. We can’t act on what we hear if what we hear is incomplete. The creation of those processes, forums and flows rests on trust. Trust is a key enabler of change and never more so than in challenging times.

There has probably not been a time like this in living memory where crisis and opportunity are so intertwined for organisations. We have the ability to reinvent, but we also have a need to reinvent. If there is truly an opportunity to make a lasting shift in inclusion and fairness, then it will ironically be born out of a period that did so much to shine a light on how far there is to travel.

2020 was a year we would not choose to repeat. We suffered and we learned. 2021 provides difficult conditions to deliver better, but also an incredibly pressing need to. The profession has a key part to play in people’s experience at work, which for many is a key part of how people live their lives. We can achieve lasting change if we work as a community and deliver that change together.  

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