9 predictions about what the Future of Work will look like in 2021

In 2020, tech CEOs, HR leaders, and founders moved quickly to upgrade their skills to meet the demands of remote work. Here is their advice on how you can do the same.


Now that the debate about remote work is over, it’s time for managers to set new goals for managing the workforce of 2021. Many teams have never met in person and may never work side by side. Some employees joined the company via Zoom and connect with colleagues exclusively via a laptop screen. 

Managers need new tactics for communicating with workers day to day and bringing new team members into established groups. This means trying new collaboration platforms such as asynchronous video, dropping the 9-5 schedule in favor of flexible work windows, and extending the onboarding process to cover months instead of weeks.

Tech CEOs, HR leaders, and founders are upgrading their management and communication skills to manage distributed workers successfully in a hybrid office setting. Here is their advice on how you can do the same.


1. Spend time cultivating company culture

Chris Terndrup, a transformation architect at Nexthink, said that company culture is facing a crisis because employees are craving collaboration and social connectedness but video calls are no longer cutting it.

“Keeping employees ‘actively engaged’ rather than engaged is the challenge,” he said. “We predict new modes of collaboration will evolve and with the fatigue of video calls, more businesses will revert back to prioritizing phone calls over video.”

Shalini Rao, growth equity director of sustainable investment firm Generation, said that recreating opportunities for chance meetings is important in spurring collaborations and helping young employees build social capital. 

“This is especially critical for women and minorities,” she said. “Organizations will need to build a balance of structured and unstructured time to allow employees to build connections.”

Larry Gadea, CEO and founder of workplace technology company Envoy, said that legacy theories of work/life balance will implode and the line between work and home will continue to blur. 

“People that succeed will practice self-care, have hobbies, and manage their time well,” he said. “Teams that succeed will find new ways to develop trust, embrace conflict and make commitments.”

2. Build a remote work 3.0 strategy

Dave Padmos, EY Americas technology, media and entertainment, and telecommunications industry leader, said many companies are now making key decisions about talent strategy focusing on reducing cost and lowering enterprise risk.  

“In 2021, we will see companies evaluate opportunities to geo-shift work that will enable talent sourcing focused on finding the right skills regardless of location, reducing total cost by sourcing and placing employees in remote locations, and improving employee satisfaction by reducing limitations on work location,” he said.

Zoë Harte, chief people officer at Upwork, predicts that companies will continue to transition to remote-first models or give employees the option to continue working offsite after offices reopen to save money on maintaining offices and honor employee preferences. This increased flexibility also will widen the talent pool and improve access to talent. 

“Leaders can search for skills outside their locale, which can be a huge advantage as many tech companies are located in large city centers where talent can be scarce and expensive,” she said.

Gadea of Envoy, predicts that the office will continue to evolve in 2021 to fill the need of both in-person collaboration and expanded remote work.

“It will become something new—smaller, more flexible, safer hubs designed to facilitate collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving,” he said. “The growth of satellite offices will outpace the development of large footprint headquarters.”

Vinod Kumar, CEO of Vodafone Business, predicts that businesses will create digital amenities and workplaces that better cater to this new workforce.

“The traditional 9-to-5 work day has been modified to flexible windowed hours of working as employers have had to, and will need to continue, to accommodate employees with flexible work environments in the years to come,” he said.

3. Update retention strategies

As people have more options about where and how to work, companies will need to reevaluate their operations, company culture, and the future of business.

Brian Rutkowski, chief talent officer at Olive, expects to see businesses eliminate traditional workplace requirements and empower employees to work wherever they are most comfortable and effective. 

“Businesses that invest in the right technologies to keep employees connected and working, as well as provide new employee perks—like stipends, unlimited PTO, or opportunities to work from rented homes—can offer rich hiring incentives,” he said. 

Another advantage of this model is that a more dispersed staff can help companies build stronger customer relationships by being closer to their customers’ communities, as well as establish connections with technology communities across the nation, Rutkowski said. 

Padmos of EY, said that greater prioritization of experiences, culture, and empowerment as drivers of engagement will be central to improving performance and employee satisfaction. 

Gadea agreed that a holistic approach to employee wellness will become the norm in developing recruiting and retention strategies.

“Organizations that adopt a proactive, inclusive, and equitable approach to supporting the entire person will experience gains in productivity, engagement, loyalty, and brand perception,” he said. “The war for talent will require employers to expand total rewards packages that support employees in and out of their workplace.”

4. Upgrade communication skills

Managers will need to refine their own skills to keep employees actively engaged and keep communication lines open.

Gadea predicts that managers are going to have to work harder to lead a matrixed workforce. 

“Effectively directing the activities of HQ, remote and hybrid employees demands new skills and tools,” he said. “There will be a boom in corresponding technology, services, and best practices.”

Padmos of EY agreed that the definition of a high-performance leader will change as well.

“Leaders across organizations will need to further personalize their approach and be more ‘hands-on’ to motivate and inspire their teams and colleagues,” he said.

Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign, said that management must act and lead with empathy and trust and businesses need to invest in developing amazing people managers. 

“Moving forward, I believe companies will need to prioritize these three concepts: Provide employees with flexibility to focus on their wellness, build a culture meant for a hybrid workforce, and onboard employees effectively,” she said. 

Harte of Upwork said it will be critical to teach managers how to lead with empathy as many managers care but don’t know how to demonstrate it effectively—especially via a screen.  

5. Make the virtual onboarding process stronger

Several leaders emphasized the need to modernize the onboarding process to work in a virtual world.

Padmos of EY said that the current tactics and efforts will need to evolve significantly to account for the significant percentage of employees hiring into high-growth organizations who have never met anyone physically or been into a corporate office. 

“That ‘cultural equity’ was never built for this growing number of employees, so it will be even more critical to gauge employee satisfaction, productivity and career progression through improved tools and analytics,” he said.  

Kristen Hayward, head of people, Superhuman, said that her team has revised in-person communication strategies to work in Zoom meetings and recreate the kind of connection that naturally occurs in person. 

“So now we start team meetings and candidate interviews with a fun and easy question like ‘What’s your favorite comfort food?’ or ‘What is your worst travel story?'” she said. “Something this simple helps to break the ice and promote connection, without simply asking the dreaded ‘How are you?'”

Burke of DocuSign, said her company is extending the new hire experience into four to six months.  

“We are working on a program now called DocuSign Connections, where we’re evaluating technologies that will connect employees with mentors inside the organization and creating onboarding partners for new employees,” she said.

6. Support asynchronous communication

Harte of Upwork said that asynchronous communication is an effective tool in keeping remote workers  productive and happier than those who work in a traditional office environment, and asynchronous communication is a big reason why. 

“Once we stopped being able to walk by someone’s desk to ask a question or start impromptu conversations in the hallways, it forced us to streamline communication throughout the organization,” she said. 

“It will be important to build an on-demand portfolio of community-building touchpoints where people can find opportunities for everything from connection to mental health support.”

She recommends companies establish broad guidelines for communication, frequency and tone, and revisit them as needed to provide the right amount of support without overwhelming employees.  

Rao of Generation Investment Management said that a synchronous video will be a useful tool for keeping distributed teams connected.

“One approach may come from Loom, which believes asynchronous video marries the human connection of video with the flexibility of setting your own schedule,” she said.   

7. Add employee experience to the digital transformation priority list

Asynchronous video is only one  new digital tool that managers should test in 2021. Padmos of EY said that companies should look for tools and technologies to automate tasks, simplify work, and fuel collaboration. 

“This technology suite includes layers across data and analytics, automation, service, cloud, and enablement that will further move HR from an administrative function to a strategic function,” he said.

Digital transformation of the employee experience should link virtual agents to pods in key locations, balance labor arbitrage, and enable greater diversity and inclusiveness opportunities, he said.

8. Make HR a strategic partner

As attracting and keeping talented employees becomes more important, the human resources team will shift from an operational center to a strategic advantage.

“Human resources will increase its role as the center of delivery of people services around both experience and outcomes – listening to the voice of the employee with increased focus on wellbeing, diversity and inclusion,” Padmos said.

Brian Kropp, group vice president and chief of HR research at Gartner, said that in 2021, a human-centric HR approach will be even more closely linked to business outcomes, and leaders would be wise to invest in programs, benefits and opportunities that support the new employment deal. 

“Not only is this a more human approach to managing staff but it’s also beneficial to employees from a reputational point of view,” he said.

9. Watch the prosumerization of the office trend

Rahul Vohra, CEO and co-founder of email provider Superhuman, predicts a massive investment in productivity fundamentals in 2021 and beyond. He sees this as a response to the mix of collaboration tools that have resulted in a “jumble of content and notifications” that have actually reduced personal productivity.

He also predicts that the “prosumerization of the office” will be a strong trend in 2021 as companies consider tools that employees choose for personal use as potential enterprise solutions.  

“Because of this desire for more premium products, the prosumerization of the enterprise will be an incredibly powerful force in changing the nature of productivity software in the next 10 years,” he said.