Evolving Work Trends in 2021: Engagement as the Proactive Path Forward

By Amy Leschke-Kahle

In this article, Amy Leschke-Kahle, Vice President of Performance Acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP Company, explores three ways that engagement will play a pivotal role in evolving work in 2021.

The lens that we look through as we approach the world of work needs to evolve and change for 2021. We need a new plan.

Consider how taking a proactive approach that focuses on engagement can help organizations achieve their full potential in imperfect circumstances. Here are four shifts to inform you evolution of work:

1. Working in the now

Strategic planning was top of mind for leaders at the start of 2020, but COVID-19 quickly upended any existing plans. Today, the traditional year-long or years-long approach to strategic planning is less than irrelevant; it's an altogether bad use of time. But that doesn't mean there's no need to plan.

What's really happening here is that how we engage with strategic planning — our mindset frequency — has to change. We need to enable our teams to plan in shorter chunks of time so we can counter sudden changes with insightful next steps. The words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower ring especially true in the current situation: "Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

As organizations focus on working in the now instead of in the future, adopting a more agile approach to HR will shift the focus away from relying on traditional plans and more toward investing in employees and customers presently. By doing so, we can engage with these important stakeholders at a deeper, more authentic level based on our shared experiences in these times.

2. Putting impacts ahead of time and location

Now that 44% of employers have official flexible working policies — compared to 24% pre-COVID-19, according to an ADP Research Institute® (ADPRI) study — that view must flip. The majority of organizations must start defining work based on activity and contributions, not hours and location. In a sense, we have to rethink and redefine what work is on a fundamental level.

Making this shift can bring up questions about compensation, downstream talent processes and measuring performance. Many of these approaches will need to be adjusted as the world of work changes, but the most pressing tasks in the coming year will be engaging and investing in our people, and ensuring that we are evaluating them based on their contributions, not just the hours they work or the boxes they check.

3. A new appreciation for the basics

Sourcing, hiring and engaging a workforce of in-demand talent are some of the premier challenges of modern work. While traditional hiring and retention strategies relied heavily on going the extra mile through employer brand building and employee wellness programs, organizations will need to get back to basics to activate talent in 2021. This means focusing on compliance training, identifying and training right skills, and offering competitive benefits and compensation.

Think about your organization's long to-do lists of ever-updating best practices. Is each idea sound and worthy of consideration? They may well be, but in 2021 organizations will likely benefit from slowing down, going back to a blank sheet of paper, and building out a strategy based on evolving work, not what has worked in the past. Engaging with what we need today will lead to far better outcomes than trying to force a fit with existing systems.

4. Engagement over resilience in 2021

The keyword of 2020 for many organizations was "resilience," which we at ADP define as the capacity of an individual to withstand, bounce back from and work through challenging circumstances or events at work. So much of the conversation around work in 2020 has focused on resilience, and with good reason: as ADP Canada’s recent Workplace Insights Study found, approximately over a quarter of employees believe their stress level has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s particularly important for employers to ensure appropriate resources are in place to support both the physical and mental health of employees.

But if we were to pick a word for 2021, I don't think it should be resilience, because resilience refers to a reactive response that puts us in a defensive position for what comes next. Organizations should understand that resilience alone isn't going to get them through the changes still to come.

Instead, we need to aim to build proactive mindsets that empower us to take ownership of what we can control — and the word that encapsulates this approach is engagement.

Organizations need to focus their future needs by overinvesting in engagement – now. That investment bolsters individual employees and the collective workforce body, so they are all prepared to react with resilience when called upon.

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