3 big HR trends for 2021, according to the experts


The rise of super teams, the end of work-life balance as we know it and eliminating work friction points – these are the predicted priorities and trends for HR in 2021.

While this is the normal time of year for articles such as this to be written – those outlining predictions and trends that could shape the year ahead – this year feels different. 

In previous years, we’ve had the luxury of talking about the ‘future of work’ with a sense of detachment – some of the predictions would come to fruition and others wouldn’t, but it didn’t really matter because it felt as if we were only pondering upon a far away idea of work; we didn’t feel we had to make any radical changes in the here and now. We had time to plan, test, tweak and reflect – and least that’s how it used to feel.

This year, the advice from the experts feels less predictive and more prescriptive. Not because they’re claiming to be the gatekeepers of all the important information but because many workplace and HR leaders are still desperately looking for guidance. Their ten-year plans have been thwarted, BAU is anything but and leaders are being asked to create solutions to issues they might not have even encountered yet.

They have little choice but to seek outside counsel as to the next steps to take. That’s not to say the advice in this article should be treated as gospel – it merely scratches at the surface of HR trends content that’s worth reading – but it could be a good place to start, if for no other reason than to sense check if your organisation is already on track.

Shifting mindsets

As HRM has previously reported, HR professionals are in a unique position to take the lead in transforming workplaces this year, after going above and beyond in 2020. 

So where should that new-found influence be directed to first? According to Deloitte, a good place to start would be in helping to shift executive mindsets.

In its 2021 Global Capital Trends report, which surveyed over 6000 professionals from 99 countries (more than half of them senior leaders), Deloitte said leaders who remain in a survival mindset are operating under a false notion that things will soon return to normal.

While the workplace challenges surrounding COVID-19 will certainly wax and wane, the mindset that’s needed to manage such challenges is very much fixed, and that is one of agility and thriving, no matter the context. Taking a ‘this too shall pass’ mindset is tempting, but it’s HR’s job to offer a polite reality check; many workplace practices will change for good, and leaders and employees need to be prepared for that.

To put these changes into action, Deloitte suggests HR professionals take an ‘optimise, redesign and re-architect’ approach (see graph with examples below) in order to move from a functional mindset into an ‘enterprise and impact mindset’ – i.e take the organisation from survive to thrive.

“COVID-19 has earned many [in HR] the right to be bolder in orchestrating work throughout the enterprise,” Deloitte’s report states. “To seize this opportunity, HR needs to reorient its mission and mindset towards shaping future success by taking the lead in re-architecting work.”

Using this mindset, here are some of the key areas experts believe HR should focus on this year.

Trend #1: The rise of superteams

While talk of superteams has been circulating for a few years now, Deloitte experts believe 2021 is the year they will take off. 

A superteam is a hybrid of technology and employees with “complementary capabilities [designed to] pursue outcomes at a speed and scale not otherwise possible”.

Deloitte shares the example of a pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, that created an impressive superteam made up of hundreds of scientific specialists across the globe. Their goal was to work together to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Considering they were all operating within different time zones, collaboration platforms were utilised which helped the team members to connect and share data quickly.

HR’s role is to help executives to think of technology not just as a tool but rather another team member – so, asking questions like which platform best aligns with your goals? And which employees would work best with it?

Deloitte’s report goes as far as suggesting the inclusion of the AI ‘voice’ within a team dynamic can safeguard against groupthink, pointing to research showing teams with above-average diversity produced more (45 per cent of total) innovative ideas with bottom-line benefits than teams with below-average diversity.

“With AI bringing its own style of ‘thinking’ to a team, the mix of human and machine intelligence can yield diversity bonuses that exceed those produced by teams composed of only humans, however diverse,” the report reads. 

Organisations will build and dismantle teams in response to the shifting environments, with growth, adaptability and resilience as the end goal. All of this will of course be underpinned by a rigorous upskilling and reskilling agenda.

Putting words into action:

How can you create your own superteams? Deloitte shares the following suggestions:

  • Start thinking of technology as a partner, not a tool.
  • Set big goals for your organisation that are less focused on improving existing processes but chasing new, fresh outcomes.
  • Use technology to design effective work practices – i.e. breaking down silos, removing friction points (more on that in a moment), learning as you go and personalising/humanising the work experience.
  • When forming a superteam, take the time to plan out and leverage the capabilities of those from various teams – such as HR, IT and executives.

Trend #2: Zero in on organisational design

Rethinking organisational design and focusing on change management were both top priorities for 46 per cent of HR leaders, according to a recent Gartner report.

Last year laid bare the many barriers to productivity that workplaces have been putting up with for years – barriers we could no longer ignore when trying to operate from our homes.

Gartner calls these ‘work frictions’. In a previous HRM article, Gartner’s VP of research and advisory Aaron McEwan spoke about these barriers as part of AHRI’s 2020 SHIFT20 virtual convention.

“[Friction points] make it really difficult for employees to be responsive,” he said at the time. “They’re so buried in their inbox, for example, that they hardly have a spare moment to think about the bigger picture, the bigger priorities. This not only creates bottlenecks in our organisation and prevents employees from being responsive, but it frustrates the hell out of them.”

These friction points – be they rigid processes, a lack of resources (or trapped resources) or non-cohesive team structures – are contributing to the worrying increase in both unpaid overtime and change fatigue seen in 2020.

Putting words into action:

If you want to create a smoother workflow and less friction points, Gartner suggests the following:

  • Reassess rigid processes (i.e. sign-off hierarchies) that could be holding processes up.
  • Design work processes for non-stable environments so you’re always prepared (i.e. making sure all work could be done online, if need be).
  • Make work boundaries/expectations clear in order to help employees’ prioritise their efforts.
  • Allocate resourcing decisions to someone who works on the ground and therefore has a clear understanding of teams that are overwhelmed and overworked.
  • Make certain processes flexible – and formalise this with your teams – so people can eliminate the roadblocks in their way.

Trend #3: An end to old work/life balance conversations

Australia has always been on the more progressive end of the scale compared to our global counterparts when it comes to work/life balance initiatives. Even prior to the pandemic, Australian employees rated ‘work/life balance’ as the most important attraction driver, whereas ‘compensation’ rated highest internationally. 

This year, Deloitte’s experts believe employee wellbeing will become part and parcel of normal working life, rather than a deal sweetener or reward (it’s worth noting this is already the case for many organisations, it’s just that others are finally catching up).

“Organisations that integrate wellbeing into the design of work at the individual, team, and organisational levels will build a sustainable future where workers can feel and perform at their best,” the report reads.

But what does that look like in practise? One example Deloitte shares comes from automotive manufacturer Daimler AG which mimicked the French ‘right to disconnect’ law by implementing a system called ‘Mail on Holiday’. 

This function automatically deletes emails when someone is flagged as being on leave and forwards auto-replies offering alternative people for them to contact. Imagine not having to return to a mountain of unread emails after a holiday? (I’d bet you’re still making your way through your inbox now).

To make initiatives like this a reality, Deloitte predicts HR and technology leaders will combine forces this year to design programs that both centre employee wellbeing while also ensuring workflow isn’t impacted.

Putting words into action:

Deloitte offers the following suggestions for combining work/life balance into the foundations of work design:

  • Allow employees to participate in the development of flexible work policies and procedures so they are playing a key role in setting their own boundaries.
  • Introduce more digital collaboration platforms – 39 per cent of respondents said this would help in making remote work more sustainable.
  • Encourage employee autonomy in determining how their work gets done.
  • Ask leaders to model healthy behaviours, such as taking micro-breaks or limiting screen time (and encourage those with influence to be vocal about this).
  • Form teams based on employee’s preferred working styles (i.e. if working parents prefer early starts and finishes, they might work best together).

Of course, priorities will differ depending on your industry and workplace, so your priorities might look different to this. What trends do you think will emerge? And what are your focus points for the start of the year? Let us know in the comment section below.

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More on HRM

3 big HR trends for 2021, according to the experts


The rise of super teams, the end of work-life balance as we know it and eliminating work friction points – these are the predicted priorities and trends for HR in 2021.

While this is the normal time of year for articles such as this to be written – those outlining predictions and trends that could shape the year ahead – this year feels different. 

In previous years, we’ve had the luxury of talking about the ‘future of work’ with a sense of detachment – some of the predictions would come to fruition and others wouldn’t, but it didn’t really matter because it felt as if we were only pondering upon a far away idea of work; we didn’t feel we had to make any radical changes in the here and now. We had time to plan, test, tweak and reflect – and least that’s how it used to feel.

This year, the advice from the experts feels less predictive and more prescriptive. Not because they’re claiming to be the gatekeepers of all the important information but because many workplace and HR leaders are still desperately looking for guidance. Their ten-year plans have been thwarted, BAU is anything but and leaders are being asked to create solutions to issues they might not have even encountered yet.

They have little choice but to seek outside counsel as to the next steps to take. That’s not to say the advice in this article should be treated as gospel – it merely scratches at the surface of HR trends content that’s worth reading – but it could be a good place to start, if for no other reason than to sense check if your organisation is already on track.

Shifting mindsets

As HRM has previously reported, HR professionals are in a unique position to take the lead in transforming workplaces this year, after going above and beyond in 2020. 

So where should that new-found influence be directed to first? According to Deloitte, a good place to start would be in helping to shift executive mindsets.

In its 2021 Global Capital Trends report, which surveyed over 6000 professionals from 99 countries (more than half of them senior leaders), Deloitte said leaders who remain in a survival mindset are operating under a false notion that things will soon return to normal.

While the workplace challenges surrounding COVID-19 will certainly wax and wane, the mindset that’s needed to manage such challenges is very much fixed, and that is one of agility and thriving, no matter the context. Taking a ‘this too shall pass’ mindset is tempting, but it’s HR’s job to offer a polite reality check; many workplace practices will change for good, and leaders and employees need to be prepared for that.

To put these changes into action, Deloitte suggests HR professionals take an ‘optimise, redesign and re-architect’ approach (see graph with examples below) in order to move from a functional mindset into an ‘enterprise and impact mindset’ – i.e take the organisation from survive to thrive.

“COVID-19 has earned many [in HR] the right to be bolder in orchestrating work throughout the enterprise,” Deloitte’s report states. “To seize this opportunity, HR needs to reorient its mission and mindset towards shaping future success by taking the lead in re-architecting work.”

Using this mindset, here are some of the key areas experts believe HR should focus on this year.

Trend #1: The rise of superteams

While talk of superteams has been circulating for a few years now, Deloitte experts believe 2021 is the year they will take off. 

A superteam is a hybrid of technology and employees with “complementary capabilities [designed to] pursue outcomes at a speed and scale not otherwise possible”.

Deloitte shares the example of a pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, that created an impressive superteam made up of hundreds of scientific specialists across the globe. Their goal was to work together to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Considering they were all operating within different time zones, collaboration platforms were utilised which helped the team members to connect and share data quickly.

HR’s role is to help executives to think of technology not just as a tool but rather another team member – so, asking questions like which platform best aligns with your goals? And which employees would work best with it?

Deloitte’s report goes as far as suggesting the inclusion of the AI ‘voice’ within a team dynamic can safeguard against groupthink, pointing to research showing teams with above-average diversity produced more (45 per cent of total) innovative ideas with bottom-line benefits than teams with below-average diversity.

“With AI bringing its own style of ‘thinking’ to a team, the mix of human and machine intelligence can yield diversity bonuses that exceed those produced by teams composed of only humans, however diverse,” the report reads. 

Organisations will build and dismantle teams in response to the shifting environments, with growth, adaptability and resilience as the end goal. All of this will of course be underpinned by a rigorous upskilling and reskilling agenda.

Putting words into action:

How can you create your own superteams? Deloitte shares the following suggestions:

  • Start thinking of technology as a partner, not a tool.
  • Set big goals for your organisation that are less focused on improving existing processes but chasing new, fresh outcomes.
  • Use technology to design effective work practices – i.e. breaking down silos, removing friction points (more on that in a moment), learning as you go and personalising/humanising the work experience.
  • When forming a superteam, take the time to plan out and leverage the capabilities of those from various teams – such as HR, IT and executives.

Trend #2: Zero in on organisational design

Rethinking organisational design and focusing on change management were both top priorities for 46 per cent of HR leaders, according to a recent Gartner report.

Last year laid bare the many barriers to productivity that workplaces have been putting up with for years – barriers we could no longer ignore when trying to operate from our homes.

Gartner calls these ‘work frictions’. In a previous HRM article, Gartner’s VP of research and advisory Aaron McEwan spoke about these barriers as part of AHRI’s 2020 SHIFT20 virtual convention.

“[Friction points] make it really difficult for employees to be responsive,” he said at the time. “They’re so buried in their inbox, for example, that they hardly have a spare moment to think about the bigger picture, the bigger priorities. This not only creates bottlenecks in our organisation and prevents employees from being responsive, but it frustrates the hell out of them.”

These friction points – be they rigid processes, a lack of resources (or trapped resources) or non-cohesive team structures – are contributing to the worrying increase in both unpaid overtime and change fatigue seen in 2020.

Putting words into action:

If you want to create a smoother workflow and less friction points, Gartner suggests the following:

  • Reassess rigid processes (i.e. sign-off hierarchies) that could be holding processes up.
  • Design work processes for non-stable environments so you’re always prepared (i.e. making sure all work could be done online, if need be).
  • Make work boundaries/expectations clear in order to help employees’ prioritise their efforts.
  • Allocate resourcing decisions to someone who works on the ground and therefore has a clear understanding of teams that are overwhelmed and overworked.
  • Make certain processes flexible – and formalise this with your teams – so people can eliminate the roadblocks in their way.

Trend #3: An end to old work/life balance conversations

Australia has always been on the more progressive end of the scale compared to our global counterparts when it comes to work/life balance initiatives. Even prior to the pandemic, Australian employees rated ‘work/life balance’ as the most important attraction driver, whereas ‘compensation’ rated highest internationally. 

This year, Deloitte’s experts believe employee wellbeing will become part and parcel of normal working life, rather than a deal sweetener or reward (it’s worth noting this is already the case for many organisations, it’s just that others are finally catching up).

“Organisations that integrate wellbeing into the design of work at the individual, team, and organisational levels will build a sustainable future where workers can feel and perform at their best,” the report reads.

But what does that look like in practise? One example Deloitte shares comes from automotive manufacturer Daimler AG which mimicked the French ‘right to disconnect’ law by implementing a system called ‘Mail on Holiday’. 

This function automatically deletes emails when someone is flagged as being on leave and forwards auto-replies offering alternative people for them to contact. Imagine not having to return to a mountain of unread emails after a holiday? (I’d bet you’re still making your way through your inbox now).

To make initiatives like this a reality, Deloitte predicts HR and technology leaders will combine forces this year to design programs that both centre employee wellbeing while also ensuring workflow isn’t impacted.

Putting words into action:

Deloitte offers the following suggestions for combining work/life balance into the foundations of work design:

  • Allow employees to participate in the development of flexible work policies and procedures so they are playing a key role in setting their own boundaries.
  • Introduce more digital collaboration platforms – 39 per cent of respondents said this would help in making remote work more sustainable.
  • Encourage employee autonomy in determining how their work gets done.
  • Ask leaders to model healthy behaviours, such as taking micro-breaks or limiting screen time (and encourage those with influence to be vocal about this).
  • Form teams based on employee’s preferred working styles (i.e. if working parents prefer early starts and finishes, they might work best together).

Of course, priorities will differ depending on your industry and workplace, so your priorities might look different to this. What trends do you think will emerge? And what are your focus points for the start of the year? Let us know in the comment section below.

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