Back to Insights

Preparing for the Future of Work

Key Themes in Human Resources 2021

There is no doubt that HR has been front and center these past 18 months, and the function remains so as organizations look to the future and try to figure out what the Future of Work means.  One thing is for sure, no-one has the answer yet and the subject is top of the agenda for practically every organization, so much so that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has created a Preparing for the Future of Work initiative as part of their Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society platform. The WEF anticipated that developments would lead to some reduction in the full-time workforce of nearly 50% of organizations by 2020, and the pandemic increased the need for action requiring a major focus on upskilling, reskilling and redeployment initiatives. The pandemic increased the need for action requiring a major focus on upskilling, reskilling and redeployment initiatives.

We are seeing people enter the HR space from a variety of different backgrounds. There is a real pull into the function due to its’ increased importance and the impact it is having to both the top and bottom line. With all this, we are seeing several key themes that are common across all industries. They are:

  • Well-Being
  • The DE&I Landscape and Diverse Talent
  • Reskilling & Greater Flexibility in Working Experiences
  • Better Access to Top Talent
  • HR Technology
  • Returning to the Office
  • Employee Experience


Well-being is front and center with companies creating positions to bring this expertise in-house. We are seeing psychologists, nutritionist and clinicians increasingly move into these corporate roles. Like DE&I, the positions tend to sit in a different part of the organizational structure depending on the company. Those who are taking this seriously are creating more senior roles which then have a genuine impact at the leadership level, enabling the development of a cohesive strategy rather than a tactical response.

Organizations are investigating and developing ways to make well-being a core part of company culture. This does not need to be complicated or difficult to implement. It could be something as simple as recognition of efforts. Recent surveys have shown that a majority of employees say that recognition has helped them feel better connected to their peers and the organization.

Some companies are adding increased flexibility to working schedules to allow for rejuvenation. Recently Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) announced an expansion to their “Wellness Fridays” initiative, expanding it from leaving early one Friday per month to two full days per month for June, July and August.

The DE&I Landscape and Diverse Talent

Diversity was top of the HR agenda in 2020 and continues to remain so in 2021. Over the last 12 months upwards of 85% of our placements from into North America HR roles have been diverse hires defined by gender or ethnicity and we expect to see that trend continue. The business case for diversity is stronger than ever.

As to the DE&I role within corporates, we continue to see the appointment of Chief Diversity Officers, with these roles often reporting into the CEO, demonstrating the strategic importance of diversity to the business. There is a greater focus on inclusion and belonging and the business is increasingly looking to DE&I leaders to be able to demonstrate real and measurable impact on engagement and performance. The ability to truly measure the impact of initiatives back to DE&I is still a journey that many organizations are trying to figure out.

We are watching with interest as DE&I leadership roles evolve. Candidates from a variety of backgrounds such as brand management, communications, marketing, talent, and L&D are being appointed into these roles and this means a range of skills are bringing different ideas and approaches to achieve similar goals. A consistent and constant acknowledgement is that to be successful, buy-in from the top is essential along with a culture where everyone takes ownership.

Reskilling & Greater Flexibility in Working Experiences.

Reskilling is another key area of focus. A recent McKinsey survey uncovered that 80% of employers surveyed acknowledged key skills gaps with less than half having a clear strategy in place to address the issue.

Organizations are looking to develop critical and transferable skills such as digital, critical thinking, resilience, and innovation to build a core base from which to further upskill individuals. Unilever have made a clear commitment to reskilling their workforce with a declared target of ensuring all have a future skillset by 2025. They are also looking at flexible employment models to meet the different needs of a multi-generational workforce.

There is an increased focus on companies offering “Returnships”– Paid internships for people who have been out of the workforce for at least a couple of years. The programs give returnees the opportunity to upgrade skills and have access to mentors to help them back into the workforce. This is happening across organizations such as IBM, Goldman Sachs, Amazon Web Services, GM and HPE.

Better Access to Top Talent

From a talent acquisition perspective, the market is highly active. The increased acceptance of remote working is opening up talent pools that were difficult to attract before due to location. For some skeptical employers, the forced remote working of 2020 did not result in the expected drop in productivity resulting in a rethink in strategy. Many companies are looking to proactively develop talent pools of passive candidates who are passionate about the brand. For this to be effective organizations need to focus on developing a strong employer brand and develop a regular communications strategy using a variety of social media platforms to make sure these potential future employees have a sense of connection and alignment with organizational values.

There has been an increased focus on shifting to uncover talent pools that have not been explored so far. This is being achieved by reaching out to less well-known universities and demographics that have so far been untapped. Rather like Returnships, the concept of Apprenticeships is gaining momentum as a way to address skills gaps. Recently the US Department of Labor announced that it will be awarding $130 million in grants to 15 states to help develop, modernize, and diversify registered apprenticeship programs.  

Hiring managers need to be willing to flex on specs and invest in training candidates that may not meet all requirements. This does not mean being less selective but shift the focus to looking for a cultural fit and making an investment in potential. Investment in training and clear paths for development will pay off, creating employees who feel a stronger connection to the organization and are more engaged.

HR Technology

The biggest push for HR technology is the focus on developing a truly robust “anytime, anywhere” learning platform. Technology is playing a critical role in the development and adoption of new work models and the events of the last year have only accelerated digital transformation and automation.

There is a shift away from the more traditional push technology to a pull model. We are also seeing HR technology play an increasingly important role in the success of newly established People Experience Center of Excellence enabling greater connectivity across the organization and better access to data. Increasingly employers are offering well-being applications that create an eco-system for employees to focus on all aspects of well-being be it physical, mental, or financial.

Returning to the Office

Over the last year HR has been at the forefront of transitioning the workforce from physical to virtual and are now leading the efforts to implement the best strategy to get back to the office again. Some companies, such as Facebook and Twitter have declared that they will continue to support remote working. Spotify recently announced a “Work from Anywhere” model, which will allow employees to choose whether they want to be in the office full time, be at home full time or a combination of the two. The company will also introduce more flexibility around locations, so employees will be able to choose the country and city where they work. Apple, while adopting a back to the office approach, have also offered employees the option to work from anywhere for two weeks per year.

In our recent conversations, HR leaders have acknowledged that their organizations will likely be adopting a hybrid model, but a lot of work is still going on to define what that looks like. Companies should not delay in declaring their positions because they are at risk of losing key employees to organizations that are being more transparent. The imposed remote working of the last year has really changed people’s perspectives and going forward employees are looking for more flexibility. Recent research shows that nearly 40% of employees will consider leaving an organization if their employer takes away their flexibility on remote working.

Employee Experience

As the war for talent heats up again, companies have to move at pace to fend off the competition. Companies are investing heavily in employer branding and EVP initiatives and so it is important that they get the most basic details right and that the interview process works efficiently to keep candidates engaged.

With a big push on digital transformation, IT and HR must continue to work closely together to understand and to overcome technology challenges therefore ensuring that employees have the resources that they need. The focus is not always about adding more tools and systems, but rather optimization and helping employees to get the most out of fewer systems, stay productive and be able to continue to collaborate well. HR is also working more closely with marketing functions and, as they develop the company EVP, to adapt core marketing principles such as focus groups and purpose-driven storytelling campaigns as a tool to attract, motivate and retain top talent.

And in Conclusion

As the agile workforce develops there is also a push for companies to revamp policies recognizing that the one-size-fits-all approach is no longer meeting the needs of all employees. This potentially includes developing enhanced benefits packages similar to those seen in employee assistance programs to better support the needs of the new ways of working.

There is no doubt that these are exciting times for HR leaders. The impact of the last year has elevated the function to be a truly strategic partner. The pace of change has been dramatic and will continue at warp speed for a while.


Keep up with the latest HR insights and updates.
Sign up

Recent Posts