The 'Future of Work' has arrived: 12 Predictions for HR in 2021

2020. What a year. Wow! What did we learn? Well, firstly to expect the unexpected. No one would have predicted back in January that this year would be dominated by the deadliest global pandemic since the Spanish Flu wrought havoc across the world in the wake of World War I.

We also learnt that the field of Human Resources is even more important than we thought it was, that people analytics can save lives and that (albeit aided by technology) humans and the organisations they work for can adapt quickly in times of crisis – witness the largest remote working experiment in history.

So, what do the events of 2020 mean for 2021? For a start, it arguably makes it even more difficult to predict. In my predictions for 2020, I quoted one of my favourite authors, Douglas Adams, who quite correctly asserts that “Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game,” before conceding that it’s a game we all have to play given that “the world is changing so fast and we need to have some sort of idea of what the future’s actually going to be like because we are going to have to live there, probably next week.” That seems like a pretty accurate epitaph for 2020.

I’ve been publishing an annual set of ‘predictions’ since 2014, and it has to be said that my track record is, to put it mildly, not one that will have Nostradamus quaking in his celestial boots. That said, I did finally (after 30 years!) successfully predict that Liverpool would win the Premier League.

In all seriousness, some of the trends (see the subtle shift from ‘predictions’ to ‘trends’?) below have appeared in various guises in my previous annual gazes into the crystal ball. Many have evolved and/or accelerated during the last tumultuous 12 months.


Studious readers will note that the title image indicates 12 trends, whereas only ten are presented below. That is because I’m keen to crowdsource the final two trends from readers of this article. What else should I have included? Please let me know in the comments section below, and I’ll add my favourite two to an updated version of this article in the New Year.

***UPDATE – 5TH JANUARY 2021***

Wow! What a response. When I dreamt of the idea of crowdsourcing trends #11 and #12 for this article, I expected to get a handful of suggestions and certainly no more than ten. Instead, you’ve collectively tabled (at the time of writing) over 75 mostly excellent suggestions amongst more than 200 comments on the original article. I’m blown away and very grateful. Thanks to all of you who took the time to craft your ideas.

As such it’s been a very difficult job in arriving at just two, but after much deliberation I’ve decided on two outward looking trends, which I sincerely hope to see more of in 2021. First up at #11, is an increased focus on outcomes vs. activities - a combination of suggestions from Dave Ulrich, Charlotte Nagy and Willson Overend.

To round things off at #12, several of you tabled ideas about HR acting as an external change agent and influencing areas such as the environment, education and communities. Thanks to Swecha Mohapatra, M.Angeles Alba Garcia de la Camacha, Veronka Pisarieva and Olivia Constantine for your collective thoughts with this one.

ore detail in the new sections for trends #11 and #12 below – and the image has now been updated.


We decided to record a special episode of the Digital HR Leaders Podcast where Ian Bailie and I discuss the 2021 trends and what HR leaders and professionals should do to prepare for the future. You can listen by clicking here


As he invariably does, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella captured perfectly one of the most significant impacts of the pandemic, when he declared that” “We have seen two years' worth of digital transformation in two months.” Indeed, the crisis has arguably fast-forwarded the ‘future of work’ by five or ten years. There is no going back. The era of hybrid work is well and truly here. Now we need to make hybrid working ‘work’ and dovetail factors such as employee preferences and wellbeing with business requirements. HR and People Analytics teams will be at the forefront of this discussion as they answer questions such as: What are the tasks that can be done more productively remotely? What are the types of work we need to be together to do? How does our culture need to evolve in line with hybrid working? How can our workplaces be more collaborative? Finally, if the ‘future of work’ really has arrived, does that mean we will stop hearing about the ‘future of work’? If so, I suspect a certain Barry Flack will be delighted!


The pandemic has thrust the human resources function into the spotlight. The pivotal role played by the CHRO in this crisis has been likened to that of the CFO during the Global Financial Crisis. HR has thrived during this difficult time in organisations where the function is well led, has strong senior stakeholder equity, has prioritised employee wellbeing and has robust capability in people analytics. Research from the likes of the World Economic Forum (here), IBM (here, see FIG 1), Deloitte (here), Accenture (here) and Merryck & Co (here) all point the way forward for how HR should evolve to a more enhanced role. Companies need their HR functions like they’ve never needed them before – not only to be the conductor of digital transformation and new ways of working for people related issues, but to put the ‘human’ at the centre and ensure that our workplaces become fairer, better and more humane. All eyes are on HR and undoubtedly HR has a unique role to play. Can the function deliver on the weight of expectations that have been thrust onto its shoulders?

FIG 1: The evolution of Human Resources (Source: Accelerating the journey to HR 3.0, IBM Institute of Business Value)


One of the major positives I’ve seen during the crisis is that the vast majority of organisations I’ve spoken to have prioritised employee health and wellbeing above everything else in their response to the pandemic. It is a start, but there is much, much more work to do. The levels of stress, burnout and mental illness in many workplaces is unacceptable and - according to research by the likes of Jeffrey Pfeffer and Leanne Williams (here) – the pandemic has only made the situation worse. Moreover, not only does this have a calamitous impact on the physical and mental health of the workforce but, as evidenced by Pfeffer in his sobering tome Dying for a Paycheck, it has a negative impact on business performance too. This is where strong leadership from HR comes in, backed up by evidence from people analytics teams. As an example, Leena Nair shared with me in an episode of the Digital HR Leaders Podcast that Unilever found that they get a $2.50 return for every $1.00 invested in employee wellness. I’m looking forward to learning about similar examples from other companies and am optimistic that the shift to prioritising wellbeing and mental health will continue as we hopefully emerge on the other side of the pandemic.


Strong capability in People Analytics is an absolute must-have for any CHRO looking to deliver positive impact for the business and its workforce. During the pandemic it is not too dramatic to state that people analytics has helped save lives – either within an organisation through a focus on employee health and wellbeing or through supporting business continuity in companies focused on essential supplies such as medicines. Our recent research at Insight222, conducted with 60 global organisations during the pandemic, finds that people analytics continues to grow, investment in analytics technology is increasing and leading people analytics teams are reorganising themselves to focus on business demand and delivering value at scale (see FIG 2 for Insight222’s recommended operating model for people analytics). People Analytics is no longer a nice-to-have but an absolute essential for any organisation.