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  • Writer's pictureRaf

Now what? Working in 2021 and beyond – food for thought

Here we are. 2021. The year of change. Or is it “back to normal”? Some voices, even coming from brilliant academics like Paul De Grauwe, expect us to land in a kind of “roaring twenties” period. The real question to me is what the “new normal” will be. And how it will impact our way of living and in particular working.


The Gauss curve.

One “merit” of the pandemic crisis, is that people became familiar with the concept of curves. Curves going up, curves going down, flattening the curves…it’s our daily meal in the media.

During the long talks and discussions that my good friend trendwatcher Herman Konings and myself had in the past months, the topic “what happens after what happened” (his wording) popped up on a regular base. We both believe that the new normal will be an evolution, not a revolution.

Fig: Gauss curve of people's behavior change

So how would that translate into people’s behavior? Around 10% will or did dramatically change their way of living and working. On the opposite side, another 10% will fall back on a scheme that is identical to the one they had before Covid-19. The majority however, 80%, will adapt some aspects of their lives and at the same time keep many of the old ones. So we have a perfect Gauss curve. Projecting this theory, or let’s call it outlook, in professional lives leads to the same blended results for many of us.

Meeting. Not meetings.

Homeworking became rapidly a habit for many with clear advantages: no commute time, less distraction, so easier to focus, more family time… so only positive signals in the early Covid-19 days. From an organizational perspective, plans were even made to reduce office space and as such save money (remember the Googles of this world). During the second (semi) lockdown, different voices popped up: Zoom & Teams meetings are exhausting, remote interactions only cover the rational and factual part of the job, it’s very hard to onboard new colleagues remotely, we are fed up with E-pero’s… even pictures of party and food boxes being posted on LinkedIn got annoying.

So will we return massively to our offices, once the pandemic crisis will be left behind us? Or will homework remain the standard and working in the office rather the exception? In many cases, the truth will be in the middle (of the Gauss curve). Thank god, for several reasons:

  • Company culture: it’s impossible for a company to build an identity and differentiate itself from the competition without bonding and meeting physically. When remote working takes over, employees will feel less connected to the company DNA and as such, the flight risk of employees becomes significantly higher. In particular, dealing with the “generation instant” (see further), there is an increased risk. Apart from salary, what is the difference between employer X or Y, in a purely remote world?

  • Creativity & innovation: video conferencing is a very suitable medium for rational activities and review meetings, one might even say it is the better one for such activities. Brainstorming and co-creation on the other side require verbal and non-verbal interaction. Even informal coffee talks facilitate idea generation.

  • Learning: it’s a no-brainer that informal learning is at least as important as formal learning. Physical interactions are the key enabler, obviously. Next to that, a recent study of Ipsos in 29 countries, showed that 72% of the adults believe blended (online & in person) learning is there to stay as well.

  • Mobility: it’s highly unlikely employees will accept returning to 5 days/week to the office and spending time in traffic jams or -even worse these days- on fully loaded trains. Organizations that force their employees to do so, will face serious flight risks.

In summary, both homeworking and office time will probably co-exist in the majority of the organizations. The way meetings, tasks and office spaces are being organized, will be crucial for long term success and -in the end- employee retention. A golden rule: don’t fill up office days with formal meetings, make sure employees have time to meet. Facilitate meeting, not meetings.

The power of the individual.

Talking to company leaders and HR directors during the last months, many of them expressed the hope that -driven by the crisis- the labor market would return to the so-called “normal”. Normal meaning returning to the good old days, when employers had the choice between a large number of job applicants and retention was a non-issue.

A large survey, done by PWC, interviewing 600 HR Leaders worldwide in full Covid-19 year 2020, clearly showed that finding, attracting and retaining talent remains for 58% of the respondents the biggest challenge and key driver to consider new (technology-enabled) ways of working.

For sure, the cry for stability took place during the first months of the lockdown. So to a certain degree, a more balanced offer/demand ecosystem was installed. In particular for graduates, the labor market changed and there was a slowdown. Today the situation is reversing rapidly, which is no surprise. Not only in IT, where the war for talent never stopped. But also in sales, with a strong “we have to catch up the lost business” demand for new talents. The healthcare industry is massively struggling to find people. The role of financial accountant continues to be a bottleneck occupation. Engineering graduates of all kinds are being hunted again today to start working in September. The above is no surprise, looking at some drivers:

  • The day after tomorrow: once the uncertainty disappears, employees working for employers that showed less empathy and flexibility managing the pandemic crisis, will start looking for new opportunities. It’s revenge or pay-time. A new normal has been installed in people’s life and work-life balance with new habits and expectations. The absence of a clear direction on i.e. home- versus office working after Covid-19 is a potential incentive to leave for many people.

  • Generation Instant: the new kids on the block, the early 20-ers, have a different mindset versus the so-called “millennials”. They are used to instant gratification and driven by money. As a consequence job-hopping is part of their DNA. I had a discussion on the topic with an HR Director of a highly people oriented company recently. Managers -even in this company where sociocracy rules- disagreed with this hopping behavior, saying people should stay at least 2 years in a role. They might disagree, but the new kids on the block are here to stay and part of the new reality. It’s probably better to facilitate micro-careers and mobility internally, then making them leave the company.

Food for thought – proactivity rules.

So what could be done, anticipating the challenges ahead? Here is some food for thought.

Proactivity rules in talent attraction and retention

  1. Procruitment: adapt recruitment as an attitude and ongoing effort. Too often, recruitment is running behind the facts and doing firefighting with huge pressure on HR and unsatisfied business managers as a result. Proactive ways of building talent pipelines avoid a lot of pain and bottom-line business losses. We call it procruitment. More info on

  2. Open communication streams: today’s tendency is that people who want to change jobs rather start looking outside of the organization instead of internally due to a lack of visibility or even being afraid their manager will block them. A yearly talent review discussion is good, but will not do it. Permanent career dialogues and visibility on internal opportunities are crucial.

  3. Career management tools: employees are often struggling to find out what they want or could do as a next step. Providing them with career guidance tools not only support the individual but will also facilitate the discussions with their managers. An example is

Create an environment that facilitates job (content) variation and employee engagement

  1. Micro-careers: an increasing amount of employees will go for micro-careers and ask for variation in their job content (see above). Several ways and organizational setup techniques (like jobcrafting) exist to facilitate this, with a clear alignment of business needs and employee aspirations. However, it all starts with managers and senior leaders being open to it.

  2. Jobcrafting: allowing jobcrafting (= employees have the flexibility to redesign their own tasks and jobs in ways that foster job satisfaction) significantly increases resilience and job retention. And in the end even the agility of an organization.

  3. Reskill & train: this is a no-brainer. Offering sufficient blended learning opportunities (meaning both online and classroom) are a must supporting micro-careers, jobcrafting and in the end retention.

Be clear today on how the work-life balance will look once Covid-19 is gone

  1. Home versus office work: the benefits of homeworking but also office working became very clear thanks to this pandemic crisis. Tools for remote working are in place and new ways of working have been adapted. It’s crucial to agree TODAY with employees how things will look after Covid-19. A 50/50 balance home versus office work seems to be the common choice in many cases. Is your policy ready and communicated?

  2. Revenge traveling: while in 2020 employees needed to be forced to take their holidays in some cases, the expectation is that people might want to “catch up” and do “revenge traveling” in H2 of 2021. It requires careful absence planning. Specifically for young graduates, the likelihood that they will be available in the summertime for a new job is low. Revenge traveling is on the top of their wish list. So it might be a good idea to focus on October/November to onboard young graduates.

All of the above, more than ever before, will only work with a strong buy in but also active participation of the board rooms. A no-brainer.

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