New challenges in the workplace will create new normals in 2021. The new year is likely to bring some "new normals" in business. — Getty Images/SDI Productions

For many business owners, 2020 presented unprecedented challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to adapt to a “new normal.” As businesses begin to look toward 2021, some wonder if the new year will bring back “business as usual” or if we will move in a new direction.

Here are eight predictions from business experts on what could come to pass in 2021.

Remote work will persist through 2021 and beyond

One of the most significant shifts for many workers in 2020 was the swift adoption of remote work. While some companies expected newly remote workers to return to the office, this is no longer a reality. Many businesses will not expect workers to come to the office five days a week, if at all, and companies will shrink or reconfigure office spaces accordingly.

“The reality is, employees will not be returning to the same office they left behind,” a 2020 remote-work study by PwC indicates. “There will be fewer people, restricted collaboration spaces and rotating shifts — all of which will require teams to find new ways to connect and collaborate. More than anything else, this need for connections is likely to shape what the office is going to represent.”

Salaries could be adjusted for remote workers

Along with the adoption of remote work during the pandemic, many employees took this opportunity to relocate. Some companies have already indicated that they will likely cut salaries to match cost-of-living expenses, which could be a significant corporate initiative in 2021.

“We predict a tidal wave of comp adjustments in 2021 as many tech and professional services workers go remote and move away from company HQs,” Glassdoor Chief Economist Andrew Chamberlain notes in the Glassdoor Workplace Trends 2021 report. “Once the dust settles on millions of employee relocations, we expect a wave of pay adjustments in 2021 for fully remote workers, whether or not they move to new cities. Once local labor markets have adjusted to a wave of newly remote workers, the equilibrium pay for workers who’ve left expensive, congested metros like San Francisco and New York for smaller cities will almost certainly adjust downward.”

Some employers might require vaccination to come back in person

As the pandemic continues, some hope is on the horizon with promising vaccines from Pfizer and other companies. These vaccines could help employees safely come back to work in-person, and some companies are considering making the vaccine mandatory.

“A couple of my corporate clients are leaning toward making the COVID vaccine mandatory,” Rogge Dunn, a Dallas labor and employment attorney, told CNBC. “Under the law, an employer can force an employee to get vaccinated, and if they don’t take it, fire them.

The Zoom happy hour has hit its expiration date, [with] too many long days of virtual meetings for months.

Nani Vishwanath, people team manager at Limeade

Companies will reduce virtual activities and meetings

While businesses adopted virtual meetings fervently in 2020 as a way to help keep teams connected, they may not be so tied to them in 2021. As remote work becomes more of a norm, business owners could reduce these instances in order to give employees more time back to work.

"The Zoom happy hour has hit its expiration date, [with] too many long days of virtual meetings for months," Nani Vishwanath, people team manager at Limeade, told TechRepublic. “[Employers will] gift employees with time back in 2021, such as canceling recurring meetings or blocking a day for 'no meetings' and encouraging your team to recharge."

Employees expect more diversity and company culture

Following major social and racial justice movements in 2020, companies should expect more scrutiny from employees and partners when it comes to diversity. For example, large asset manager BlackRock said it intends to push companies it has invested in for greater ethnic and gender diversity. This scrutiny will happen at the employee level as well.

“[Companies are] looking at what their policies say about company culture, what they’re willing to tolerate, what that does to employee morale, attrition and retention of employees, their reputation and ability to attract new talent and also their public perception,” Jennifer Shelfer, partner at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, told the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “Employees are really expecting to see these initiatives in place and to see genuine support, especially from the upper-level management.”

Business travel will be significantly reduced

As the pandemic continues into 2021, don’t expect travel for U.S. businesses to make a massive comeback in 2021. At the recent New York Times’ Dealbook conference, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates predicted a significant drop in business travel, and for there to be a “very high threshold” for companies that can conduct meetings from home.

“My prediction would be that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away,” Gates said at Dealbook conference. “Some companies will be extreme on one end or the other. … We will go to the office somewhat [and] we’ll do some business travel, but dramatically less.”

Economic growth could return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021

For businesses that have made it through 2020, many are wondering if the economy will come back in the next year. A December 2020 survey of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) suggests the economy very well could roar back in the second half of 2021.

“73% percent of panelists believe that the economy will have returned to pre-pandemic GDP levels by the second half of 2021,” reports the NABE. “The 73% is a dramatic improvement from the October survey in which 38% of panelists believed that a full recovery would occur before 2022.”

Retraining and reskilling workers will be a 2021 priority

As the pandemic has put pressure on companies to lay off lower-skilled workers that can be replaced by automation or technology, some companies will also work to retrain and reskill employees.

“Cost-effective options — such as retraining, reskilling and redeployment — will continue to grow in popularity next year,” Michelle Anthony, chief revenue officer at LHH, told BenefitsPro. “Employers will be more committed to building a workforce of the future by helping employees acquire new skills so the companies can absorb downturns and market shifts without having to resort to the costly fire-and-hire cycle.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published December 16, 2020