woman holding baby while working at home on laptop
From work-life integration to building an inclusive and diverse culture, there are several prominent topics that are evolving the business world. — Getty Images/pixdeluxe

Each year the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology surveys members to create a list of the biggest trends expected to impact the American workplace. No surprise, broad social issues, safety concerns and work-from-home challenges dominate the list this year, often with overlapping causes, concerns and potential solutions. Here is the SIOP Top 10 list, with suggestions for how small business owners can navigate each trend.

10. Virtual learning

The years-long trend toward online learning accelerated as the pandemic forced people out of traditional classrooms. Online learning is increasing in the workplace, too, and opportunities can be generated in-house and inexpensively.

Tips: Organize "lunch and learns" by videoconference to focus on problem solving, innovation or sharing best practices, suggested Heidi Glickman, a business psychologist and human resources executive who chaired the committee that developed SIOP’s list. Pick just one topic, such as exceeding customer expectations, and invite employees to share recent successes, Glickman said.

Glickman and other experts suggest encouraging employees to explore free and low-cost learning resources such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera and Udemy.

9. Building cultures of agility and adaptability

Disruption in the economy and life in general is forcing many businesses to innovate in a hurry and pivot to new business strategies or change how they get things done, with severe workforce reductions in some industries yet notable growth in others. Companies that already had agile and adaptive cultures are better prepared to navigate the change. Others must learn quickly.

Tips: “Allocate 10 minutes in a regularly scheduled meeting to surface ideas for addressing business challenges,” suggested Glickman, whose own company coaches business leaders on how to thrive amid disruption. “Pick one suggestion, assign a team member to pilot it, and report back at your next meeting on what worked well, what didn't, and the learnings gained from the experience.”

8. The changing nature of work

Ongoing acquisition of new skills is vital for workers, managers and leaders, to leverage the increasing benefits of digitization, automation and artificial intelligence (AI), all of which affects how work gets down and who does it—employees, contractors, temps or consultants.

Tips: You may already be using AI without thinking about it. If not, consider customer service chatbots or AI-driven recruiting apps. See also the online learning resources above for ongoing education for you and your team. And check out these seven digital tools to streamline basic business tasks.

Your employees can be a great source of ideas for change, too: “In your next one-on-one meetings, ask each of your direct reports to share one idea for an improvement to an existing process that would help streamline or automate it,” Glickman told CO—.

7. Work-life integration

Already a problem, the 24/7 intrusion of jobs into personal time has exploded during the pandemic. Business owners need to think beyond traditional employee support services to consider the challenges of homeschooling, sick family members and general health and well-being. Flexibility, skills-training programs and stress-management tools can help increase employee engagement, productivity and retention.

Tips: “As a leader, you set the tone for integrating work and life,” Glickman said. “Share a personal experience about how you responded to an unexpected work-life ‘collision’ that occurred as you've been working differently during the pandemic. As your employees encounter their own challenges, they'll feel more comfortable asking for help, and identifying creative solutions for integrating their work and life.”

To foster inclusion, make sure your behaviors are consistent with creating a psychologically safe environment.

Heidi Glickman, a business psychologist and human resources executive

6. Team effectiveness across virtual and distributed environments

With more people than ever working from home, businesses must figure out how to get everyone working successfully together without in-person interaction. An often overlooked aspect, according to a separate study by Cigna: Deprived of normal contact with coworkers and friends, loneliness surged among U.S. workers.

Tips: Owners and managers need to engage at-home employees individually and in groups, according to several experts writing in the Harvard Business Review. Among their suggestions: Set regular, predictable, daily phone or video check-ins, either one-on-one or with teams; establish clear expectations for frequency, means and timing of communication; formalize time for non-work chatter, perhaps at the start or end of virtual meetings; acknowledge the stress and listen to employees’ concerns and anxieties.

Remote meetings can be difficult, however, so consider these suggestions: If meetings involve more than six people, keep the meeting short and follow with separate, smaller meetings; embrace a little silence to improve brainstorm sessions. Other vital tactics: Invite only people who you can assign a clear role to; set a firm agenda; ban multitasking; and keep meetings short.

5. Social justice

While some businesses have long worked to ensure equal rights and access to opportunities, many faced a reckoning only amid public outcry over the killing of George Floyd and events of the past year that focused attention on systemic racism. Heightened awareness has spurred companies to weave equal opportunity into the fabric of their businesses. This can be done successfully only by setting meaningful goals and enacting strategies developed with involvement from employees and surrounding communities and backed by company leaders.

Tips: “Think about what aspects of social justice tie most closely to your business purpose,” Glickman suggested. “Are there other actions you can take to better align your employee and customer experiences? Are there organizations in your community that you might consider partnering with?”

4. Inclusive practices to get, keep and grow talent

Diversity is good for business—diverse teams develop better business solutions. But proactive, structured inclusion practices are needed to ensure all employees feel accepted, valued and excited about working in the organization, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, social class, religion or other minority status.

Tips: “Start networking more broadly today, and when opportunities become available, you'll have an expanded network of potential candidates to source from,” Glickman said. “To foster inclusion, make sure your behaviors are consistent with creating a psychologically safe environment.” Other experts advise setting up a diversity council or at least appointing someone to lead the effort, then examine everything from pay parity to leadership at the top of the company, while also working with more diverse outside organizations.

3. Implementing strategies and measuring progress on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belongingness

Company diversity and inclusion initiatives often fail. So increasingly, businesses are not just proclaiming goals, but setting strategies and measuring progress. Education, reporting and analysis programs need to be set up.

Tips: Treat diversity and inclusion progress like you would profit: Set goals (here’s how) and measure them. “By collecting and analyzing data on diversity over time, comparing those numbers to the numbers at other organizations, and sharing them with key stakeholders, companies can increase accountability and transparency around diversity issues,” wrote David Pedulla, associate professor of sociology at Stanford University.

2. Employee health, well-being, wellness and safety

Expenses for healthcare and other benefits continue to rise, even as employers need to invest more to help employees deal with the physical risks and mental stress of the pandemic. Beyond direct costs, indirect costs are rising, too, including lower engagement, performance and retention.

Tips: On a scale of plus 10 to minus 10, Glickman advised, assess how things have gotten better or worse the past year in four areas: employee physical health, mental health, safety and one related topic you deem important. Focus on improvements in the worst areas.

Companies are getting creative about benefits for at-home workers, from offering child care assistance or noise-canceling headphones to free access to digital wellness services. Businesses that previously provided lunches or snacks at the office can offer a stipend for grocery or restaurant delivery.

Consider also offering additional mental health benefits, such as a free emotional-support hotline staffed by mental-health specialists.

1. Remote work and flexible working arrangements

The impact of SIOP’s top trend varies across industries and may change over time, particularly when the pandemic wanes. But smart business owners won’t simply bank on a return to normal, as many experts expect the shift to remote work will persist.

Tips: If you haven’t already, invest in tools for work-from-home efficiency, including an effective video conferencing app (here are five alternatives to Zoom). Free Conference Call offers, yes, free phone conferencing that’s simple and efficient. Google Docs offers top-notch collaborative apps for text documents and spreadsheets, at little to no cost.

Other strategic shifts to consider: Revisit your mission statement and revise it if needed to be relevant to the new workplace realities; find new ways to recognize and praise jobs well done; celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. And perhaps above all: Use formal and informal feedback channels to really listen to your employees ideas and concerns.

“Rethink how employees do their work,” Glickman said. “For roles where employees can perform job duties effectively at varying times, or from varying locations, consider providing ongoing flexibility for this, if it hasn't historically been the norm.”

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 February 22, 2021