• Glassdoor’s Workplace Trends 2021 report identifies several positive changes to work in 2020 that are forecast to continue and develop.
  • Full-time homeworking is likely to evolve into more flexible ‘hybrid’ models, giving employees greater autonomy.
  • Employers are likely to increase hiring for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) roles.
  • More digital tools will be used to track and support remote teams’ mental health and wellbeing.

2020 saw the world of work upended. Back in September, the International Labour Organization forecast that working hours equivalent to 245 million full time jobs could be lost globally in the final quarter of the year alone.

There is also evidence of the struggles that many homeworkers are enduring, such as worsening sleep patterns and fatigue, especially during periods of lockdown.

However, amid the upheaval, Glassdoor’s Workplace Trends 2021 report - together with other analyses - have identified more positive shifts that could pave the way for a more positive relationship with work - for the long term.

Here are 5 of the ways 2020 could change our workplaces for the better.

a graph showing how working from home has affected workers in different sectors
Working from home has been positive for employees in several sectors.
Image: Glassdoor

1. Work-life balance

Of course, in 2020 many employees didn’t have the option to work from home and experiment with their work-life balance. And many of those who did were not convinced: in the UK, a greater proportion of workers said they were struggling with their work-life balance in 2020 than before the pandemic.

However, according to analyses by academics Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven Davis, cutting out the commute has saved Americans an estimated 62.4 million hours per workday. Around half of this time has been spent on household activities, exercise and childcare, with a third invested back into jobs.

And there are signs that workers in 2021 want to get the best of both worlds. 70% of Glassdoor employees say they would prefer a more hybrid office-remote work mix, post-COVID-19. Several US tech firms are considering a range of flexible approaches, and Germany’s Siemens AG, is allowing its employees to work two or three days a week remotely in future as a “permanent standard” in the new normal.

2. Fewer commutes

For many, less time in traffic jams or on trains is closely linked to improved work-life balance. “Lower commute times mean better employee health and morale,” is the verdict of Glassdoor.

An improved environment and cleaner air means everyone could benefit from those millions of commuting hours saved. There was a notable decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in cities, including China, as more vehicles were parked. France invested millions of euros in schemes to get its population cycling, and a host of cities introduced new cycle lanes.

And while hybrid homeworking means journeys will likely increase, there are signs that workplaces could become more local to employees in future - using neighbourhood remote working spaces offered by companies including Toronto-based WorkMode. “Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021,” says Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics.

a pie chart showing future working preferences among workers
2021 workplace trends are likely to be better for work-life balance.
Image: Glassdoor

3. Understanding wellbeing

Let’s be clear: for many employees, COVID-19 and lockdowns have been tough. A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 4 in 10 Americans have struggled with mental-health issues or substance abuse during the pandemic. US pollster, Gallup, found that 46% of US workers were worried about setbacks including layoffs, reduced wages and fewer hours.

The good news is that these problems appear to be firmly on corporate agendas. It also makes economic sense: according to the WHO, for every $1 invested in treatments for depression and anxiety, there is a yield of $4 through both better health and greater ability to work.

In future, Glassdoor expects more employers to use tools that track the wellbeing of their teams. Starbucks already offers employees up to 20 free mental health therapy sessions a year. And a growing number of employers are investing in digital mental health tools - a trend that was growing before COVID-19 and looks set to expand further.

a chart showing how covid-19 has affected working women
Many women have struggled in the workplace during 2020.
Image: McKinsey&Company

4. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

While homeworking has enabled many mothers to spend more time with their children, they have done so while juggling work. This, and other pressures, has led McKinsey and LeanIn.Org to the stark conclusion that as many as two million women, in the United States alone, are now considering leaving the workforce. Black women, in particular, have been particularly hard hit - struggling with COVID-19 losses at the same time as trying to maintain career progression.

However, as with health and wellbeing, Glassdoor forecasts that a greater awareness of these issues will drive corporate progress in 2021. According to its report, DEI job postings have been on the rise globally - and are forecast to accelerate sharply in 2021.

As the Black Lives Matter movement focuses minds, Glassdoor predicts that more employers will now face calls to make DEI a core business function. This is a decision that may be in everyone’s interests: its research shows 76% of job seekers say that a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating prospective employers.

5. Improved productivity

It was back in 2014, in a now famous study, that the Stanford professor, Nicholas Bloom identified how working from home had made employees of a Chinese travel website, Ctrip, not only happier, less likely to quit, but also more productive. Fast-forward to 2020, and over 90% of employers surveyed by consultants Mercer report that productivity has been the same as or higher than before the pandemic, despite homeworking.

Of course, the benefits are not universal: Research by Stanford University, shows managers, professionals, and financial workers achieve the highest efficiency rates; overworking and burnout are also significant risks.

Nonetheless, improved productivity can benefit both staff and employers, fostering greater trust throughout organizations. “In most cases, this forced experiment around remote working has shattered those perceptions to prove that most employees can actually be trusted to get their work done from home,” Lauren Mason from Mercer tells the Society for Human Resource Management.

Mason also sees these trends continuing: “As organizations are thinking toward the longer term, they are looking at how they can execute flexibility at scale to deliver on the value of flexible working, like enhanced performance and productivity, a better employee experience, an expanded talent pool, and, in some cases, potentially reduced costs."