2021 HR MegaTrends: Our Purpose is People

December 7, 2020      By Karina Schultheis

Ultimate Takeaway
  • UKG reflects on the previous year’s developments and imagines how these forces will shape organizations and HR in our annual MegaTrends.
  • 2020 devastated many facets of life as we know it—including the ways in which we view work.
  • HR has and will be called upon to spearhead the next evolution of work employee experiences.

This article is part of our 12 Days of HCM series in which we take a look back and a look forward at the world of work to prepare for the year to come.


Each fall, my colleagues and I reflect on the previous year’s developments and imagine how these forces will shape organizations and the industry for years to come. While none of us had predicted a global pandemic transforming the workforce and triggering an overnight recession, our 2020 MegaTrends emphasized the need for accessible, flexible, and adaptable workforces—a feat that, arguably, many organizations pulled off remarkably well (under extraordinary circumstances) this year.

We’ve all been living through 2020 together, but to quickly recap:

COVID-19’s devastating impact claimed 1.2 million lives, nearly 100K U.S. businesses, and triggered unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression. Communities around the world suffered the cumulative stress of long-term health concerns, the loss of loved ones, distance learning challenges, and personal and corporate financial strain. In the U.S., a mass exodus of women from the workforce wiped out decades of gender equity progress.

At the same time, civil unrest and widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism rocked the nation. George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May sparked months of protests and demonstrations; participation estimates range from 15 million to 26 million people, making these the largest U.S. protests in history. Despite widespread reports of rioting and arson—and the deployment of federal agents and curfews in several cities—the vast majority of these protests were peaceful, and public opinion shifted to support the Black Lives Matter movement. These events set the stage for a widespread cultural reckoning on racial injustice, with impacts reverberating around the world.

Meanwhile, natural disasters displaced more than 10 million people by June and caused an estimated $75 billion in global economic losses. The 2020 hurricane season was the most active on record, with 30 named storms. Wildfires scorched 45 million acres in Australia, released a record amount of carbon dioxide in Siberia, and burned more than 4% of California’s 100 million acres of land. Murder hornets and locust swarms devastated parts of the world.

Finally, as the 2020 election loomed nearer, political polarization intensified. Several years of Pew Research studies illuminated the intense and increasing division between Democrats and Republicans. In October, about 80% of registered voters in both camps said disagreements went beyond politics and stemmed from differences in core American values. Roughly nine in ten—regardless of affiliation—believed that a victory by the opposing candidate would result in “lasting harm” to the United States.

But when things break down, we get to rebuild.

It’s been a very difficult year. Yet never before have we had the opportunity to improve the lives of so many, or received so much executive buy-in. The pandemic underscored the importance of human intellect and innovation in people management, elevating HR to the head of the C-suite conversation. Companies looked to CHRO’s to lead the pandemic response, create an inclusive and compassionate company culture, and fuel both corporate responsibility and overall growth strategies.

As a nation, we’ve internalized the fact that flexibility at work is both acceptable and desirable. We’ve seen increased trust and willingness to let people work when, how, and where they work best. People are sharing more of their authentic selves than ever—their homes, their families, their fears. And, despite sweeping layoffs in countless industries, 83% of American workers approved of their company leadership’s response to the coronavirus pandemic (compared to the 43% who approved of President Trump’s), reinforcing the trend of people putting their faith in organizations in times of uncertainty.

In the midst of this destructive backdrop, there’s been a reckoning. We are fully recognizing and valuing our shared humanity. Companies are investing heavily in building empathetic, humane workplaces.

Work isn’t just about work anymore.

We understand that our purpose is people.

For the next three days, we’ll be sharing our 2021 MegaTrends based on these (and many other) considerations. Stay tuned to discover our vision for the future of work.

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