Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result.

Good business leaders, who constantly look ahead to predict where their companies may have to shift to maintain success, were already using the turn of a decade to enact change — but 2020 has been a year of unprecedented shifts. From personal services to high tech, every industry has been impacted by a global pandemic that, after some initial pauses, has in many cases accelerated how we do business. One might even say that we’re now truly living in “the future of work.”

The Changed Nature — but Consistent Importance — of Work/Life Balance

Work life has changed, but work life-balance has not. Working remotely, working from home, virtual meetings and online training have all become more prevalent out of necessity. Things we arguably should have allowed in the first place, or at least seen coming, were thrust upon us. Companies that disallowed remote work suddenly realized productivity wasn’t sacrificed when people stayed home, but employees also realized that it’s harder to disengage from work when you’re doing it out of your dining room. In a fully remote environment, the need for work-life balance is even stronger.

Though there were many people who had been working remotely for years, entire organizations were forced to make the switch, quickly shepherding their workforce through an all-new paradigm. In 2021, companies will have to decide how much of the remote work model they’ll want to hold onto and, more importantly, enact new ways of providing employees with opportunities to achieve work-life balance.

The Collaboration of Humans and Technology

“Humans plus technology” has changed, but humans and technology have not. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics permeate the modern company, and over the past year we have seen an uptick in many hybrid solutions in education, retail, health care and manufacturing. The combination of humans and technology holds a new place in the global economy that will not fade away. The number of digital transformations that happened in a short period of time in 2020 is unheard of, but the human aspect of labor remains.

Has technology replaced humans in some cases? Certainly — but can technology approach those things that are uniquely human? No, it cannot. The “human element” has been proven its value this year, and the collaboration of technology and people is worth much more than the replacement of one by the other. In the year ahead, companies will need to capitalize on the strengths of both, combining them in ways we have yet to discover.

New Ways to Make a First Impression

The smile and handshake may be gone, but first impressions still matter. Somewhere along the way, someone in your life — whether a parent, a school counselor, a professor, a mentor or a boss — likely told you that first impressions are everything. “Have a firm handshake, look them in the eye and smile,” that person probably said.

What do you do, though, when you can’t touch the person you’re impressing, and he or she can’t see your smile? Your work must speak for itself. Many people who rely on personality and charisma to carry them through a job interview, an annual review, a merger, a new position or any other first impression have had a hard time this year. People who had not invested in online profiles, work portfolios, code repositories, documented weekly check-ins, or monthly status reports based on tracking or statistics found it more difficult to introduce themselves to others and demonstrate their value in meaningful ways. In this new year, leaders must look for new, digital ways to engage employees and peers whom they are meeting for the first time, with opportunities to understand who they are and what they’ve accomplished.

The Employer/Employee Gap

Employer expectations have also changed, but mechanisms to meet those expectations have not. There was already a widening skills gap between employers’ expectations and the number of individuals qualified to meet them. Education, experience, certifications, attitudes and aptitudes of job- and promotion-seekers seldom match the standards set by internal and external job postings.

In 2020, the rise of remote work, the sheer amount of digital transformation, and employers’ perception that the out-of-work job-seeking population exploded caused employer expectations to skyrocket. Organizations now expect that, given the circumstances, the perfect candidate must be “out there,” and in many cases, they’re willing to wait.

This mindset causes employers to look past the “close-enough” candidate whom they can easily upskill and to sit content with positions unfilled. Candidates can’t rise to the occasion, even when they are highly motivated, because the mechanisms they use aren’t enough. Take higher education, for example: As employer expectations rise, most universities are struggling with their own migration to online platforms and reduced headcount in classrooms. We must, for the sake of future work, form corporate and educational partnerships to bridge this ever-widening gap.

Looking Ahead

In 2021, after the pauses, false starts, surges and pullbacks of 2020, we will need a shift from “living through” to “living with.” You can see it happening already in some forward-thinking organizations and institutions. The “new normal” combines the old methodologies and the future of work, taking only the good from each and turning “things we have to do” into “things we get to do.”

Work happily integrated into life, humans augmented with technology, digital-first impressions that form real connections and partnerships that close the skills gap are all necessary if we want to survive and thrive in this new year. 2020 was a year of massive shifts, but brace yourselves: There are more to come.

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