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. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

At the start of 2020, businesses were already grappling with the need to adapt to fast-paced market changes. When the pandemic hit, it took a few months for people to adapt, but eventually, the shock subsided and acceptance set in, albeit with masks, sanitizers and thermal scanners.

The pandemic-induced shift in work dynamics required businesses to communicate more extensively with their employees, stakeholders and customers. With lockdowns enforced across most of the world, many employees quickly shifted to remote work. However, frontline workers like nurses, construction staff, delivery executives and retail staff did not have the option of working from home. They were either on site or furloughed.

During this crisis, it was important for organizations to continuously reach out to staff and maintain two-way communications. Businesses had to up their communications game plan in order to streamline operations and abate fear. Internal communications is not only instrumental in shaping a positive work environment, but it is also key to growth. With the pandemic shining the spotlight on communications, business leaders are finally realizing its importance and are vigorously trying to fill gaps by investing in professionals, training and technology.

Going into 2021, it seems like hybrid models and digital workplaces are the way forward in a post-COVID world. Here are some trends to watch out for this year:

1. The Digital Transformation of the Frontline Workforce

Enrolling frontline workers in the digital workplace will continue to be a popular trend. Until now, companies engaged this part of the workforce through traditional communication media such as bulletin boards, paper-based processes and printed newsletters. This approach is quickly changing, since more and more companies are allowing workers to use their smartphones in an official capacity.

It is important to note that channels like email and intranets are not practical in an organization where the majority of the workforce are frontline, deskless or dispersed employees. Often, these workers don’t have desktop access. Additionally, tracking and feedback-based internal communications is of paramount importance.

All these parameters tend toward an increased adoption of the employee app — a mobile-first internal communications tool. The employee app is a digital channel that allows for instant messaging, analytics and impact tracking, and two-way communications, all from the convenience of a mobile device. Employee apps for frontline workers often also have productivity tools that help streamline operations, processes and routine tasks.

With the digital workplace evolution in turbo mode, businesses need safe and secure tools that help them reach workers, no matter where they are. Supporting and upskilling workers so that they can leverage these multi-purpose, mobile-first tools will be a crucial step in streamlining operations in a post-COVID-19 world.

Forward-thinking learning and development (L&D) leaders are factoring these digital tools into their plans for next year, knowing that they will help improve employee engagement and productivity and reduce turnover.

2. Well-being and Mental Health

Anxiety, depression and unemployment are at an all-time high, with the COVID-19 crisis sparking a much-needed dialogue around the issue of mental well-being in the workplace. Heading into 2021, leaders will have to pay deliberate attention to employee well-being. The frontline workforce will need more resources than ever before, since is has been hit the hardest by this ongoing disaster. Empathy will help businesses better connect with and engage their workers by, for example, using softer tones in company-wide and team messages and training programs.

A shift in leadership is also on the horizon. Servant leadership styles are gaining momentum. There is a marked shift in leader attitudes — away from the brittle, black-and-white mode to a more intuitive, people-driven and almost humanitarian style of operation. Leaders are also more cognizant of the impact of culture and experience on bottom lines. For these reasons, too, employee well-being will be a primary concern for most leaders in 2021.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, frontline workers, especially, will be picking up the pieces and rehabilitating their lives. Being supportive will bode well for businesses in the year ahead. This support might include developing awareness of issues like diversity and inclusion, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other topics through extensive and regular training modules across all levels of the organization. These programs will help combat the situation more effectively and help employees deal with complex scenarios without being taken by surprise.

3. Inclusion

Inclusion, here, is about bringing deskless workers into the organizational fold, improving the accessibility of information and opportunities for everyone — desk, deskless, remote and dispersed workers alike.

An internal communication strategy should include methods for reaching out to, communicating with and upskilling frontline workers. Since these workers have different needs and unique working styles, organizations should customize all plans to work for them.

But providing frontline workers with the digital communications tools they need to be successful in their roles is just the tip of the iceberg. Businesses must modify messaging, training, and other learning and development initiatives to make deskless workers feel included in the overall organization, instead of in their own siloes.

This practice is a subset of diversity and inclusion and will be crucial in 2021 and beyond. The pandemic and other events that occurred this year made it evident that divisiveness is still prevalent in systems and society at large. It is also clear that people will no longer stand for prejudice.

It is likely that 2021 will be the year that frontline workers receive the acknowledgement and resources that they aptly deserve. Whether through technology or policy, businesses can leave no stone unturned in catering to the needs of the empowered frontline workforce.