The road ahead in 2021: some twists & turns but gathering speed again

The way we work in 2021 will be different to anything we've seen before. Here's how our CEO Joel McInnes sees it.

At the start of every year at FlexCareers, we gaze into our crystal ball for the trends we expect to see in the way we work, and in the labour market more generally.

2020 was no different. A year ago in our predictions, we expected to see a gradual continuation of the roll out of flexibility, in part around the future-of-work, and in part to enable a more diverse and inclusive workplace. By removing some of the ‘how’ barriers to working, we would enable more of the talent who needed some flexibility at work to participate.

And then of course, COVID happened. No longer able to share the same physical workspace, and we – those of us who could – were all sent home to work remotely, locked down. We used the flex work tools we had designed to achieve higher-order talent metrics

Depending on where we lived, we remained locked down anywhere from 2 to 6 months, including home schooling our kids. Wellness became a major priority, and constant video meetings meant we gained a professional intimacy with our colleagues, their kids and their dogs. All of this meant losing any semblance of boundaries between our work life and our personal lives – the virtual office was only as far away as the kitchen table.

When we look forward to what work might look like in 2021, there are four main themes that will drive both our experiences and our fortunes:

  1. The recovery and rebuild – the mother of all jobs markets
  2. Defining COVID-normal – no more kicking the can down the road
  3. The dispersion economy
  4. The great reallocation of labour

Recovery and rebuild – the mother of all jobs markets.

The Australian jobs market has been remarkably resilient since the initial shock. After losing one million jobs in the worst modern economic shock ever seen, 9 in 10 jobs lost have been recovered. And from everything we can see, that’s only the beginning.

The ultimate leading indicator for the labour market is the demand for internal recruiters.

Before a business starts hiring, they hire the team that will do all that hiring for them. The recruitment industry was hit harder than most during the middle of 2020, but since about November last year, we see that two thirds of those internal recruiters who lost their jobs have secured either their old job back, or have joined another firm doing a similar role.

At an advertising level, things look good too. At FlexCareers, a typical Christmas / NY period sees job ads dip by up to 50%, only to have those ads replaced after Australia Day. This year, job ads barely dropped at all with the second half of January again proving busy.

And then, of course, there’s the pent-up demand from employers. After a year of hiring freezes or slow hiring generally, businesses are now under pressure from investors to have their growth catch up to rampaging share prices. And that, of course, means investing in new head count.

With the labour market traditionally reopening after its New Year hiatus, we think there’s a good case to say that the labour market is about to explode unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Watch this space….

COVID normal

Each individual business has a once in a generation opportunity to redefine its new normal, appropriate for the way its people want to work, and appropriate for the way its customers want to buy.

Since the start of the pandemic, most businesses took an adrenaline-filled decision to send everyone home, almost overnight. From there, they optimised for business continuity in the short term, focusing on mental wellness of their people in a here-and-now, survival mode.

And 2021 will be the year that businesses take a firm view on their new normal and managing a hybrid workforce. Answering the question “who do we want to be” (think culture & purpose), and how that plays into how we work.

No more kicking the can down the road. HR teams will be leading business leaders to design thoughtful, sustainable, flexible work arrangements at a team level, and recruiters will have certainty in articulating their organisation’s story for candidates when they ask what it will be like to work here, well into the future.

Clarity is coming for what work will look like going forward, and that’s a good thing for everyone.

The dispersion economy

With work-from-home becoming a reality for millions of Australians, so too has living further away from our regional capitals. 2021 is the year the tree change and sea change go mainstream.

The dispersion economy is all about the economic downstream effects of professionals dispersing outwards from the city, including effects on work, real estate, education and maintaining professional links to the city from afar.

In April-June last year – the first three months of the lockdown – capital cities suffered a net loss of 10,500 people, the largest quarterly decline on records going back to 2001, official data shows. (AFR, Jan 22, 2021)

And with this great dispersion will come different demands on leaders and their teams to maintain connectivity and cohesion with the team unlikely to be in the same physical location – both on those who disperse as well as those who remain behind in the offices. Soft skills like empathy, trust, compassion and communication will all be required in greater measure to ensure that work ‘works’ in this new world.

The great reallocation of labour

As new technologies such as AI, cloud computing and data analytics are adopted by businesses, so too do the skills required to ‘run’ these technologies change. 50% of workers will require upskilling by 2025, and those who are unable or unwilling to adapt may be let go by their employers.

While we started to see this in 2019, like many things, 2020 caused this strategic workforce realignment to pause – examples like Telstra delaying their T22 cost reductions twice. No one wanted to be ‘that boss’ that let people go in a jobs wasteland. But with the reopening of the labour market, we expect to see this change. Large scale redundancy programs will start again as firms shift their skills focus from old economy to new technology.

We also expect to see professional education providers like General Assembly and Academy Xi rush to fill the demand, providing affected individuals a path to transition their careers, while those outplacement providers like CareerSwitch that are able to reintroduce career transitioners back to the labour market quicker will be busy.

With the recovery of the economy & job market underway, the new COVID normal, dispersion economy and labour reallocation 2021 is set to be a busy year for employers. But it’s also looking more positive than many of us had expected. Whilst there will undoubtedly be some twists and turns down the road in the next 12 months, there is clearly light at the end of the tunnel.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.


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