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2021 in review – the year in the future of work

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett December 22, 2021
New ways of working, skills shortages and what to do about them, as well as the growing impact of ESG, have all left their mark on the workplace this year.


In relation to workplace trends, this year was all about employers coming to terms with the impact of the pandemic and trying to cope with the changes it both highlighted and generated. The big themes, apart from diversity, equity and inclusion, which Madeline is exploring, were:

  1. New ways of working, which included hybrid and a nascent move to four-day weeks
  2. The need for upskilling to tackle growing skills shortages
  3. The increasingly important Environmental, Social and Governance agenda – although the focus today is mainly on the ‘E’ part.

As a result, to guide you through the year that was, I’ve chosen articles that I feel best illustrate these trends. So let’s dive in!

1. New ways of working

Companies need to shift focus from ‘hybrid work’ to ‘radical flexibility’

Why? Market research and advisory firm Gartner summed up beautifully just how pivotal “radical flexibility” and “holistic wellness” will be for employers if they want to attract and retain staff going forward, particularly when the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ is at its peak and skill shortages are rife.

Radical flexibility moves beyond the often more rigid idea of hybrid working with its focus on ‘when’ and ‘where’ issues to include ‘with whom’, ‘what’ and ‘how much’. The emphasis is also on outcomes and giving employees more autonomy over how they manage their work-life balance – as long as wider team and role requirements are accommodated – which helps to boost engagement.

Another hugely important consideration is taking a proactive approach to employee health and wellbeing to cope with rising levels of burnout. The idea is that just sticking in a nice initiative and hoping for the best won’t cut it – dealing with the cause rather than the symptoms is vital if you want to make a material difference here.

Redesigning the office for the future of work – how Salesforce and Nexthink are planning for the Vaccine Economy

Why? Office design has an often underestimated, but nonetheless important, role to play in shaping company culture and how employees behave. And one of the big knock-on effects of the increased move to flexible and hybrid working has been to change the role of the office.

Many employers are now redesigning their workspaces to make them more adaptable as their function shifts from being a place that houses banks of desks to one where the focus is on supporting collaboration, innovation, learning and development, and socialising.

Two good examples of this approach are cloud-based CRM supplier Salesforce and employee experience platform provider Nexthink, both of which are revamping their European offices to reflect their priorities and values, and offer useful insights into how to get it right.

The Future of Work – is four the magic number for the Vaccine Economy’s working week?

Why? Although the four-day week may have been talked about for years, real-life adoption of the concept is still very much in its early days – and is mainly taking place in Europe. But its popularity does appear to be on the rise – countries from Iceland to Spain have trialled, or are trialling, the idea as employee health and wellbeing continues to be a major pandemic-related concern and employers seek to make themselves more attractive to potential job candidates.

Two companies that have embraced the approach with gusto are global affiliate marketing network Awin and legal software supplier Neither have experienced a fall in staff productivity as a result, but they did find that upfront planning and internal process change were key to making it work. Micromanagement and trying to rush cultural change through were both big no-nos though.

2. The need for upskilling to tackle growing skills shortages

The skills challenge ahead for the Vaccine Economy

Why? The digital skills shortage is as bad, if not worse, than it’s ever been, compounded by the post-lockdown phenomenon of the ‘Great Resignation’ as people re-evaluate their lives, their work-life balance and the situation with their employers.

To make matters worse, nine out of 10 workers across the economy will need to learn new skills just to do their jobs by 2030 - a situation that is expected to cost the UK economy, for example, a whopping £1.3 billion a year. Moreover, there are not enough eligible graduates coming through the system to replace the large number of Baby Boomers expected to retire over the next four years.

This means that upskilling and cross-skilling is likely to remain a priority for most employers across the world for the foreseeable future.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a Supermum – and lots more of them to come

Why? To tackle the current deep skills crisis, employers are simply going to have to think more imaginatively. One possible approach here is to source candidates with transferrable skills from outside of the usual white, male, middle class, graduate talent pool and train them up.

Female employment and career progression has been badly hit by the pandemic, so it makes sense to look to women to help. But it’s important not only to engage them where they actually are, but also to ensure that retraining is affordable. Returnship programmes are useful here, but specialist recruitment and retraining agencies, such as Supermums, can help too.

How UK organizations are injecting digital skills into their local communities

Why? Digital skills are considered as essential as literacy and numeracy these days but are in distressingly short supply at both the basic and advanced level. As a result, upskilling activities are required not only from employers, but also from organisations at the wider community level to address the situation.

Which is where public authorities, such as the London Borough of Brent, come in. Brent is offering a particularly well-thought through and imaginative example of what can be done if local authorities, particularly in deprived areas, put their mind to it.

The Council is attempting to tackle the problem at multiple levels, ranging from equipping residents who have no access to technology with devices and skills to helping local SMEs develop an online presence. The aim is to create a continuous feedback loop of skills development and job creation. So kudos to the Council – they’ve had some great ideas that others could really learn from.

3. Tackling the ’E’ part of the increasingly important ESG agenda

Building back better – how organizations can drive sustainability with a collaborative digital capability

Why? Environmental and sustainability issues are now higher up the business agenda than they’ve ever been, helped in no small part by a major shift in attitude among institutional investors over the last couple of years.

But according to Olivier Blum, Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer for Schneider Electric, which was named the most sustainable company on the planet this year, “digital probably offers the best opportunity” to make a difference here, not least because it facilitates tracking activities and progress towards hitting strategic goals.

To ensure sustainability-related action is truly effective though, organisations and their leaders really have to commit to it at every level and be prepared to make wide-reaching change. Which means that starting simple and breaking the issue into manageable chunks is as sensible in this context as it is in any other.

The role of digital and data in achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050

Why? Research shows that technology could help to cut global carbon emissions by as much as 15% - and Franck Fourniol, Senior Policy Advisor (Data and AI) at the UK’s Royal Society, believes its role here is not just the traditional one of boosting efficiency, energy or otherwise, either.

Technology also has the ability to “catalyse rapid change” and enable countries to do things differently in order to hit their net zero targets, he believes. Digital twins have a key part to play here, but so does policy vision and leadership from government and access to “more and better data”, which includes improving digital literacy.

While individual parts of the puzzle are in place in the UK at least, like elsewhere in the world they do not exist at scale. This means it is vital for the public and private sector to work together if we, as a world, are to see and effect real change.

Smoke gets in your eyes, even at the edge – how do we clean up our data center acts?

Why? The tech sector is estimated to generate between 1-3% of total global carbon emissions, which is similar in stature to the carbon footprint of Canada or the aviation industry. But Chris Adams, Director of the not-for-profit Green Web Foundation and organiser of, believes the scale of the climate crisis means that it is no longer about individual people or companies trying to do their bit.

Instead it is more about what he calls “climate response” and creating far-reaching systemic change. To this end, the tech industry, not least in data centre terms, needs to reassess its activities in three key areas: consumption, intensity and direction. It also needs to get better at reuse and recycling. Sadly though, there’s still an awful lot of work to do.

And finally, my favorite article of the year

Ada Lovelace Day – hacker Alissa Knight on being a trans women in a man’s world

Why? To commemorate Ada Lovelace Day in October, we celebrated the many and varied achievements of Alissa Knight. A trans hacker who moved from the dark side into the light, she became a serial entrepreneur, author and content creator, all before the age of 40.

Not only has Alissa lived a fascinating life in which she’s made the most of the multifarious talents she’s got, but she’s also lovely too. So Seasons Greetings to you, Alissa – and to everyone else as well, of course!

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