What the biggest workplace trends of 2020 can teach us about managing change

As it’s almost the new year (decade!), I thought it would be a great time to look at the latest data and trends and identify some of the key business influencers of 2020.

December 20, 2019 4 mins read

It’s the end of 2019 already and the end of the decade (can you believe it?).  The tens have been a decade of massive change in the workplace, with ideas like wellbeing coming to the forefront. As it’s almost the new year (decade!), I thought it would be a great time to look at the latest data and trends and identify some of the key business influencers of 2020. 

I looked at over 20 reports on workplace culture, and the following five areas came up the most: 

  • The Changing Workforce
    Generation Z is starting to enter the workforce, and millennials are now moving into leadership roles. Both cohorts are digital natives and the most successful of them will need to complement their tech skills with people skills.
  • Changing Work Practices
    Employees are demanding more flexibility in ways like remote working. Employers are also experimenting with more blended teams of employees and consultants, impacting how workplaces are designed and used.
  • Increasing Use of AI, Machine Learning and Automation
    Jobs with repetitive tasks are being redesigned as more intelligent machines reimagine how we work. HR will not be immune, releasing more time to focus on people-led initiatives.
  • Increasing Use of Data for Decision Making
    Compared to five years ago, three times as many HR, management, and leadership roles require data analytics skills. This demand is only set to increase, which will likely impact training and development needs.
  • Increasing Focus on Employee Experience and Wellbeing
    Every trend report I read talked about an increased focus in this area, though each used different language. Deloitte called it the shift from “employee experience to human experience.”

In addition to these top five, learning and leadership as well as social activism and the importance of teams were also recognised as emerging trends. 

The Missing Trend

One trend that is crucially missing from the reports is the changing legislative framework. For example, the UK Governance Code demands that all company boards “demonstrate through their reporting” that the company’s purpose, values, and strategy are aligned with its culture. This reflects the growing rejection of what is often perceived as “fake” company values.  Additionally, the code requires that employees can raise concerns and issues systematically — what I call the EMPLOYEE VOICE. In my experience, many businesses don’t really know how to successfully address this, and I plan to cover this in my next article (stay tuned!).

Technological Changes and Social Changes in 2020

As I see it, these major trend reports are highlighting how today’s organisations need to adapt quickly to technological and social change.

Technological change comes because of the rise of AI, automation, and big data. Social change comes because of demographic, cultural, and legislative shifts.  The digital transformation that has been ongoing over the last two decades, with the increasing pervasiveness of social media, is a prime example. 

In short, the twin pressures of technological and social change are almost forcing businesses and employees together as everyone recognizes that we are in a time of great change and everyone needs to adapt — and adapt fast. 

How Businesses Can React to Change in 2020

How we all adapt to these changes is really a human story more than a technological one. I believe we need to recognise people’s experience of workIt is the employees and businesses that see technological and social change as an opportunity rather than a threat that will thrive in the next decade. 

For example, in many workplaces some degree of remote working is becoming the new norm as more teams work across time zones and geographic locations. This is because the changing workforce wants more freedom, but also because new technology enables remote working more efficiently and effectively. 

One trap to avoid is the tendency to see work as an individual activity which needs to be optimized. In my last article, I talked about BT call centres and a piece of research that highlighted the effect of happiness on sales, with happier sales agents making 13% more sales than the unhappy ones. 

In terms of revenue, I calculated that a programme that sought to boost happiness (by alleviating unhappiness) would directly translate into over £17,000,000 extra revenue a year.  This large potential return on investment is despite the fact there is very little autonomy in the sales agents’ workflow and no teamwork. For more typical workplaces the effect sizes will be larger due to the impact of positivity on people’s sense of agency and their ability to collaborate with their colleagues. 

Work is an activity that involves multiple people, and much larger productivity and innovation gains come from businesses that harness the creativity that emerges from diverse minds working together to solve a common challenge.

How to Support Your Workplace Culture Initiatives 

These meta-trends of technology and people, and how businesses can stop them from ripping each other apart, is the main challenge facing us today. As a statistician and a therapist, I’ve always  been interested in data and people, especially data about people — and my therapy training taught me how people often resist change if they feel it is being imposed on them, but tend to thrive if they feel involved. 

In organisations, I see this happen when people and teams trust each other, respect their different contributions and are aligned about their purpose and goals. Then real magic happens and suddenly 5 + 5 becomes 5 X 5 — new possibilities emerge and become new realities. 

The world is changing fast. In fact, the life expectancy for businesses is lower than it has ever been in the last 40 years. But innovation is not just about technology, it is also about people and how we work better together. 

Here’s to a healthy and prosperous 2020 working smarter, better, and happier!