The People Purpose Blog

UKG's 2021 MegaTrends: How HR Can Strengthen Trust, Transparency & Productivity

People Before Profit

Through disruption we have the opportunity to change lives

Never before have we faced such sweeping disruption to business operations and our personal lives. Over 2 million people have tragically lost their lives worldwide due to COVID-19. Many organisations have been stretched to capacity while others have been forced to close. Remote working has become the norm for many people, with firms accepting that a full-time return to the office is unlikely. Combating racism, and driving diversity and inclusion are now top of the agenda for institutions and organisations. And frequent natural disasters are fuelling action at an organisation level to address climate change.

The world has changed. It has given us the greatest opportunity to improve the lives for so many people. 'People' are now recognised as being the key resource for driving performance, productivity and adaptability. HR teams have a critical role to play in enabling business leaderships to engage their workforces through trust, openness, and transparency.

UKG has identified three major trends affecting organisations on a global scale. By digesting these trends and implementing strategic, meaningful change, companies have the opportunity to create empathetic, industry-leading workplaces that protect their people and the bottom line.


UKG's 2021 HR MegaTrends: 3 critical focus areas

1. People before profits: Businesses will adopt a greater purpose

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has gained momentum as Governments, customers, employees, and investors pressure companies to consider their overarching impact on society. A 2019 Deloitte survey revealed that more than half of business leaders surveyed were already devoting between one and five percent of their revenues to programs with a purpose, and two-thirds planned to increase their budgets for these programs in 2020 and 2021.

There are many contributing factors here, including evolving social norms and the pervasive threat of global challenges highlighted above, such as: climate change, rampant inequality, and sweeping technological advancement. Confronting these increasingly pressing problems demands a shift from a short-term focus on shareholder profits to a long-term view for all stakeholders. These initiatives are also good for business — good corporate citizenship improves everything from marketing and sales to employer brand and retention.

Last year, economic, social, and political upheaval thrust organisations into the driver’s seat of social change. Walkouts and leaked employee letters at major corporations proved that many employees feel comfortable — if not obligated — to publicly support or criticize their employers’ actions when it comes to controversial social issues. And 76 percent of customers would refuse to buy products from organisations that went against their core values.

Conscious capitalism and CSR are no longer optional.

Looking forward, organisations will need to embed social-impact agendas into their corporate identity and mission. They should also evolve the scope of their initiatives; for example, rather than organising single-day volunteer events to build houses or serve meals, leaders should be investing in long-term programs designed to address underlying systemic issues like climate change, generational poverty, and hunger.

Unsure where to start? Historically, most employees expect their employers to prioritize taking good care of their people. Even the most generous donations won’t matter if employees are saddled with miserable working conditions or paid poorly. Business continuity efforts that help leaders build safe, healthy, connected, and resilient workforces — despite environment and/or social crises — have become a critical aspect of CSR, as has investing in employees’ long-term success through training and re-skilling opportunities. Empowering employees to make a difference in their own communities through volunteer opportunities or charitable giving campaigns also has been shown to have a positive impact on corporate culture.

2. Life-work synergy: Work and the workplace will be more centered around employees' lives

When many organisations announced work-from-home orders in March 2020, a common hope was that, without a commute or school drop-offs to contend with, attaining the elusive “work-life balance” would be easier. But as months passed amid an unsteady economic climate, there seemed to be an almost counterintuitive impact on those fortunate enough to retain their jobs and work from the safety of their homes.

Work became omnipresent as physical separation between work and life was lost. Kitchen tables and bedrooms became offices; kids became coworkers; Zoom became the hangout of choice for work, family, and friends.

These unusual circumstances highlighted the fallacy of seeking an impossible equilibrium of “work-life balance.” In the age of email-enabled smart phones, work and life are rarely separate domains, even under “normal” circumstances.

Instead, organisations should support worklife negotiation, where employees have the freedom to intentionally and flexibly negotiate the various roles they play in their lives. Blanket one-size-fits-all policies are difficult to enforce in this new future of work; each employee faces unique circumstances and needs, such as the 72 percent of workers with children under the age of 18 who are anxious about performing with limited or unreliable access to childcare.

Of course, this flexibility requires a high level of trust; managers must trust their people to manage their time efficiently, and employees must trust their employers to reward production and impact more than butt-in-seat (or green-light-on-Slack) “facetime.” But when successful, the result is life-work synergy, and it’s beautiful.

Supporting the people experience with a mix of value currencies like compensation, benefits, recognition, and growth is a necessary foundational step. For many organisations, this year’s unforeseen challenges may have reverted the status quo back to survival mode, where creating a supportive yet transactional employee/employer relationship is the best-case scenario. Your people can’t thrive if they can’t be sure whether or not they’ll be paid fairly or on time — these needs come first.

But the best companies, and those who strive to engage and retain their people long-term, must go beyond the basics to truly welcome and celebrate people as they are and take a vested interest in supporting them in all areas of their lives. Giving employees the power to flexibly manage their own schedules, actively play a role in their own growth and development, and take on “gig” assignments to increase their skills and visibility are some ways organisations can set the stage for mutually beneficial relationships based on trust, purpose, and longevity.

3. The rebirth of HR: HR will begin reinventing itself to lead these efforts

Just as the 2008 financial crisis highlighted the importance of CFOs, 2020 was the year many CEOs fully appreciated HR’s impact and innovative potential. Merging the powerful skills of process champions and people scientists, HR leaders are finally widely regarded as both strategic and tactical people advocates driving tangible business results.

Yet, to fully realize its potential, HR must change its nature and language. Rather than treating people like “capital” or a “resource” — something to be managed, to extract value from, a commodity — today’s organisations and HR leaders must put their people at the centre of their purpose. A panel of 600 senior executives recently estimated that 72 percent of their company’s value was directly attributed to their people. It’s time to think differently about employees, about their relationships and impact on organisations, and ensure we’re creating the right conditions that allow them to thrive.

Consider, for example, a 2020 McKinsey & Company study designed to evaluate employee well-being and work effectiveness during COVID-19. Ten employee experience elements accounted for approximately 60 percent of the differences in outcomes. In addition to basic human needs, such as safety and security, the key drivers observed were trusting relationships, social cohesion, and individual purpose. If HR doesn’t prioritize enabling these drivers across every level of the organisation, who will? And who really stands to lose the most if they don’t?

As technology continues to automate manual processes, HR has the opportunity — rather, the obligation — to focus primarily on serving and enabling their people through meaningful strategic initiatives like well-being and long-term growth and development. The foundational levels of safety and security are still important, and employees and leaders alike will continue to expect convenience, speed, and accuracy from HR processes.

With today’s workforce more dispersed than ever, HR teams are increasingly relying on online tools like HR, workforce management, HR service delivery, payroll, and compliance automation, self-service, mobile access, and instant communication tools to effectively manage their people and workload. Combined with powerful internal benchmarking and AI-powered business optimization insights, HR and business leaders are able to holistically evaluate and understand the intricacies of their organizations and their people’s needs.

Many emerging technologies are also designed to serve employees, such as easing financial strain through on-demand pay, monitoring and improving mental health through pulse surveys, proactive conversations, and charitable giving, and keeping up with employee sentiment so leaders can act on the topics that matter most to their people.


2021 is the year to build deeper meaning into work experiences Today’s employees desire, and deserve, much more out of work than a payslip. Armed with innovative life-work tech and a renewed focus, HR departments have never been more capable of building diverse, engaged, and empowered workforces that are agile, flexible, and responsive to changing business demands.

And if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need more of that.