Pandemics and Protests: The Five Workplace Culture Trends of 2020 Revisited

In January, we shared what we thought would be the top workplace culture trends for 2020. However, a lot has happened since then!

There’s now uncertainty in organizations as to the shape of things to come, especially as the world comes out of lockdown. So, how did our predictions hold up? And, what does our analysis tell us about the next six months?

Pandemics and Protests: The Five Workplace Culture Trends of 2020 Revisited

At the beginning of this year, we identified five workplace culture trends for 2020. And then the fifteen years of 2020 happened! So, in the wake of a pandemic and global protests, how do our original predictions now stack up?

Here are the workplace wellness trends we predicted:

  1. The changing workforce – Gen Z and Millennials enter leadership roles
  2. Changing work practices – demand for flexibility will change how offices are designed and used
  3. Increasing use of AI and automation – jobs with repetitive tasks redesigned as more intelligent machines reimagine our roles
  4. Increased use of data for decision making – need for data analytics likely to impact training, and development needs
  5. Focus on employee experience – employee wellbeing will become a focus for more companies

Let’s have a look at how they’re playing out among our clients and in the world of work.

Changing workforce

It’s not so much of a change in the workforce as an absence of the workforce. In the last six months, a large percentage of the workforce is no longer working. US unemployment numbers have hit record highs — higher than The Great Depression – and the UK has a 23% unemployment rate now. The ones that remain at work are doing the job of more than one person and are overworked. Hiring and firing are in stasis as businesses adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Changing work practices

There was no way to predict the widespread need for flexibility and remote working that the pandemic demanded of every business that wanted to survive. Organizations whose work cultures are linked to being in the office are worried about what working from home will do to their employees.

In many companies, the workforce was effectively split — those that were furloughed and those that still worked. Furloughed employees received almost the same pay and, in some cases, were able to claim unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, those that remained working picked up the slack. This disparity is increasing stress levels and the risk of burnout.

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease and employers consider reopening their offices, the transition back to work has become a negotiation. Employers have to deal with their people’s comfort with health risk and must provide flexible options to allow their employees to function. Rotating schedules, hybrid solutions and social distancing practices are here to stay for the immediate future.

Increasing use of AI and automation

While there hasn’t been a shift in AI as much, many organizations rapidly adopted technology. But, they were often not prepared for it. Younger, tech-savvy generations have been quick to adapt to the change while others have struggled. The use of ‘team software’ like Slack or Microsoft Teams has dramatically increased and two things have become obvious – businesses would have struggled to survive without tech, and yet tech has its limits; it’s not a like-for-like substitute for being in the same room together. The novelty of video calls has disappeared, and these suboptimal human interactions have caused people to withdraw. It’s hard to foster camaraderie and morale within these environments.

Increased use of data for decision making

The ability to ‘walk the floor’ of the workplace has disappeared.  The use of video technology has made group meetings a possibility but creates blind spots where employees will attend in silence and not contribute or participate. Team leaders are unable to know if they’re addressing issues that will actually make a difference or if they’re merely solving the problems of those that shout the loudest.

In this aspect, our clients have been successful in seeing how their employees are faring. Using our people platform, employees can truthfully reflect on their experiences, allowing team leaders to address problem areas by rearranging workloads. The result? Signs of higher resilience.

Focus on employee experience

In 2020, EVERYTHING is about employee experience and wellness. Working from home in the pandemic brought about an incredible range of new working conditions and life experiences, making it more urgent for companies to shift emphasis from the ‘employee experience’ to the ‘human experience’. For some, bringing their authentic self to work instead of their professional self has been a rough transition. Still, it has led to people having real conversations about wellbeing instead of cursory surface-level talk.

Our clients have reported they’re now taking the time to understand the cues of their bodies. When it comes to dealing with stress, work and anxiety, there is no better barometer to wellbeing than the body.

HR departments now carefully monitor employee wellness and workloads, and encourage time off to help frazzled and burnt out people recover. More than ever, managers are struggling with teams of increasingly negative people — pockets of toxicity. Even senior employees have acted out — soapboxes and expletive-laden rants that leave everyone feeling uncomfortable.

Combine the stresses of the pandemic with the discussions of social injustice and the inequity that exists in society and organizations, and you’ve got a recipe for an anxious, unsettled and angry workforce. Many employees are left wondering whether they – and their friends at work – will have a job in two months. It’s now apparent, more than ever, that while we’re all weathering the same storm, we’re not all in the same boat.

What does our analysis tell us about the next six months? There’s a lot of uncertainty in organizations as to the shape of things to come, especially as the world comes out of lockdown. We’d be surprised if companies manage to survive 2020 without an increased focus on employee wellbeing and greater attention on the diversity of work experiences that are housed within a single organization.

Business leaders, you need to help your people stay upbeat and positive while charting a course into the future. While it may feel necessary to withdraw and determine the right course of action, it does create a sense of disconnect for employees.

Employee wellbeing platforms like Friday Pulse will help you get a good understanding of what’s going on, while sending a message that you care about the experience of work in your organization. Whenever one of our clients is weathering a corporate setback, we remind leaders of Maya Angelou’s wisdom: 

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Here to help

During this pandemic period, we are committed to helping businesses bounce back and improve team morale. That’s why we are continuing to offer companies and teams (50 – 1,000 employees) free access to our people platform for 12 weeks.

For more information on how we can help your organization weather the crisis please contact our Head of Helping People, Clive Steer at