11 HR Trends to take into account for 2021

HR Trends 2021
Illustration: Studio Fee Overbeeke

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10 HR Trends for 2022

HR professionals follow the trends

hr trends 2021The HR Trend Institute was founded in 2014. In the last six years every year in November we published an overview of the HR trends we sensed for the coming year.

2015: 9 emerging HR trends for 2015
2016: 11 HR trends for 2016
2017: 10 HR Trends for 2017
2018: 8 major trends for 2018
2019: 10 inspiring HR trends for 2019
2020: 12 HR trends for 2020

Each year the challenge is if we can come up with a new inspiring list. This is for you to decide!

The megatrends that shape HR

Of course, the long-term megatrends do not change every year. Below an overview of my Top-10 megatrends.  Most of the current trends fit into one of these areas.

long term

Tom Haak’s Action Cube and how to use the trends

Tom Haak Action Cube

We like to write and talk about the trends in HR. But using the trends is not the goal. The goal is to increase the impact of HR, by making clever use of some of the trends. These days we use Tom Haak’s Action Cube as the guide. For a good HR architecture you have to take several sides into account, and then make choices to focus on certain elements in the cube.

◼︎Yellow: Your urgent burning organisational issues.
◼︎The HR enablers, such as client focus, people analytics and agile/design thinking methodologies.
☐ White: The different HR practice areas in which you can design interventions (org design, recruitment, L&D, comp & ben etc.)
◼︎Blue: The trends that are relevant for HR.

The red and orange sides of the cube are currently not used, but I am sure these dimensions will turn out to be useful.

The starting point: the burning organisational issues. Example: how can we increase resilience of our organisation and the people in the organisation? You will always use the green side, the HR enablers: How will our clients benefit? How can we work data driven and evidence based? Do we work in an agile way applying design thinking? In the grid determined by the white and blue side you will find options for possible interventions. Can we hire more people with a resilient personality? Is there innovative HR tech we can use for selection?

11 HR trends for 2021

Our 11 HR trends, to take into account in 2021. As always, some trends and some wishful thinking.

1. Ethical leadership

This year I read “She Said“, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and “Super Pumped – The Battle for Uber” by Mike Isaac. Both books feature super bullies (Harvey Weinstein and Travis Kalanick). Interesting: in both books the HR professionals in the organisations do not play any role. HR is absent. The legal departments play a role, but also a very dubious one, as their main focus is on avoiding issues and protecting the bully. This is clearly an opportunity for HR. The expectations of clients, employees and candidates are changing. They are looking at organisations to contribute to the required changes in society. If organisations are tolerating toxic workplaces, it will be difficult for them to play the required role, and it will harm their business. Spearheading CSR will be high on the list of opportunities for HR, is my expectation. When HR sees things that are not acceptable, they should intervene and not stand by. Some examples:

  • When the members of the board make dubious jokes.
  • When the best qualified candidate for a job is not appointed, because she is a woman or comes from the wrong part of town.
  • When AI powered selection leads to very strange conclusions.
  • When the whistle blower is neglected.
  • When unsafe working conditions are not discontinued.
  • When there are indications of nepotism.


2. The search for the anti-fragile personality

One of my favourite authors is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In 2012 his book “Antifragile” was published. The subtitle: “How to live in a world we don’t understand”. He explains the concept anti-fragility as follows: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Anti-fragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

Personality has become a more important element in selection in the last year. Learning agility for example is a personality trait organisations like people to have. During the COVID-19 crisis we heard a lot about resilience: how can organisations and the people in organisations bounce back? Anti-fragility is a stronger concept: how can you bounce back on a higher level? The concept needs more scientific basis and reliable tests will have to be developed, but clearly “anti-fragile” personalities will be in high demand.

Looking for “anti-fragile” personalities is one possible intervention. Of course a lot more can be done to make organisations and the people in organisations more anti-fragile. There are indications that people who have been exposed to adverse conditions become more resilient. The recent focus on happiness and wellbeing in the workplace might have negative consequences when it comes to strengthening resilience or even better: anti-fragility.


3. Goodbye HR Business Partner

Last week I spoke to the HR lead of an organisation of around 300 people. Her question was: how many HR business partners should we have? My answer: one (you) is probably more than enough. Since the early nineties of the last century the HR business partner concept has increased in popularity.

The last years the decline started and that will continue in 2021. In some big organisations every unit had their own business partner. If the activities of these business partners were analysed, the results showed that a big proportion of these was very operational. Running around chasing numbers by lack of good systems and solving problems of employees by lack of good managers. The business partners complained that they didn’t have enough time to participate in the management team meetings and they created small teams around them. As a result nobody was happy. Management didn’t get high level HR advice, employees were complaining about the service of HR and the business partners felt exhausted.

HR needs more focus on operations, on people and on clients. The core of HR is the HR service centre, focused on high level customer service and using advanced HR tech. Depending on the size of the organisation you can benefit from one or more HR advisors/ architects/ business partners, whatever you call them. Not too many! And in the end, HR should be a partner of the business, a partner of the workforce, a partner of the clients and a partner of the other stakeholders of the organisation.


4. The Hybrid Office

The workplace has slowly changed over the past decades. From offices with many small rooms, through large floors with cubicles, through open space for everybody to more diverse offices, with spaces appropriate for different use (report writing, meeting, calling, brainstorming, one-one meetings, coffee drinking etc.).

Now, accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, we are moving into the next phase: the hybrid workplace. With the hybrid workplace we are able to personalise the workplace, taking several aspects into account. 1. The nature of the work. 2. The task at hand. 3. The personality of the worker. 4. The home situation of the worker. The multi-use offices are still available, and other solutions are added in order to be able to personalise better. Like co-working spaces closer to where people live. Like hotel rooms. Of course the importance of the home office has become more important. Home office design will need to get a lot of attention.


5. Increasing risk of detachment

Work and office are becoming more disconnected (see The Hybrid Office). Keeping employees engaged while they are working remote requires a conscious effort. You could argue, that by working from home it becomes more difficult to create a clear boundary between work and private life. At the same time the connection to work becomes looser. Boss and colleagues are out of sight most of the time. Video meetings help a bit but not enough.

As it becomes clear that many professions can do their work from home, it becomes easier to hire talent on the international market. People can work from home and it doesn’t matter where their home is. The Dutch Het Financieeele Dagblad wrote on October 27, 2020, that British and American asset managers are looking for teams in the Dutch market. Salary and bonus are a lot higher in those countries, and the teams can stay where they are.

More working from home will increase the risk of detachment and lower engagement of staff, and this creates opportunities for recruiters.

The long-term effects of working more from home have to be studied, but they will certainly not all be positive.

In the meantime for detachment prevention, it helps (ref . Global Workforce Study) to focus on some of the traditional measures: make sure people are part of a team, and that they have a team leader they can trust.

Source: Global Workplace Study 2020 of the ADP Research Institute


6. Skill mapping: looking for adjacent skills

One of the megatrends mentioned in the introduction is “From job based HR to skill based HR”. The ability to know the current skills and the skills that can be acquired in the future of people is becoming more important. I have seen an example where a company was able to make a three dimensional map of the skills of the employees. In this way it becomes easier to detect adjacent skills. This kind of knowledge can be useful in various ways:

  • In recruitment: if you are looking for people with skills that are rare, you can widen your search by including adjacent skills in your search
  • Career development: You can give people suggestions which skills they can develop with the greatest chance of success
  • Redeploying people: Some skills might be obsolete, but maybe adjacent skills that can easily be developed are still in demand.


7. More nudging than policing

Wikipedia defines nudging as follows: “Nudge is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behaviour and decision making of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation or enforcement”.

Thaler & Sunstein, in their book Nudge, give the following definition: “Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentive. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food dos not.

If you go into offices these days, you can see roughly two streams. Stream one opts for ‘policing’. There are signs everywhere (“Keep 1.5 meter distance”), the walking direction is indicated with arrows, and some areas are declared forbidden. The alternative, stream two, chooses nudging. They have redesigned the office in such a way, that the desired behaviour comes naturally.  Workstations for example are put on dark carpet. People will have the tendency not to step on the dark carpet and so naturally keep the desired distance (example from Cushman & Wakefield).

Nudging can be applied in many areas of HR, and is generally a lot more friendly than policing.


8. The Personal User Guide

Personalisation has been high on my list of relevant trends for HR in the last years. It should remain on the list, as we are still only scratching the surface in HR. For 2021 I suggest to use the Personal User Guide. With a BIG-5 personality test your Personal User Guide is created, and you can use it to guide others on how to best deal with you. And you with them.

I quote the designers of the Personal User Guide: “Making and sharing your user guide will help you to:

  1. Be real with each other.
  2. Make blindingly clear expectations your common reference point
  3. Draw a social contract on how you can relate
  4. Show how you want to build trust in communicating
  5. Show, not sell, transparency
  6. Reduce wasting time and move quickly to richer and more efficient discussions.
  7. Share your weaknesses by putting them on the table
  8. Turn working with user guides into an exercise in self-awareness.
  9. Become more predictable and authentic to your team members.
  10. Show your respect towards your team members for what they do but most of all for who they are
Two screenshots of My Personal User Guide. Person B is fictitious.
Create your Personal User Guide

9. Digital tracking/ The return of Big Brother

Employers have not suddenly turned all into saints. Many employers want to track and control their people. They don’t say it, but some certainly think “Trust is good, control is better. The use of employee monitoring software is on the rise. Some examples:

  • Controlio (the name says it all)
  • Hubstaff: “Everything your team needs to work smarter”
  • Interguard: “Employee monitoring made simple. Record, review, alert and block user activity”
  • StaffCop (another great name)
  • Teramind: “Insider threat prevention”
  • Veriato Cerebral: “Stop reacting to threats & start hunting them”
  • Work Examiner: “With our employee monitoring software you can easily track who do the job and those who tweet”

Positively the trend can be called “Continuous Listening”, but we should watch out for “Continuous Tracking”.


10. VR breakthrough

Virtual Reality

That the use of VR and AR in the workplace will increase in 2021 seems a very safe prediction. You don’t need a lot of imagination to see many opportunities, in employer branding, selection, onboarding, training and virtual meetings. I gladly refer to my friend Karen Azulai of HR Tech Nation if you want to learn more. I just ordered the Oculus Rift 2, so currently my own experience is very limited.


11. All leaders are coaches? Stop beating a dead horse

The concept of Spiky Leadership unfortunately never really became popular. We recently collected more than 100 leadership models. Organisations seem to be looking for rounded and balanced leaders. Our leaders can do it all. They can manage themselves, their team and the organisation. They help to improve the world. They balance the short- and the long term. They listen and inspire. They are tough and soft, fast and slow, emotional and rational, strategic and operational.

Most of the models we have seen come from the same mould. Spiky leadership seems to be non-existent. Even Josh Bersin and IBM, in their recent report “Accelerating the journey to HR 3.0” promote the rounded leader: “Leadership in HR 3.0 focuses on collaboration, listening, and the ability to navigate uncertainty. Leaders put the team first and exhibit behavioural traits such as agility, communication and adaptability. They are seen as coaches, empowering their teams to innovate.“.

Why this continuous quest for the rounded leader? Why don’t we stop beating a dead horse? I have heard many CHRO say that is their organisation the goal is “that all our managers and leaders are good coaches”. The reality is that many managers and leaders are not.

Some people are better in giving feedback than others. It is probably better to make use of the capabilities of these people, than to train all people to give better feedback and to help people to become better. In his book ‘Work Rules’ Laszlo Bock describes (in the Chapter ‘Don’t trust your gut’) that some people at Google are a lot better than others in predicting if a candidate is fit for hiring. These people are consequently more involved in the hiring process, and the weighting of their opinion increases. Similar analytics can be used to detect the leaders with a “coaching spike”, and consequently assign more coaching roles to these people.



Note: we mention some product/ services in this article. As we are independent, we don’t get any payment for doing this.


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