Welcome to the second part of my series on trends affecting the U.S. cultural and business landscapes of 2021. Being that 2020 was a year for the history books, many of the trends in this series are driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. If you haven’t read my first article yet, check it out here, where I explain the research framework I am using to discuss these emerging trends.
To keep it simple, we’re looking at 2021 trends in terms of environments — physical, mental, natural and communal — and how we interact with them. Our first theme is Control. After all, we lost control of a few things in 2020 — our ability to travel; our feelings of safety and security around people; our office spaces and commutes — and, in response, people looked for ways to have more proactive control over the way they move through and exist within spaces, which has opened the door for that power to become mainstream.
One of the places control has been most apparent is the workplace. Of course, working from home started as a lock-down necessity. But that necessity has transformed our way of working forever. Forrester predicts that remote work will rise to 300% of pre-COVID levels this year. Similarly, a Gartner survey of company leaders found that 80% plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time after the pandemic, and 47% will allow employees to work from home full-time. There is good reason for this. According to a FlexJobs’ survey, 95% of respondents said that their productivity has been higher or the same while working from home, and 51% reported being more productive when working remotely. Top reasons for increased productivity might include a more comfortable workspace and avoiding office politics. Working from home brings both challenges and benefits, but one thing is for certain: it gives people just a little bit more control over their lives, and they seem to enjoy it.
Another way employees have expressed this need for control is through their attire. According to Mintel, 55% of U.S. employees working remotely dress less formally than they did before. And this isn’t just a trend in the workplace. Across generations, people are foregoing fashion trends in favor of what feels right and what they like best, as discussed in The New York Times piece, “There Are No Fashion Rules Anymore”. It is unsurprising following a global pandemic that people might start to question the validity of pursuing fashion trends at the loss of comfort and personality. And that same logic applies to more aspects of the work environment than just the clothes people are wearing. It also applies to the places where people do their work.
In the future, companies may adapt to work with a generation of digital nomads, and destinations could seek to market themselves as worker-friendly.
The idea of combining work and travel is one we have explored with our travel and tourism clients for several years now. “Bleisure” – that blend of business and leisure – is now evolving from what used to be a few days of sight-seeing tacked on before or after a business trip to what Wunderman Thompson’s 2021 Future 100 study called “workcations” – a destination trip from which an employee plans to work longer-term. The swift normalization of flexible remote working is affording employees a newfound freedom to work from anywhere in the world — and popular holiday destinations are hoping to attract them. For example, Dubai promoted itself as a semi-permanent destination for foreign workers looking for some sand and sun. The Emirati city announced a new remote work visa program in October 2020 that allows visitors to live in the city for up to one year. Concepts like this may be a next step in the future of work, where companies adapt to work with a generation of digital nomads and destinations seek to market themselves as work-friendly.
But the concept of the digital nomad leaves behind an important segment of the workforce: working parents. Unless virtual school moves ahead by leaps and bounds to catch up to what we are capable of in our work environments, parents will be limited geographically by school districts. It’s up to workplaces to be flexible and supportive enough for working parents to have a sense of control as well. Having children shouldn’t be a reason to be left behind in the work revolution.
As we emerge from the pandemic, the importance of control over one’s environment will play a significant role in the way companies and brands interact with their employees and their consumers. How businesses look at physical and mental health will be equally important. Stay tuned for updates on those emerging trends in my next article.