The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Workplace Trends for 2021“
January 4, 2021
Al Lopus and Jay Bransford
Intro: Happy New Year, and thanks for joining us. Today we highlight what we see as the seven trends of workplace culture in 2021. Listen in to see if you agree with this about what you see coming in the New Year.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact.
And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button and receive our free action guide.
If you can share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
Most of us are really happy 2020 is over. As we look at 2021, what can we look forward to as we lead our organizations, or as the Bible suggests, to shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to us. Now, for the past several years, we have outlined the trends that we project for the next year. These have become some of the most-read and listened-to podcasts and blogs that we’ve had. In fact, last January, the first trend I predicted was that the virtual workplace is poised for even more growth as tech-savvy employees work remotely. Well, I never would have dreamed that COVID would come along and actually make that come to be true. So this year we plan to ask, What are the seven leading trends likely to shape the vitality and future of your culture, of your organization’s workplace, in 2021? So let’s go.
I want to welcome the new, recently named president and chief operating officer for BCWI, Jay Bransford. And Jay, it’s a delight to work with you and the team as we work on this Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Jay Bransford: Thanks, Al. It’s great to be back with you on this podcast. I’m looking forward to it.
Now, I know that you really value innovation, and as such, you’re open to new ideas that work, right? So to change things up a little bit today, as you and I have already discussed, I thought I’d ask you today’s podcast questions so that you can speak more personally about what we’ve discovered as the seven leading-edge workplace trends that really every leader and listener needs to hear. How does that sound?
Al: That sounds great. Yep.
Jay: Okay. So, Al, let’s go ahead and start. What is the number one organizational workplace trend you see in 2021?
Al: Well, Jay, I’m really excited about this because it’s the first time our audience will have heard this trend, and it’s based on our own employee-engagement research during COVID, and here it is. As we look ahead to the post-COVID world in 2021, the number one trend I see in Christian-led workplaces is going to be to return to delegated decision making and customer-focused strategy.
Jay: All right. So the return to delegated decision making and customer-focused strategy, that sounds like a mouthful, and it kind of sounds like two very related things. So Al, can you tell us a little bit more about both of those things and why they’re so significant?
Al: Well, first of all, our research during COVID versus pre COVID has identified two themes, and the first one is all about leaders and centralized decision making. So what we found is that during COVID, decisions were pulled into the leadership team without feedback from key stakeholders for, you know, for good reasons. It was for speed, for efficiency, leaders needed to make quick decisions because of COVID and to act quickly, and it was really helpful for the short term. But for the long term, we need to return to decentralized decision making. We really need to delegate participation in decision making outside the leadership team and closer to the front line. And this will be like relearning how to ride a bike, I think, in many ways.
Another theme is that during COVID, communication of the organization’s strategy improved. We ask a couple of specific questions about the strategy of an organization, and they’ve improved during COVID. And what we believe is that organizations have done a great job communicating their COVID responses or their COVID strategy to meet the needs of their ministry recipients and customers. So that’s been very short term and COVID specific.
The perception that the organization was meeting its goals improved during COVID. Again, that’s one of our questions, that we’re meeting our goals. And for many organizations, the perception is they were more effective with employees working remotely but not across the board. So again, it was all about communicating the COVID strategy. And because of the increased communication efforts to keep employees involved and informed during remote work, the challenge will be to keep up the communication post COVID about the strategy. How is the organization? I mean, the employees are going to want to know how the organization is doing in the post-COVID world, related to the effectiveness of the strategy.
So we’ve got two takeaways for leaders on this first trend, and that is to begin to focus on decentralizing decision making and returning it to the front-line employees where they are involved in decisions that affect them. And the second one is to use all those good communication skills that you’ve learned during COVID to communicate your customer-focused strategy and goals. And our data shows that many of you did a great job of that during COVID as you were communicating your COVID strategies and goals. Now the challenge post COVID will be to communicate your organization’s strategy in the way that you meet your customer needs and organizational goals.
Jay: Great, Al. So it seems like it’s a bit of a pivot back from an emergency decision-making mode and then also continuing our intensified internal communication efforts to now be more focused on our updated strategy. I like it.
So what’s the second trend you see on the horizon in 2021, Al?
Al: Well, the second trend is about refocusing on employee engagement and culture. It’s going to be all about human flourishing, not toxic workplaces.
Jay: Interesting. Well, please go ahead and describe further what you mean by that, Al.
Al: Well, thanks, Jay. Yeah, I’d be glad to.
First, it’s no secret: employers have all been distracted during COVID. So many things have been coming to them, and leaders have been really focused on developing new COVID workarounds. Getting through was clearly the focus. Just getting through the day, getting through COVID was really a focus. Well, having remote employees—those are employees who are working remotely—plugged in with new work practices, etc., was really the focus. Well, the result was, well, we think that there was lower turnover because people needed the jobs, and they were really concerned, perhaps even afraid, of layoffs during COVID. And our COVID-survey data showed that organizations scored higher in rewarding compensation without really doing anything except keeping people employed and compensation at the same level. So we have just heard a number of organizations say, “Well, we can’t focus on engagement. We can’t ask our managers, employees to do one more thing.” So we think that, really, it’s going to come back around to refocusing on employee engagement in the future.
And that then leads us to a second point, and that is that by focusing on employee engagement and workplace culture, it’s really going to cause employers with a need to refocus and reconnect with their employees to gauge the level of engagement as they come back into the workplace, to actively listen to and be encouraged, as it says in Proverbs, to understand the condition of the flock. You know, people have been working remotely during this COVID time, perhaps for the first time ever, and now it’s time to really kind of refocus on the team and team engagement.
There’s a couple of things that really have happened, and we’re still in the middle of this with COVID, and that is that stress has increased, which really makes it important for leaders and managers to listen to what’s going on. You know, people are feeling stuck, cooped up. There’s no break from work and life. Everybody’s working from home. There’s no break between when I go to work and when I go home. People are working more. That’s what I’ve heard a lot of. There’s no commute times. There’s less routines for balance. You know, if the kids are home and they’re online with school, that increases stress.
So let me ask our listeners, the leaders, What are the issues that are facing your employees now, and how do you plan to address them? How can you help them get through this situation? So as people are coming back and will come back later on this year to closer proximity, I believe there could be some relationship challenges that don’t happen when we’re just on Zoom with each other. And so here’s an opportunity, again, for us and organizations. Let’s refocus on what are our organizational values that make our relationships strong as we go forward? So there’s a thought.
Also, post COVID, employees have options. There’s been the potential loss of productivity due to turnover. Employees will have choices as we move out of COVID. One industry that’s had a lot of activity has been real estate. People have been moving because they realize they’re spending all this time at home. So there’s been a lot of activity. And people have been buying and selling houses and moving apartments and all that. But the Society of Human Resource Management says employees are spooked by continued high unemployment and staying put in their jobs, not seen in nearly a decade. So, again, post COVID, that’s going to lighten up. And we need to reinforce and refocus on engagement so we don’t lose our top-performing employees.
But here’s another thing, Jay, that is really going to be a focus for employers, and that is, as NPR reports, women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men during COVID, and the burden of parenting and running a household while also working a job during the pandemic has really created a pressure-cooker environment for many mothers, many women, who are bearing the brunt of it. So listening to and knowing the engagement levels of your female employees are really important to get your arms around at this point in the life of your organization. Again, refocusing on engagement.
We also believe that life-giving work is going to be important as employees come back into the workplace and for leaders to reconnect employees to the ministry and the ministry recipients, those that receive the ministry or the customers of the organization, and being able to link how their work is important to these individuals as well as the organization.
Then, finally, I’ll just say there’s going to be a continued need for innovation in the workplace. And the drivers that create a climate for innovation have diminished in the workplace during COVID, again, based on our research. So this is back to one of the earlier points. Because decision making has been pulled into the leadership teams of many organizations, people don’t feel like they are being listened to and that they have really input into decision making because of COVID and the way organizations are running.
So let me just, one final third point here on this item. We will really see a focus on human flourishing in Christian workplaces because we believe that Christian organizations must be examples of the kingdom of God here on Earth, where leaders and employees flourish. I really believe that the level of spiritual development and maturity for people working in Christian organizations should grow. They should grow in their faith and flourish. I know that we all believe that and hope that that’s true, but it’s not always.
But here are some things that we see are key differences between toxic versus flourishing workplaces. And there are a couple of items here I want to pinpoint. And again, differences we see, toxic versus flourishing organizations. One is the question, “I have the decision-making authority I need to do my job effectively.” That’s really low in toxic organizations. Also, “The mission and goals make me feel my job’s important.” That’s low in toxic organizations, relative to flourishing workplaces. Also, “I have fun at work” is low in toxic organizations. And “The opportunities I have to use my spiritual gifts in my work” are low in toxic Christian organizations. So we see those differences. So it’s really important for employees to feel like they’re able to use their spiritual gifts in their work, on their job, and that will become more apparent as people come back to the office.
Finally, last summer, we noticed that the whole issue around racial justice in the culture became a big topic, and that is carrying over in the Christian workplace as well. So we see that as a new focus this year for many Christian organizations, that it’s not only diversity in the workplace, but the way decisions get made in justice, relative to pay, and making sure that the most competent people get promotions and not the friends of the leaders and that the top performers are rewarded. So we really believe that justice is going to be a key focus going forward.
Jay: Wow. There’s a lot packed into that second trend there. I really just hear you saying there’s going to be a need to refocus on employee engagement in general and for us as Christian leaders just to be reminded of our God-given purpose as Christian leaders to reflect God in and through the workplace, which is great.
So, Al, there’s a third trend you see playing out in 2021. What is it?
Al: Yeah. And I’ve already introduced it just a minute ago, and that is, number three is take diversity and inclusion more seriously. And that’s the message I believe is going to become loud and clear for Christian organizations, Christian-led organizations, this next year. Last summer’s experience of racial injustice has really significantly changed the tone inside Christian-led organizations.
So what are some things that you can do? I think we’re going to see a lot more training for increased sensitivity, that there’ll be a number of reading opportunities for organizations, groups, and leaders to have to understand the issues more directly. I also believe there’s going to be opportunities for training for respect, how you can have respect for people, actual behaviors that lead to respect.
And I’ve actually done a podcast on this in the past. I was on the board of a medical center here in Seattle called Virginia Mason, and they’ve trained all their employees on how to respect people, not only their colleagues, but also their patients. And that’s made a huge difference in their working relationships, for sure.
And also, we need to do the hard work of creating workplace experiences where minorities can feel safe and welcome and where there’s a sense of belonging and where leadership is empathetic and it’s ongoing and not one-off training. Diversity also is key in the workplace for millennials. It’s a key thing that they’re looking for in organizations, and oftentimes they don’t see that. So those are going to be important things as we go forward: diversity and inclusion. Let’s take it more seriously.
I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
Female: As we come through the COVID-19 crisis, leaders everywhere are asking, how do we understand the tensions our employees are experiencing coming back to work? How do we keep our employees engaged, hold on to our best talent, and position ourselves to thrive as an organization going forward? If you’re looking for a way forward, the Best Christian Workplaces Institute can guide you onto the road to a flourishing workplace.
The first step to begin the journey is our well-known Employee Engagement Survey. This proven online tool pinpoints where your organization is already strong and where you can improve your employees’ workplace experience, resulting in more productive people. That’s right. You’ll have more engaged, productive, and fulfilled people. Time-consuming guesswork won’t get you there. Instead, let us help you with a fact-based, hope-inspiring action plan that only our Employee Engagement Survey and skillful coaching can provide. Sign up now to begin the journey to build a flourishing workplace culture and a thriving organization. Find out more at bcwinstitute.org.
Al: And now, back to today’s special guest.
Jay: All right, so in this third trend, you’re really here talking about a real need and an opportunity to see how our workplaces can be a part of bringing about greater levels of fairness, justice, and more holistic diversity in society by doing so within the workplace itself. That’s great.
So now the fourth trend you have for us, Al, gets us more than halfway home of the seven trends for 2021. And I’m intrigued by trend number four. Tell us more about it.
Al: Well, first of all, Jay, let me say, I think you do such a great job of summarizing what I say very clearly and succinctly, maybe we should have you do this more in the future. But here’s the next trend. I believe that the decentralized or the virtual workplaces are here to stay as the world will return to work after COVID. But, yeah, decentralized virtual workplaces are here to stay as the world of work will change forever as it has changed over the last 10 months. And when we’re done with COVID, it’s estimated that the number of people working from home will double from pre-COVID numbers. I mean, that’s one statistic that I’ve read. So there’s certainly going to be new patterns to incorporate larger work-from-home groups of employees within the workplace.
An organization called Future Forum Research said that out of 4700 knowledge workers that they surveyed, they found that a majority will never go back to the old way of working, where it’s eight hours a day, or seven or eight hours a day, five days a week. Only 12 percent want to return to full-time office work, while 72 percent want some type of a hybrid remote-office model. So as we’re planning our workplaces after COVID, it’s going to be different and certainly more of a hybrid remote-office model now that we’ve had such success with people working from home.
So the question is, How is your organization preparing for the next post-COVID environment, and are you ready for a majority hybrid remote-office model? And our listeners might relisten to our podcasts that we had with homeschool pioneers Classical Conversations, and their president, Robert Bortins, gave us some great tips on managing remotely.
Jay: Thanks, Al.
Can you maybe give us a story or paint the picture of how and why virtual meetings on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, for example, can actually deliver results for organizations?
Al: Well, we’ve seen in our organization, Jay, I believe we’ve become more effective. And I’m amazed how incredibly efficient meetings are over video conference, or at least how they can be more efficient. Instead of driving to a meeting, you know, I think of even locally, taking 20 minutes out to drive to a meeting, or flying across the country to a meeting, people have recaptured all of that time into productive work. They spend less at the same time. So I can’t tell you the last time I filled up my car with gas, for example, which that was a weekly event. But I believe that these tools and others will play an important role as a new kind of headquarters will be developed in the digital first age. So organizations that do it well will drive engagement. They’ll achieve organizational agility, maintain their alignment, even empower teamwork across disciplines and locations. So I think we’ve begun clearly a new era of work.
Jay: Indeed, that is true.
So, Al, when I peeked at the fifth trend, I have to admit, I shuddered a little and had to look the other way because I saw the M word. So when you say this word, please tread lightly on my ears, would you?
Al: Yeah. I feel the same, Jay. I don’t really like meetings, but what we’re seeing is that there is one type of meeting that is really changing the landscape in many Christian organizations and building engagement in the same time, and that’s one-on-one meetings. So, yeah, that’s the fifth trend, that one-on-one meetings are key for your team’s success. We’ve moved from performance management as a term, for example, to having development conversations, and that’s really what employees are looking for, is they’re looking to see how they can be developed and improve their own performance. And so front-line managers continue to be the key link between employees and organizations. We’ve said that for years, that core, an important role in the organization that links employees to leadership is that front-line manager.
So we’re seeing that 30- to 60-minute meetings on a weekly or every-other-week basis is really becoming the norm in highly engaged organizations. And, you know, people might say, “Well, what do you do in those meetings?” And I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts, I’ve read a lot of material on those meetings, and I think the conclusion is there’s a lot of ways to have good one-on-one meetings on a regular basis. The key is to have a relationship with your employees, to have a strong trust-based relationship between an employee and their manager. And that might include some pre-populated agendas. You know, how are you feeling? You know, what’s on your mind? What are you most excited about? You know, those kinds of questions. I’ve heard others say, “What are your plans for the week? What are your priorities for the week?” And then the second question is, “How can I help you?” So that helps with alignment.
You know, I think about my mentor, George Duff, whom I meet with on a regular basis. And he always pulls out an index card out of his shirt pocket, with about five items on it every time we meet. I mean, there’s a lot of people that structure themselves that way. That’s one way of doing it. I don’t think there’s a right way or a best way, but it’s whatever works for you. But, you know, the old saying is that people join organizations but leave managers, and so early having that close relationship, that connection, the emotional connection, usually it’s to the organization through a manager. So, yep. One-on-one meetings. That’s the trend, the fifth trend.
Jay: Okay, yeah. So I’m going to choose to think of trend number five as having one-on-one conversations as opposed to meetings. I like that.
Al: I like that too, yeah.
Jay: Okay. So two more trends remain. Trend number six has some huge numbers behind it. What is it?
Al: Well, Jay, believe it or not, in 2021, the gig economy will continue to grow. And you know who are gig workers? Well, they’re freelancers or consultants or independent contractors or contract workers. Some consider a side hustle to be a gig worker, but it’s turned out to be a trillion-dollar industry. And why is it that people are moving to be gig workers? Well, they like the flexibility, they like working from their van, in many cases. You know, they can go and have fun and stop for a couple of days where they have Internet and they can connect from their van to do the work. They like that kind of freedom.
You know, we use a group called Upwork, we’ve also used Fiverr, which are marketplaces for gig workers. And Upwork says that there’s 57.3 million people that are freelancing in the U.S., and by 2027, they estimate it’s going to increase to 87 million, so another 50 percent from where it is right now. A group called Edison Research says that 44 percent of gig workers say their work in the gig economy is their primary source of income. So these aren’t people with just a side hustle doing something at night or on the weekends. This is their primary source of income. So that’s, for many of us, kind of startling. But from an employer’s perspective, you save on benefits. You save on office overhead. People bring skills and competency to the organization for a specific project. I think we’re going to see a lot more in the future for gig-economy workers.
So, Jay, if I may, your expert knowledge and experience in learning systems and strategies is a kind of hand-in-glove fit for trend number seven for this year. So lead the way for us. What’s the next and final trend, trend number seven?
Jay: Okay. So the tables kind of turned here on the interview. Yeah. So trend number seven is to really go more digital for continuous learning and development. For about 10 percent of a person’s learning and development that is actually classroom oriented, online and digital training continues to meet the need better and better, and it reduced costs. So we really learned this during COVID. Many if not most workplaces during COVID have been forced to shift their onboarding, orientation, workshops, and other regular in-person training programs online. And it wasn’t necessarily a smooth transition to online teaching and learning. And some organizations were definitely more prepared for it than others. But many groups, I think, are now starting to find a groove with online learning and are even surprised at what some of the possibilities are with it.
Perhaps one of the hardest things is placing a value on the learning that takes place in virtual and online context. And of course, it’s hard to focus for hours at a time while we’re sitting in front of a monitor at your desk and at the same time facing the full email in basket and team or Slack list of unread messages in front of us. So online learning has its challenges, but it also has a tremendous amount of potential impact and benefit. I think we just need to learn how to harness the power of online learning.
So as with virtually any new behavior or new way of doing things, we need to be open to, let’s say creating focus groups or asking for input and feedback from our people and discussing our learnings about what learning methods and platforms and approaches seem to work best for our organization’s learning needs.
Al: That’s fascinating. And, Jay, I know that you developed an online-learning platform in Asia when you were with YWAM before joining BCWI. That was a great experience. But what do leaders and their organizations stand to lose if they neglect or buck the trend of increased digital learning for their people?
Jay: Yeah. I think one of the most important things to remember or to accept is the fact that online learning is not just a fad, something that’s just going on right now and it’s going to go away. It is going to continue. Online learning is going to continue to be growing and even more common approach to teaching and learning in the future. So there are real economies of scale with online learning that simply cannot be replicated in the traditional classroom context. So those organizations who choose to jump on the bandwagon of online learning are going to be able to take advantage of the lower costs of online learning, as well as the ability to much more easily train and engage staff who are maybe spread out across a geographical area.
Al: Well, given all of this, what’s your best advice for decision makers who have their eye on their budgets but also their talent and maybe on digital tools in 2021?
Jay: That’s a good question, Al. I think online learning is not something that organizations can necessarily quickly and easily transition to overnight, as we have all experienced during this pandemic. Many organizations, I think, during the pandemic have developed a makeshift online-training program to help them get through the current situation of these lockdowns and restricted travel. And those makeshift online-training programs are not always ideal, and they haven’t been fully embraced by the people getting trained by them, and understandably so. So going forward, I think leaders need to make online learning, digital learning, a part of their overall people-development strategy. And that’s going to require a significant amount of research into what the different online-learning options really are. It requires a significant amount of design work and development and testing of what you want these learning programs to look like and how you want them to work. And what that means is you’re going to have to build that into your budget and give yourself sufficient time to truly develop an online-learning approach that will work for your organization. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to try new ideas for online learning, and then learn and adapt your approaches from those experiences. I think it’s all going to pay off in the months and years to come.
Al: Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it. Maybe I can say it certainly is my hope that in a year from now, I predict that BCWI is going to have an online-learning opportunity on how to train your managers to be culture champions. So we’ll see if that trend comes to fruition in the next year or so.
Jay: I hope so.
Jay, I’ve really enjoyed all that we’ve learned. I hope our listeners have enjoyed all that they’ve learned as we’ve talked about these trends for 2021. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?
Jay: You know, Al, maybe just one thing comes to mind as I reflect on all the things that you’ve shared today. It’s probably the concept that is the need for all of us as leaders to be flexible and adaptable leaders because we have an even greater need now, I think, than ever before in history as leaders to continuously see the bigger changing picture of the world around us, including the context and the needs of our customers and staff. And then we have to adapt our leadership style and the way we run our organizations accordingly. So this requires leaders who are constantly learning and who are open to input, to ideas, to feedback from those around them, because, you know, there’s just simply too much for us to know, and it’s impossible for any leader to be an expert in every detail of his or her organization. So it just highlights to me we really need to engage with our people to do this.
Al: Yep. Well, to conclude our interview, Jay, what’s one final thought or maybe encouragement that you’d like to live with our listeners?
Jay: Okay, Al, let me turn that around and ask you a question since I was supposed to be the interviewer here. When you consider the leading-edge transfer 2021, what do you feel is the most important thing that you want to say to leaders responsible for stewarding the culture and the people that God has entrusted to them?
Al: Yeah, well, I’m going to go back to leaders. It’s time to refocus your time and energy on engagement. Now that we see the end, hopefully in the next couple of months, some say as late as the summer, but I’d really like to see us refocusing on employee engagement and culture for the sake of your employees, but more importantly, for the sake of your organization’s success.
So, Jay, does that sound like it pretty much sums it all up?
Jay: I think so.
Al: Okay. Well, Jay Bransford, president and chief operating officer of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, thank you for your well-worded questions. It’s been a fascinating discussion.
Jay: It has been a great discussion, Al. Thanks for your insightful perspective on these seven trends that really stand to benefit every leader and workplace culture in 2021.
Al: Thank you, Jay. Let’s do it again.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba.
Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.