4 culture shifts organizations are embracing in 2021

2020 was a year for the history books. From entire industries collapsing to organizations rapidly pivoting and companies transitioning to remote work, it was a year that profoundly shifted how we do business — and it came with both pros and cons.

So how did the pandemic affect organizational culture? A year later, we can take a more critical look at the trends that have emerged and will continue to inform decisions in 2021. Company culture has been more of a focus over the last decade, and, if anything, last year only accelerated its importance.

“Over the last decade, we’ve watched top talent voluntarily off-ramp from companies whose cultures did not allow them to thrive as human beings—a trend that accelerated last year in the U.S. when nearly one million women ‘voluntarily”’ left their jobs,” says Angelique Rewers, CEO and founder of The Corporate Agent.

“Many of those people have since gone on to create consulting, coaching and training firms to help organizations improve their cultures so that more employees don’t suffer through the same toxic cultures they did.”

According to her, these innovative business owners are in a unique position to help organizations create thriving cultures. And since she happens to work with countless culture consultants and organizations of all types and sizes, we’ve asked her for her insights on the cultural trends to look out for in 2021.

Here are four culture shifts organizations are embracing in 2021 — and will likely continue to embrace for years to come.

1. Authentic communication

One of the most surprising and underappreciated organizational culture trends that emerged from the pandemic is a fundamental shift in employee communications, says Rewers.

“Look, when it comes to more open, authentic and frequent communication with employees, that genie is out of the bottle. Millennials and Gen Z were already demanding this shift. The pandemic pushed us over the edge,” says Rewers.

“Out of necessity, there was no longer time for the bureaucracy that typically dilutes executive communications into useless gobbledygook.”

What does that look like in practice? Senior management leading the charge on open, vulnerable communication. Frequent touch points to discuss real, human issues. Zoom calls where professional facades are dropped.

“We’ve been hearing from corporate communications leaders on multiple continents that this has radically changed their cultures and brought people together in a more human and engaging way.”

Rewers says this trend is here to stay because senior leaders saw its results in real-time:

“This was a bit of an I-told-you-so moment for corporate communications and HR leaders who’ve been shouting this from the rafters for decades. But the pandemic was the tipping point. The ivory towers came down and the engagement and collaboration went up.”

2. Human workplaces

According to Rewers, it’s ironic that in a year when work environments went 100% digital, companies were finally able to create the human workplaces they had been striving to build for decades.

“In a recent Deloitte/Fortune Magazine survey, CEOs said that employee well-being was where their companies struggled the most during the pandemic crisis, and 90 percent of them said they have taken action to support the mental health and well-being of their employees,” she says.

“We really need to let those numbers sink in because that tells you something has fundamentally shifted when it comes to focusing on the human beings that make up organizations.”

3. Accessible professional development

In a fast-paced world that’s continuously changing and evolving, long gone are the days when only a few select people had access to professional development. Organizations are realizing the need for employees from all levels to benefit from practices like leadership coaching.

“Companies realize that training is simply not enough. Nor is providing leadership coaching only to those managers who are struggling. Leadership development at every level, from individual contributors all the way to the C-suite is now the trend, and it’s only growing in momentum,” says Rewers.

However, she also advises against a potentially negative downside of the trend: Cutting costs and corners around development programs:

“Companies have to be careful about not making coaching and leadership development into a lowest-cost-wins assembly line. Smart companies are working with specialized leadership development experts who can develop custom programs that truly align with the cultures they say they want to create.”

4. Transparency

In 2021 and beyond, organizations will be expected to be transparent about their cultures if they want to attract and retain top talent.

“So, leaders should expect that top talent will be inquiring about the communication and collaboration culture — and they’ll want to know communication goes in all directions,” says Rewers.

“Companies survived 2020 thanks to the innovation, agility and resiliency of their people. Professionals who know their value will want to make sure that their ideas can and will be heard and appreciated by their next employer.”

A related trend is that job seekers will actually be looking to hear about day-to-day company culture directly from the mouth of existing employees. “They don’t want fancy recruiting websites. They want to know what people who work there have to say.”

So it’s less about having a proper external communications strategy and more about walking the walk as well as being forward with the information provided.

“Companies can either facilitate this or job seekers will go to the internet to find it, and we all know that it’s the negative stuff that makes it out there. So, forward-thinking companies will need to make sure they provide job seekers with the information they are looking for,” says Rewers.