Employers had a rough 2021. Now here comes Omicron

Employers had a rough 2021. Now here comes Omicron
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This year didn’t go as planned for employers.

With the introduction of vaccines in late 2020, many were hoping for a return to something resembling normalcy in 2021. But instead they grappled with delayed re-openings, vaccine mandates and mask guidance, employee safety and hiring and retention struggles as the pandemic raged on.

And the blows are still coming as we close out 2021. Covid cases are surging and the Omicron variant is forcing many companies to rethink their 2022 re-opening plans.

“This constant delay of office re-openings and [new] variants…no one at the beginning of the year thought by the time we got to the end of the year we would be in the same situation when it comes to Covid-related challenges,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner Human Resources Practice.

He said that 67% of companies that went fully remote at the start of the pandemic have re-opened their workplaces — with some workers coming in voluntarily — and almost 30% are planning to re-open in the first half of 2022, while 5% plan to stay remote.

Here are some trends experts said to be on the lookout for in 2022:

Hybrid work will take some time to figure out

For companies planning to offer a hybrid work schedule, with some days in the office and some remote, there’s going to be a learning curve.

Market research firm Forrester estimates that by the end of 2022, 60% of US companies plan to offer hybrid work — defined as employees being able to work more than one day a week remotely — 10% will remain fully remote and 30% will want everyone back in the office.

“We are seeing suggestions that the all-remote group might get a little bigger toward the end of the year,” said James McQuivey, vice president at Forrester.

With employees showing that they want flexible work options, company leaders and managers may need to adjust the way they manage and communicate to maintain a productive and engaged workforce.

“I think workers are pretty clear that they want flexibility, but the harder part is for companies and leaders to come to terms with it and, more importantly, figure out how to make it work — how to build connections remotely, how to manage distributed teams, how to build culture, how to coach and enable and engage,” said Deborah Lovich, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group.

Managers will need to ensure information, promotions and opportunities are distributed fairly among workers and evaluations are based on performance, not face time in the office.

“How do you actually lead and manage in a hybrid world? How do you run a meeting where half the people are on the call and half the people are in person?,” said Kropp.

Running a successful hybrid meeting will likely involve technology upgrades at many companies.

“Getting to the ideal hybrid meeting [involves ensuring that] people who are physically present have a meaningful experience and are able to contribute but also people who are remote have an equally meaningful experience… and there is no way that is going to happen without investing in different uses of space,” said McQuivey.

Data is also going to play a major role as companies transform their business practices and human resources policies, said Nela Richardson, chief economist for ADP.

“In order to keep on track from a business operations perspective, data is going to be really essential in monitoring the productivity of workers and you will start to see those investments more and more,” she said.

Things like surveys will also help managers maintain a pulse on workers — especially when they are remote.

“We expect companies to rely more on data: the sentiment of their workers, how engaged they are, do they feel connected to their teams and the business priorities?,” said Richardson. “That is going to be really helpful going forward.”

Expanding flexibility

Flexibility isn’t just about where people work. Employers that aren’t able to offer remote work options should evaluate how they can offer workers flexibility in other ways.

“A key challenge of 2022 is, how do we deliver a better future of work that has flexibility, accountability, trust, fulfillment and purpose for people who are tied to a location,” said Lovich. “The future of work is making work more human, flexible, productive, engaging and purpose driven.”

She added that many employees value schedule flexibility more than where they work, and that companies should consider offering less rigid schedules.

“Potential solutions include platforms to easily trade shifts with colleagues, and providing options to increase or decrease shifts based on specific needs,” she said, noting that this is already happening in the retail sector.

“Think about different shifts, more family-friendly shifts, the ability to swap a shift without a big hullabaloo,” Lovich said.

Talent wars continue

A record number of people quit their jobs this year, demonstrating that America’s labor shortage is still a problem. As of October, the nation had 11 million open jobs.

“Every indication is that 2022 will be just as hot as it is in 2021,” said Kropp.

Companies will continue to try to retain workers while also trying to attract candidates in a competitive job market.

“It’s a war on talent on two fronts,” said Katy George, chief people officer at McKinsey.

While compensation plays a major role in hiring and retaining workers, Lovich said benefits like tuition reimbursement, wellness, childcare and training and development will also be important.

Pay checks will be getting fatter

Many workers can expect a raise next year.

A recent survey from The Conference Board shows base pay may increase by an average of 3.9% in 2022, the largest one-year projected hike since 2008. The report is based on a survey of 240 companies, over half of which have more than 10,000 employees. The labor shortage and inflation were the top reasons for the pay bumps.

Audit and consulting firm Deloitte, for instance, said it will spend an additional $1 billion in the coming months on pay and benefits, such as more company-wide days off. It’s part of the firm’s continued effort to keep up with a quickly changing talent marketplace, chief talent officer Stephani Long said.

As a result, many of Deloitte’s employees will see more than one raise in a 12-month period. They got one at the end of the firm’s fiscal year in the summer of 2021. They may soon get another after the firm completes a new mid-year market adjustment. And the firm’s workforce will see yet more hikes in the summer of 2022 as part of the normal pay review cycle, Long said.

Employees will want more action from their employers

Workers will expect their employers to play a larger role in political and social issues and have a clear definition of what the company stands for, experts said.

“Employees are recognizing that they have some power and influence and are demanding more ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’ from their companies,” said George from McKinsey.

She added that employees are becoming an important voice in shaping corporate agendas, whether it’s on diversity and inclusion or sustainability, and they also want to see how their day-to-day work connects with what’s important to them.

“Employees expect to see and live their purpose in their own jobs and career trajectory: ‘how is what I am doing contributing to something I believe in?'”

According to Kropp, the fastest growing C-suite role is chief purpose officer, but it’s still a relatively uncommon role. “In 2022, the purpose of the company is going to become an even bigger issue.”

–CNN Business’ Jeanne Sahadi contributed to this report

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