Business trends we'll see in 2021

COVID-19 has not only upended lives, but caused a fundamental shift in how businesses and employees work. Organizations have had to pivot and strategize, adapt and change. In the coming year, businesses will need to continue to adjust to changes brought about by the pandemic, with everything from security and resourcing to the way they relate to their customers requiring a rethink.

Business trends we'll see in 2021

Security

Our growing reliance on connectivity and technology for various aspects of our daily lives was a key trend of 2020 that is bound to spill over into 2021. Unfortunately, cybercriminals were also quick to adapt to the new reality. As a result, companies will need to build even stronger security policies, procedures and risk assessments.

Cybercrime

There were more active internet users than ever before in 2020 as employees across the globe were driven to remote work. As of October, there were 4.66 billion active users, representing 59% of the world’s population. The exponential rise in remote working brought with it an increase in phishing, ransomware and other attacks as cybercriminals looked to exploit businesses that were not prepared to securely support a remote workforce. A report by Malwarebytes found that 20% of US businesses experienced a security breach as a result of a remote worker, and 24% said they paid unexpected expenses to address a cybersecurity breach or malware attack as people were ordered to stay at home.   

With the number of internet users expected to continue to rise next year, an increase in the number of people who are impacted by data breaches is also likely. The predicted growth in new technologies such as 5G, will enable even more sophisticated cyber attacks.

Automated security and zero-trust models

Businesses will need to better secure their new distributed networks and cloud deployments to keep their applications and data protected. Analysis by Check Point suggests that enforcing - and in particular, automating - threat prevention at all points of the network (employees’ mobile devices and endpoints, IoT devices and clouds) will help stop advanced attacks from spreading across organizations and exploiting weaknesses to breach sensitive data. Automation is expected to play a significant role in terms of security innovation in the new year.

Security Magazine notes that legacy security architectures such as VPNs are not sufficient long-term solutions as they can hamper productivity, allow employees excessive access to internal resources, and are vulnerable to attack. The magazine forecasts an accelerating trend toward zero-trust security models in 2021, where users only have access to the smallest set of permissions necessary to perform their work duties.

Remote working

The world has undoubtedly become more comfortable with remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. With little to no preparation and modest outlays, staff across the globe have quickly adapted to working from home and in many cases, managed to maintain or even improve their productivity. Many employees have enjoyed working from home and are reluctant to return to the office. In addition, they may have health concerns about commuting to work and returning to a workplace where social distancing will be more difficult. As most businesses have already taken steps to enable remote work, it won’t require a significant investment to continue the remote-working practice.

A study by Swinburne University researchers in Australia suggests that working from home will become more common in the aftermath of the pandemic. With so many employees successfully working remotely this year, organizations are becoming more open to the idea. According to the study, three out of four managers believe their staff will do more remote work after the pandemic than before it. The survey found that 62% of managers believed their staff would work “more” from home after the pandemic, while 14% said staff would do “significantly more” work from home. While nearly four in 10 survey respondents had never worked from home before COVID-19, 90% believed they would continue to do some remote work in the future.

In the US, around 56% of the workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with working from home, according to Global Workforce Analytics. The consulting firm estimated that  25-30% of the US workforce would be working at home on more than one day per week by the end of 2021.

Technology

Businesses across all industries accelerated their digital transformation efforts in response to work-from-home orders during COVID-19. The demand for digital platforms and experiences will continue to accelerate in the future as businesses and consumers seek alternatives to in-person gatherings. The move towards automating everything and the boom in artificial intelligence will also continue next year.

Anywhere operations

Anywhere operations expands on the remote working trend and refers to an IT operating model that allows for business to be accessed, delivered and enabled anywhere — where customers, employees and business partners operate in physically remote environments, according to Gartner’s report, Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2021. Gartner believes it is vital for businesses to adopt this model to successfully emerge from COVID-19. Anywhere operations means that digital and remote delivery should be prioritized, and even where a physical space is necessary, it should be digitally enhanced.

Video conferencing

Driven by the demand for remote and virtual work - as well as the desire for family and friends to remain connected - video became one of the world’s most important communication tools in 2020, and is expected to remain so next year. Indeed, the workforce transformation that has taken place during the pandemic would not have been possible without it. 

As in-person meetings decline and video conferencing increases, the user experience will become even more important. Organizations will shift towards platforms that allow their employees to join meetings effortlessly, and those that require the user to download specific software or applications onto their device are likely to decline in popularity in favor of browser-based video platforms. AI and machine learning technology will allow software to identify background noise and filter it out, and while video quality will continue to advance, strong performance of audio channels will remain critical.

5G networks

While 5G has been on the horizon for a few years now, COVID-19 has cemented the importance of reliable connectivity and more bandwidth as remote working, videoconferencing and digital collaboration became the norm. Forbes predicts that as we grow more reliant on our devices and continue to work and manage school from home, the value of 5G will become increasingly mainstream in 2021.

Hyperautomation

Hyperautomation is a process in which businesses automate as many business and IT processes as possible using tools like AI, machine learning, robotic process automation, and other types of decision process and task automation tools. Essentially, anything that can be automated, should be automated, for example invoicing or customer communication. The move to automation that has already been building over the past few years has been accelerated further by COVID-19, which has pushed organizations to allow more remote, digital-first operations. The trend is set to continue in 2021.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

Although AI has been around for some time, it continues to develop and shows no signs of slowing down. It is truly changing the way we work, live and play. Rather than replacing humans altogether, the best use of AI in the near future will likely be to help humans and machines work in collaboration. For example, AI-encoded robots that operate as an extension of a human worker’s body to pick up and place heavy parts already exist in a car manufacturing plant in Germany. Chatbots will become smart enough to go beyond simply answering a customer query and will be able offer helpful related advice and flag any potential issues raised by the question. The extra information gathered by the chatbot during this process will allow human agents to be better prepared to offer assistance and improve the customer experience.

Resourcing

The rise in remote working will require HR teams to build new skills and implement new processes and technology solutions to enable team management and collaboration, facilitate compliance efforts, deliver workplace training, and drive culture and employee engagement among a dispersed workforce.

Recruiting and onboarding

With the increase of at-home workers, HR activities like recruiting and onboarding are forever changed. Traditional practices, which rely on in-person communications and interactions, will need to be reinvented for a digital world. Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom are likely to play a big part in the new HR experience. For example, new recruits could engage in virtual job shadowing over Zoom, or participate in a rotating online buddy system to help them connect and stay engaged.

People management

People management is also changing, as managers are forced to find new ways to check up on employees working from home and monitor their productivity. More businesses will deploy HR software that can track when and how employees are working. Work-at-home policies can then be refined to minimize the impact on operations.

More sophisticated tools can measure not only employee productivity but also well-being. Replacing the traditional manual employee engagement survey, these tools allow real-time feedback to help management and HR teams understand how employees are adapting to and coping with the rapid changes brought on during the pandemic.

Remaining connected

Alternatives to ‘gathering around the watercooler’ for spontaneous interactions will also need to be found so remote workers can feel connected. Many companies have already made use of online tools to foster a culture of togetherness despite physical distance - for instance, holding virtual happy hours to replace after-work socializing.

Employee well-being

The pandemic has required organizations to rethink what it means to have a safe and healthy workplace. Many employers will continue to move away from the traditional focus on injury and illness prevention toward a more holistic view of employee wellness. This might include new programs and benefits related to employee mental health, physical wellness, childcare, elder care or flexible work arrangements. With remote working presenting a temptation to many employees to be always available, dedicating times for staff to unplug from work or be meeting-free will help prevent burnout.

Customer relationships

Websites and social platforms became a vital means of remaining relevant and maintaining customer relationships this year as people were stuck in lockdown. While many businesses once used these channels only to communicate outwards, 2020 saw an increase in the occurrence of two-way conversations - a trend that is likely to continue. Businesses will now need to build their communication strategies around being able to reply to and participate in conversations started via their social channels.

Even in the absence of a pandemic, customers of today expect seamless, ultra convenient, 24/7 service. As customer experience grows in importance as a brand differentiator, companies need to make it a key priority.

Personalization

The personalization trend is expected to continue in 2021, but with an even greater focus on connecting with customers in the digital spaces they frequent. Next year more companies will reach out to customers through online messaging channels to offer promotions, updates on orders, or other personalized messages, according to CommBox. Integration of personalization engines with devices such as home voice assistants, smart appliances, home automation and health tracking watches are also set to grow, says Yieldify.

Chatbots

Chatbots are expected to become even more prevalent in 2021, with more than 50% of businesses now planning to spend more on chatbots than traditional mobile apps. Some 80% of businesses are projected to have integrated some form of chatbot systemby the end of 2020. Chatbots enable organizations to meet consumers’ expectations around convenience and 24/7 availability whilst saving costs, increasing employee productivity and boosting revenue. Advancements in AI and natural language technology will soon see chatbots delivering more friendly, human-like interactions and providing more personalized customer experiences.

Omnichannel approach

While many businesses have been working towards an omnichannel approach in recent years, it is now becoming an expectation as customers seek a consistent voice and experience across all platforms. Customers expect to be treated in the same manner whether they are communicating via email or Facebook, and will become frustrated if they have to repeat their data or issues each time they contact a business through a different channel. More companies are likely to move to an omnichannel approach in 2021 to overcome these challenges.

Emphasis on community

Shopify predicts that in the year ahead customers will increasingly look for a sense of community from their favorite brands in response to the disconnectedness they have felt during the pandemic. In Australia, small businesses that acted with empathy, like part of the community, and shared human stories performed better than others. Fostering a sense of community with customers can be as simple as using social media channels to keep clients updated on service changes, educating them about products and how to use them, and sharing ideas relevant to the product or service, such as recipes or cleaning tips. 

This trend will lead to higher expectations for the customer experience, particularly when it relates to returns and shipping notifications.

Consumer behavior

Consumers will still be adjusting to pandemic life as we head into 2021. With the world turned upside down, marketers will need to look out for profound changes in consumer trends, values, attitudes and behavior as we settle into the new normal.

Emotion will be a key influence

Forrester predicts that emotion will play a key role in influencing consumer priorities, decisions, and behaviors in 2021. Consumers who fear for their physical or financial health will be conservative, while those who remain physically and financially unscathed by the pandemic will splash out to make up for a year of deprivation. Marketers must gauge customers’ physical and financial fears to understand consumer risk profiles, and use them to inform marketing content and tone, product strategy and forecasting, and customer experience priorities that will drive business back to the brand.

Consumers are shifting from public to private ways of living. Sixty-four percent of consumers responding to the 2020 Gartner Consumer Behaviors and Attitudes Survey believe they are at risk of exposure in public places, and 77% say that socializing the way they did pre-pandemic is no longer comfortable. Brands need to find ways to meet consumers where they are, and focus on aspects of their brand values that support consumers’ self-protective instincts.

Consumers need empathy and connection

Analysis in Marketing magazine stresses that the customers you knew at the beginning of this year will not be the same in 2021. While consumers were in control - demanding, distracted, distrusting and demanding recognition of diversity - just a year ago, they are now distressed, disconnected, disillusioned, and demanding more diversity. As we approach 2021, marketing will be about supporting consumers and helping them regain confidence to reset and thrive. Marketers should think about ways to connect with customers through positive content; campaigns should be understanding, empathetic and helpful. Research by Forrester found that 93% of Australians would trust a business, buy more, and/or recommend it to friends and family if it demonstrated empathy towards its customers and community.

Consumers are feeling disconnected from friends and family as they grapple with lockdowns and social distancing requirements. Brands should try to create a more personalized, human experience online, and look for opportunities to help people reconnect, recharge and reboot by forming deeper connections with their customers. They can do this by not only connecting with customers virtually and providing genuine experiences, but also encouraging them to connect with other people through their brand platform.

Focus on values

The last few months has highlighted the vulnerable, and consumers are wanting brands to take more action. Adobe’s Diversity in Advertising survey revealed that 62% of Australian consumers are more likely to purchase products and services from brands with diverse advertisements, and 21% of respondents have boycotted brands that don’t feature diversity. In the US, the social justice movement that gathered momentum in 2020 has had a meaningful impact on consumer values, with equality displacing loyalty as the No. 1 value among US consumers, while diversity jumped from 39th in 2019 to 33rd in 2020

Global research by Deloitte found that 79% of consumers surveyed recalled instances of brands positively responding to COVID-19 to help their customers, workforces and communities - for example, financial institutions pausing overdraft fees and deferring loan payments, or shoe companies donating thousands of pairs of shoes to nurses helping their communities. Nearly one out of four respondents strongly agreed that these actions positively shifted brand perceptions, and one in five suggested that they would be more likely to buy from those brands.

Online shopping will continue to rise

Online shopping will continue to rise in 2021 despite the easing of restrictions, according to Experian. A third of Australians surveyed said they expected their online shopping habits to increase in the coming months, while 32% believe they will continue to shop online for the next six to 12 months. 

In the US, this year’s unprecedented eCommerce surge will carry through to 2021 and beyond, leading to a permanent increase in online shopping, according to consulting firm Kantar. While some of the current online shopping volume is already shifting back to brick-and-mortar, it is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels. As many retailers have invested significantly in delivery and store pickup platforms that will continue to entice further online use and growth, they will have the operational scale and sales volume to bring forward their eCommerce initiatives.

Experian’s research highlights that with greater online demand comes greater expectations. Over half (53%) of Australians now have higher expectations of their online digital experience - such as the speed of online transacting - compared to pre-COVID days. Less than half are willing to wait more than 60 seconds before abandoning an online transaction. Consumers have, however, noticed that many businesses have stepped up their service this year, with a fifth of respondents thinking it is easier to speak to a call centre now, and 27% feeling that they now receive quicker responses from customer service representatives. The challenge now will be for businesses to maintain this level and continue to meet consumers’ expectations.

Sustainability

Sustainability awareness has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The visible drop in pollution while the world was in lockdown clearly demonstrated how much impact human activities have on the environment, and highlighted the need for organizations to put sustainability at the top of their agenda. According to a study by Capgemini, 67% of consumers plan to be more cautious about the scarcity of natural resources due to the COVID-19 crisis, and 65% said that they will be more mindful about the impact of their overall consumption in the ‘new normal’. 

At the same time, COVID-19 has given brands an opportunity to pivot and embed sustainability across their company and offerings, from their supply chain to products and services. As customers - particularly the influential Millennials and Gen Z - increasingly look for brands that align with their sustainability values, companies must meet their demands if they wish to benefit from their considerable spending power and loyalty. Capgemini’s study found that 79% of consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness or environmental impact.

Authenticity in marketing

IPG Media Lab notes that consumers - who are increasingly wary of greenwashing - are no longer content to simply accept sustainability marketing; brand sustainability now has to be authentic and actionable. Consumers want to see proof that the products they purchase are made in a sustainable way, and of any other measures the company is taking to further improve their sustainability. Moving into 2021, transparency about sustainability targets and processes will help build consumer trust. This could be as simple as upfront communication, or as complex as digital supply chain tracking. Education about a company’s values and initiatives will help customers choose those that are making real change.

Keeping up with these upcoming trends may cause businesses to feel overwhelmed. Outsourcing can be a solution that allows business leaders to focus on staying up-to-date with trends and growing their operations in 2021. 

If you’d like to learn more about how offshoring can benefit your business, download our eBook, Everything you need to know about offshoring Part 1.