During the final weeks of 2020 it became the refrain of many to look to 2021 as a calendrical boundary beyond which we would all start an assumed path to an old normal.  Instead, within days of welcoming 2021 we again experienced new COVID-19 outbreaks across multiple states, and the re-imposition of nationwide COVID-related restrictions, including geographic lockdowns and closing borders.

If anyone needed convincing, the start to 2021 reminds us that hope and counting time are not people management strategies.

As businesses and employees collectively emerge from the holiday season, success throughout 2021 will be heavily influenced by the extent to which people management strategies are actively tuned to five realities for 2021.

COVID-19 is not going anywhere

While Australia continues to weather the storm of the pandemic in a way that other countries can only dream of, it's clear that even with a vaccine roll-out on the immediate horizon we will be managing COVID-19 throughout 2021 and beyond.

COVID-19 is not going anywhere.  While individual states and territories apply their own strategies for managing outbreaks and community transmission, the universal reality for business is the need to develop a people management strategy which operates within the uncertainties, rather than waiting for certainty to return.  People management strategies which merely count time by focusing on a return to an old normal will only ever produce success as a matter of luck, not good management.

If nothing else, 2020 was a demonstration of the importance of clearly planned business resilience and adaptation.  While many businesses successfully, but reactively, made short term adaptations to their people management strategies during the first 9 months of the pandemic, success in 2021 must be led by people management strategies that are proactively modelled around a safe and productive co-existence with the virus, and a longer-term view around systems of employee engagement and accountable work arrangements.

External support and more significant flexibilities are likely to be switched off

As widely flagged, COVID-19 related financial support and related temporary flexibilities will be progressively turned off through 2021.  While there will inevitably be political drivers that push policy decisions towards minimising unemployment numbers, those drivers are unlikely to dominate policy outcomes.  With the cessation of support programs such as JobKeeper, businesses will also likely lose those more significant flexibilities which came through the JobKeeper Enabling Directions toolkit.

For 2021, businesses need to be actively tuning their people management strategies to sustainable, but adaptable, systems of work, transferrable skill development and responsive resourcing levels.   Clever businesses will take this further, seizing the opportunities and lessons the pandemic has presented to capitalise on productivity growth and the value of an agile and multiskilled workforce, including through more innovative enterprise bargaining.

The pandemic is not an answer to non-compliance

COVID-19 will not be an adequate response to non-compliance in 2021.  Employers can expect renewed enforcement activity both through the Fair Work Ombudsman and union engagement.

If we take a moment to reflect, 2019 and early-2020 were characterised by a clear increase in the momentum of third-party enforcement in areas including: systemic underpayment claims and allegations of wage theft; the re-examination of annualised salary arrangements against a background of the modern award review process and the introduction of more complex award annualisation provisions; a refocus on whether workers who had historically been designated and paid as casuals had been correctly classified by their employers; a renewed focus on the obligations of Australian businesses in the space of modern slavery; and the expansion of whistleblower protections under the Corporations Act 2001. 

For most, the economic challenges created by the pandemic and the operational blind spots caused by working from home arrangements have given rise to a collective distraction away from those initiatives.  While that distraction may have been temporarily tolerated by those third parties focused on their enforcement, none of these issues have gone away.  Accordingly, people management strategies in 2021 must refocus the effort towards the evaluation, recalibration and implementation of systems to manage these areas of continuing risk.

Reform is likely, but waiting is not the answer

While it's reasonable to expect that 2021 will see legislative reforms in the areas of casual work, enterprise agreement making and award simplification, people management strategies in 2021 cannot be built around an expectation that the Government, or any other authority, will fix those challenges.

In the lead up to Christmas and off the back of an optically hazier than expected IR Roundtable process, the Federal Government introduced its reform Bill to Parliament.  While positioned (and named) as “Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery”, it immediately became apparent that there is not the broad consensus that many may have hoped for, and the Bill was promptly referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee with a report due to be issued in March 2021.

Irrespective of one's views on the merits of individual reforms, given that the Government has chosen to present the reforms as an omnibus (all-or-nothing) Bill, it's almost inevitable that it will require crossbench support to pass through the Senate, which itself is likely to require compromise (amendments) and deals being made (delay and further modifications).

Accordingly, employers need to focus their 2021 people management strategies towards self-evaluation and auditing of systems, and the implementation of internal reforms to manage what will continue to be a clear and material area of risk.

The “Working from Home honeymoon” won't continue

Irrespective of whether remote working arrangements have been operationally positive, workable or challenging for a business, the temporary harmony created by the emotional honeymoon for employees working from home, has come to an end.

It was a common experience for many businesses in 2020 to enjoy lower than usual rates of employee disengagement, employee disputation and workplace grievances (both at an individual and collective level).  While the causes of this are likely to be more complex, for many employees the emotional honeymoon of being able to work from home was undoubtedly a factor.  As the novelty aspects of working from home fade away (even for those employees who want to continue working from home), most employers are experiencing a return to normal levels of employee management issues, whether in the areas of performance management, allegations of bullying or inappropriate communications, inter-employee grievances and increasing levels of disengagement.

Against this backdrop, it's imperative that people management strategies develop and adopt clear systems to proactively and accountably manage these areas within a remote, or partially remote, working environment.

Whether through our Partnership Plus People Plan and IR Strategy sessions, or through our Management Consulting services, People + Culture Strategies has worked closely with many of our clients throughout the pandemic and as part of their formal 2021 people management planning processes.  By applying established people management strategies and cross-industry experience, we are pleased to have assisted these clients to identify and implement systems which not only proactively manage these areas but also take advantage of the change management opportunities they create.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.