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2021 HR trends include widening pay gap between men, women

2020 was an eventful year for HR and may act as a trigger for some significant HR trends to play out in the new year, according to Gartner's Brian Kropp.

The pandemic and the explosion of social unrest this year will have a major impact on 2021 HR trends, according to Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner. 

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an unprecedented rise in remote work. In 2021, the return to the office may widen the wage gap between men and women, as men are more likely than women to return to commuting post-pandemic, which could put them in a better position for a pay bump and promotion, Kropp said. 

Workforces may also become increasingly international in 2021. Companies are getting comfortable supporting a remote workforce -- no matter the country -- something that may become an important HR trend in 2021. 

The social justice movement is pushing firms to become more socially active, but companies can easily disengage their workers if words aren't followed by actions, Kropp said. 

In an interview with SearchHRSoftware, Kropp outlines his take on some 2021 HR trends.

What percentage of employees do you think will never return permanently to work in an office but will continue to work at home, either full or part time?

Brian KroppBrian Kropp

Brian Kropp: What you're going to see is roughly 20% of employees working remotely full time, and 30% of employees occasionally going to the office one day a week, or a couple of days a month for essential meetings. About 50% will go to the office 9 to 5. 

You believe that people who return to the office will do better salary-wise but that this will exacerbate the gender pay gap. Why is this?  

Kropp: Women are more likely to choose to continue to work remotely full-time or in a more hybrid setting. Whereas men are more likely to want to return to work full time. We find that managers, on average, are more likely to give a higher raise and promote someone who comes into the office, even if their performance [compared to a remote worker] is the same. When you put those two things together -- that men are more likely to be in the office, and women are more likely to be remote or hybrid -- that's what exacerbates the gender wage gap. We also don't see any difference in performance, on average, between remote and in-office employees. If in-office employees performed at a higher level, it would make sense to promote them and give higher raises. Because we don't see that performance differential, that's why we think it's a bias.

What are the consequences of this disparity in pay

Kropp: If performance is, in fact, the same, then you potentially have a gender discrimination complaint against you. Reputationally, if people find out that your gender wage gap is worsening, that's going to hurt your ability to hire and retain talent overall. Third, as people find out that they're underpaid relative to their peers, even if it's the same performance level, that increases turnover. It might save you some money in the process, but are those risks worth it? Probably not.

Unilever used an internal marketplace to shift resources during the pandemic, from low demand products to high demand areas. In doing so, it discovered that 60% of the employees of these teams are now working across national borders. Will the increase in remote work and remote tools increase the use of international workforces? 

Kropp: For sure, it will. When you move to a remote environment, you're no longer constrained by the need to have 1,000 or 500 people in a particular place. What you're going to see is a broader global footprint that occurs with more teams that are developed across geographies. 

As part of this shift internationally, do you expect to see increased use of contractors or freelance platforms such as Fiverr

Kropp: While there's going to be growth in some of the gig economy platforms, we don't think it will be as much as what many predict. For a workforce to be high performing, ensuring you've got strong emotional and social connections with your co-workers becomes even more important. Those connections drive collaboration and innovation. That leans against using a gig environment because you're not going to have the same emotional and social connections that you've got with people.

For hires, will it matter if the candidate is in New York, London, India and so on?

Kropp: It will matter less and less every day. What companies are realizing now is that you actually have to have different ways of working in a digital, virtual environment. And so they're shifting how they work to create these sorts of new emotional and social connections amongst employees. 

To create this emotional connection, what kinds of tools will the HR market need to deliver? 

Kropp: A lot of the tools that we've developed are really about what are the skills that someone has. HR is going to have to come up with ways to create a fuller picture of that person, not just the skills they've got, but the ways that they work and interact with other people, their own personal experiences and so on.

One of the trends that you see is more businesses adopting stances on the societal and political debates of the day. These firms spend millions lobbying in Washington on a variety of issues which, some argue, might be at odds with their stances. Does that open the door for hypocrisy?

Kropp: Potentially, for sure. What's changing is that employees are demanding that their employer take a stance on societal, political issues. Many companies' responses to the social justice movements over the summer was to make statements about the problems -- that racism is bad, Black Lives Matter, etc. If companies just made statements, employees at those companies were disengaged. And the reason is that if you felt passionate about an issue, and your company just came out and made a statement but did nothing else, you were disappointed in your company. 

What we found is that companies that went beyond making a statement and got actively involved by spending money, reputation, time -- whatever it may be, and if they were transparent about what they were doing and kept employees up to date about it and explained why, employees who cared about that issue were more engaged. Employees who disagreed on that issue were more engaged because they understood the decision-making process. If you say something is important, but then engage in policies that are at odds with the stance you're taking, that's where you disengage the workforce. 

Editor's note: Responses were edited for length and clarity. 

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