5 key HR trends for UK businesses in 2021

Published on 10/12/2020 by Sonia Navarrete

With the pandemic having been the centre of our lives in 2020, it’s worth looking at HR trends for 2021, as COVID-19 has surely disrupted one of the core departments in every company – human resources.

HR trends for UK in 2021

Looking at 2021 we can’t foresee what the year will bring of course, but what is certain is that the pandemic has changed the way we work for the long haul. The once nice-to-have remote working policies and employee wellbeing have now become solid policies that companies are now implementing as their core strategies, not just to maintain, but to attract new employees. 

We have asked HR professionals in the UK to give us their views on what trends will shape HR in 2021, the future of work and in what areas SMEs should be focusing on for the year ahead. Things like remote working, retraining employees, and the importance of recruitment and collaboration software are some of the key points they told us.

1. Remote working will become a key part of the business offering

Perhaps as a way to retain or attract new employees, remote working has become something that employees will expect companies to offer moving forward in the long term. A recent survey from Natural HR into the priorities of HR leaders in 2021 reveals that 65% will be prioritising the recruitment and retention of employees, 64% on health and wellbeing initiatives, and 61% will be focusing on improving employee engagement and experience. 

Employee retention will become a key pillar for companies, as Sarah Dowzell, COO and Co-founder of Natural HR states: “The common goal for HR leaders in 2021 is supporting their employees and ensuring their wellbeing and happiness at work.” 

Likewise, the return to the office once restrictions have eased off will also have to be carefully managed. Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR says that HR departments will have to keep a close eye on restrictions and guidelines during 2021 too:

“Even with the promising news of the vaccine, companies will likely need to keep COVID restrictions in place for some time. HR will need to keep up to date with what is expected for their business.”

Alan Price, CEO, BrightHR

2. Businesses are looking for adaptability and flexibility skills

Gartner’s 2021 HR Priorities Survey found that 68% of respondents cited building critical skills and competencies as their number one priority in 2021. Being able to adapt to new working environments has been a key skill this year, and it will continue to be required by companies in 2021. 

Natural HRAdaptability and flexibility will be more important than ever before. It will be fundamental that employees are able to pivot during these ever-changing times without productivity taking a hit.

Being able to motivate oneself, support team members, and communicate effectively will be vital soft skills in 2021 as many businesses continue to work from home.”

Sarah Dowzell, COO and Co-founder, Natural HR


Soft skills will also have a strong impact on businesses, becoming more important for HR departments. Alan Price highlights how some skills will become an essential part of the recruitment process: “Soft skills such as timekeeping, networking and creative thinking have likely been critical throughout 2020. As we head into 2021 and continue to respond to the ongoing pandemic, employers may wish to focus on these attributes as part of their recruitment and selection process.”

Recruiters agree that while working remotely, being able to self-organise workloads and having a collaborative approach to teamwork will make a difference to employers. Michelle Raymond, HR Consultant and Visibility Strategist at recruiting firm The People’s Partner, says that: “The ability to engage in highly effective remote collaboration to build remote teams will be a skill that hirers will look out for.”

3. In order to keep employees, businesses will upskill and retrain them

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that many businesses have had to move their business online to be able to continue to operate. Retaining employees (45%) and maintaining employee productivity (49%) are two of the main concerns for managers. 

Gartner recommends that HR leaders should identify the area of the business that has had the most significant changes and have a higher need for skills. Training staff to develop skills that will be needed in the new working environment and looking after the employees’ career paths will be as critical for the day-to-day operations as having the correct infrastructure in place. 

Sarah Dowzell says: “Many independent retailers have moved to online sales and restaurants have launched virtual cook alongs and gyms have held live fitness sessions and boot camps. In these industries, retraining employees to be confident in delivering online engagements or manage an eCommerce site, for example, will be important.

“Employees will need to be multiskilled due to layoffs and businesses are open to cross-training to deal with demand when there is a lack of staff.”

Michelle Raymond, HR Consultant and Visibility Strategist, The People’s Partner

4. Collaboration software will continue to play a pivotal role in business continuity

Most purchase decisions made during the beginning of the crisis earlier in the year were decisions based on covering an immediate need, for example implementing software that allows employees to work from home.

A Capterra study found that over half of decision-makers (51%) have been forced to invest in new software due to the pandemic. Also, during 2020, a total of 76% of companies have had to adapt their offerings so that they can be delivered virtually.

With the country back into lockdown since the 5th November and with the new local tier system implemented since the 2nd December, there is likely no prospect of going back to the office in the short term and the idea of working remotely is likely to continue through at least the first half of 2021. 

In addition, many companies are also choosing to extend their remote work policies in the event of a third wave and the use of software will become crucial for them to allow employees to work from different locations. Sarah Dowzell speaks about the importance of software for SMEs during this particular time: “As long as returning to the office at full capacity remains impossible due to social distancing guidelines, the need for tools that enable entire workforces to communicate and collaborate from their homes will only continue to grow.” 

This will also lead to two other trends: Employers will expand their talent pool thanks to remote work, allowing candidates with perhaps better-suited skills to apply for a job with them regardless of the location, something that before the pandemic would have not been considered. 

Another trend is HR managers will be looking for candidates with more tech skills, Dowzell says: “While some form of basic tech literacy has always been a requirement for many employers, the rise of remote working means that increased tech savviness will also become a vital skill.”

5. HR managers will continue to combine offline and online models for recruitment

Experts in HR agree that the digital transformation prompted by COVID-19 has set in motion changes that will likely continue next year, and possibly into the future. For example, the use of video conferencing software has increased significantly in the past months, and some recruiters believe that the year ahead will bring a combination of both offline and online practices.

“I believe that companies will continue with a hybrid model of offline and online methods for recruitment.” 

Michelle Raymond, HR Consultant and Visibility Strategist, The People’s Partner


“While remote working remains the norm, I believe the biggest challenge for businesses will be how we approach onboarding and training the next generation of workers while we are unable to be physically together in the office.

With no reference point for the world of work, it is important that we, as employers and business owners, find new ways to enable and support this cohort of workers remotely so they are able to enter the workplace and learn on the job.”

Sarah Dowzell, COO and Co-founder, Natural HR

5 HR trends in the UK

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This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Senior Content Analyst at Capterra, helping SMEs choose the best software. Published in Raconteur, Computer Weekly and IT Pro. Journalist and PR. Nature, bike and dog lover.

Senior Content Analyst at Capterra, helping SMEs choose the best software. Published in Raconteur, Computer Weekly and IT Pro. Journalist and PR. Nature, bike and dog lover.


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