As 2021 comes to a close, our team at Innovationedge has been reflecting on the trends that impacted each industry. This year has certainly been full of innovative new developments and changes! While the future may be unpredictable, there are some significant trends that shaped 2021 that we expect to carry over into the new year.

Here’s a recap of nine of the biggest changes we saw that are likely to have a lasting impact on the way we lead our teams, market our products, and conduct business:

1. Adopting flexible work environments

While many people enjoy being able to interact with others in public spaces again, lockdowns throughout the pandemic have altered the way we think about work. According to FlexJobs’ 10th annual survey, 97% of employees report wanting to work remotely in some capacity—with 58% preferring full-time remote options and 39% seeking a hybrid work environment. As large businesses like Infosys, Slack, and Nationwide Insurance continue to offer permanent remote work options, this trend looks like it’s here to stay. The good news is that offering a flexible work environment comes with benefits for both employees and employers. For example, having employees work from home:

– Saves businesses money by cutting costs like rent, utilities, and cleaning services

– Increases employee retention

– Decreases the number of sick days employees use

– Alleviates childcare fees for working parents

– Eliminates long commutes and offers an enhanced work-life balance

According to FlexJobs, it also increases productivity. The chart below highlights just a few of the reasons performance may improve in employees who have the ability to work remotely:

As we head into 2022, consider what it might look like to give your employees more autonomy over their work environment. By providing the right support for individuals working from home, you may reap some of the long-term benefits other employers have reported seeing.

2. Updating business models

Over the last two years, leaders have been challenged to redesign and adapt nearly every facet of their organizations to meet rapidly changing consumer demands. When we look at the organizations that have thrived amidst all of this uncertainty, we see that many of them invested in their people, products, and processes long before the pandemic occurred. Conducting frequent reviews of your business operations, capabilities, customer offerings, and employee feedback can help you prepare to make swift and nimble changes in the future. Invest in continuous process improvement to help your organization position itself to navigate unexpected changes.

In addition to having fluid processes and short-term goals, develop a long-term strategy to guide your team when important decisions need to be made quickly. While it’s necessary to be flexible enough to meet the changing needs of our customers and consumers so we can seize new opportunities as they arise, sustainable growth requires a clear vision and a commitment to that vision.

Related: Innovating During Times of Uncertainty

3. Embracing automation

One of the ways companies are becoming nimbler is by automating tasks and integrating AI to improve efficiency. As we collectively introduce new digital technologies into our organizations, leaders need to stay informed about the latest advances in automation so they can remain competitive. Some of the most popular technologies driving this change include artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and augmented reality. Pairing the right software and technology solutions together is the key to improving performance metrics and maximizing sales, but technology today is capable of much more.

Companies of all sizes are leveraging digital technologies to drive value, guarantee accuracy, and improve efficiencies. For example, we’re seeing an increased demand for robots and automated features in factories, hospitals, and everyday life. As robots continue to perform increasingly sophisticated and delicate knowledge-based work, consider what types of tasks you might be able to rely on emerging technologies to complete. When implemented correctly, these tools can develop more effective teams and enhance the overall consumer or customer experience.

Related: What if You Were Displaced on the Job – By a Robot?

4. Using AI and machine learning to gather data

Throughout the pandemic, the addition of technology such as AI, machine learning, sensors, VR, and AR-enabled more customization, personalization, and product differentiation than ever before. This technology has also introduced countless new digital touchpoints for both B2C and B2B companies, which means we have access to more data than we have in the past. The opportunities to boost innovation, improve customer service, and automate routine tasks so employees can focus on more strategic work are just a few of the reasons behind AI’s rapid growth.

While having access to more consumer data provides us with the potential to develop innovative products and services, it’s important to make sure we’re leveraging the right insights to make important decisions about our brands. This is why actively listening to your customers and consumers is still so crucial. As technology continues to advance, it’s important for business leaders to consider how they can apply AI and machine learning to improve the products and services they offer by developing new ways to meet customer and consumer needs. Look for opportunities to interact with and gather feedback from potential buyers and current fans in the new year. We also suggest investing in data literacy training programs for key members of your team to improve your decision-making processes and set your organization up for success.

5. Supporting local businesses

Another hot topic throughout 2021 has been the push to support local businesses. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt international supply chains and tensions between foreign countries rise, many organizations have started to rethink where they source their materials and sell their goods. Pair this with the consumer desire to reduce their environmental footprint and keep money circulating in their local economies, and suddenly the shift from a global mindset to a local focus makes sense.

While this is excellent news for small businesses, there are plenty of opportunities to adapt to this trend for organizations of every size. For example, if you lead a large corporation, consider how your company can partner with smaller businesses and organizations your customers and consumers care about. Giving back to the communities your employees work in is another great way to improve your brand’s image while making a positive difference.

6. Searching for meaning

As employees who were laid off during the pandemic return to the workforce and younger generations enter it for the first time, we’re seeing a strong desire for people to find meaning in their work. Our previous research shows that purpose-driven companies report better employee retention and increased customer satisfaction, especially if their purpose is centered around health and wellness or sustainability. They also see higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors.

If you want to continue attracting top talent, focus on ways you can make the work your employees do more meaningful. While supporting a social cause is certainly an option, creating a culture where employees can feel pride in their work is another way to go about this. Encouraging your team to explore unorthodox ideas that don’t follow traditional beliefs or practices can give your team the freedom to discover what they’re passionate about and ignite true innovation.

In addition to this, upskilling your team can improve your organization’s overall employee retention, loyalty, and productivity. Focus on building a growth mindset culture and providing your employees with the resources they need to build on their existing skill sets. This can help your company meet the demands of tomorrow while providing new opportunities for your employees to explore different career paths within your organization.

Related: What Kind of Culture Best Fosters Innovation?

7. Renovating sustainability pledges

While sustainability might not seem like a new trend, climate change has become a much bigger topic of discussion over the last year—and it’s no wonder why. As the 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows, the environmental, social, and economic implications of greenhouse gas emissions are both undeniable and enormous. Suddenly the conversation surrounding corporate sustainability pledges has shifted to include buzzwords like “net-zero,” “carbon negative,” and “nature positive.”

As we move forward into the new year, taking actionable steps toward reaching the goals outlined in these sustainability pledges is critical. Consumers are looking to purchase products and services from companies that do more than just talk the talk—and they’re actively vetting corporations to assess whether they conduct business in a manner that’s both ethical and environmentally sound. Instead of focusing on short-term gains, now is the time to think about the big picture and develop a long-term plan to cultivate resilience. As business leaders, making sure the economic, social, and environmental systems we leverage are sustainable is crucial for the long-term health of our organizations and our planet.

8. Delivering convenience

To help their customers and consumers comply with stay-at-home orders, many companies have developed ways to make purchasing goods and services more convenient. From delivering goods and food through third-party applications like DoorDash and Instacart to creating monthly wardrobe subscription boxes that let shoppers “try before they buy” and developing augmented reality apps that allow users to visualize how furniture and décor items may look in their home, we’re living in a world where convenience comes first.

As more online platforms, virtual reality applications, and delivery methods become available, it’s important for companies to look for new ways to streamline processes for their customers and consumers. Review your customers’ journey to identify ways you can save them time and make the path to purchase even easier this year.

9. Welcoming collaboration

Finally, over the last year, we’ve seen a significant increase in open collaboration between business leaders, innovators, industry experts, and organizations. In the face of a global pandemic and supply chain issues, many companies have decided to come together to better serve their customers and consumers, reduce costs, and increase their agility.

Building a network of key thought leaders in your industry can provide you with invaluable resources, advice, and perspectives. Look for opportunities to connect with other business leaders, share feedback, and combine your resources to help you cultivate a collaborative mindset that increases your speed to market and encourages open innovation. Companies who can partner with other organizations who share their same goals, have subject-matter experience, and have compatible capabilities will have a competitive advantage this year.

We live in interesting times indeed, but one thing is certain—2022 is sure to bring even more change, opportunities to collaborate, and ways to learn from one another. As our Innovationedge team continues to reflect and celebrate during this holiday season, we wish you glad tidings and a New Year filled with big ideas and much success! One of the greatest joys of this season is the opportunity to say thank you and to wish you the very best.

Related: 7 Upcoming Megatrends To Tap Into

Some of the resources we found helpful while researching the trends that shaped 2021 include:

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