As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year in the U.S., speculation remains about 2021. Unquestionably, 2020 required adaptability, bringing sudden shifts to virtual work; adopting new digital communication models; and, for many workers, obliterating the lines between their personal and professional lives.

As more Americans are vaccinated, life may begin to resemble what it once was — but what will this mean for the workplace? Indeed surveyed 319 U.S. employers to learn how they think COVID-19 will impact work and hiring in 2021, as well as what changes they anticipate. Although many are optimistic, one thing is certain: the pandemic has brought lasting change.

Over 90% of employers say workers pulled together to weather the crisis

Challenging times can make or break relationships, and last year proved that employers and employees can and will come together when it matters. Almost all employers surveyed (92%) say their employees pulled together to help the company during the crisis. The support was mostly mutual, with 87% saying they supported their employees as much as possible. Together, everyone was stronger — contributing to employees’ and employers’ confidence about the year to come

Despite the pandemic’s widespread challenges, such as families juggling a lack of childcare or workers struggling with social isolation, employers are extremely confident in their people: 84% say their workers’ jobs seemed more important to them in 2020 than ever before. Meanwhile, 82% think their workers were motivated to perform to the best of their abilities, going above and beyond what was expected.

Employers have now seen firsthand what their employees are capable of, and they have high hopes for the year to come. While it’s too early to say what 2021 will bring, 73% are optimistic about workforce productivity, and 70% even predict their businesses will grow.

Nearly 70% of employers are optimistic about the 2021 job market

From furloughs and layoffs to freezes and general uncertainty, 2020 was a tricky year for hiring. But employers aren’t letting that get them down: 68% are optimistic about the job market for 2021. 

In fact, over one-fourth (27%) plan to hire at higher volumes than before the pandemic, and 20% anticipate hiring at the same, pre-COVID rates. Only 10% predict continuing hiring freezes, and a mere 4% think they will lay off employees this year.  

While the pandemic’s effects will continue to linger, many employers think they can offer the stability and support workers crave. To that end, employers predict that the top three reasons new talent will join their companies in 2021 are better job security, higher earnings and the company’s positive business outlook. Strong benefits packages and a positive company culture are tied for fifth place; after all, the pandemic has driven home the importance of health benefits and the impact of a supportive company culture during trying times. 

In more good news, over half (54%) of employers are optimistic about salary increases for their workers in the coming year, while 60% percent feel good about work-life balance moving forward.

Almost everyone expects permanent change due to COVID-19

Virtually all employers believe the pandemic will permanently alter key aspects of work moving forward. Ninety-eight percent say they will implement at least some new policies or procedures in 2021 — from increased flexibility in where and how people work to temperature checks, mask reminders and strategies to keep people safe. 

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of employers are optimistic about their ability to adapt to new changes, likely encouraged by the grit and resilience already demonstrated in 2020.

Looking at the big picture, 66% of employers think the pandemic will lead to increased long-term attention to hygiene, health and safety in the workplace, and 88% say they are ready to implement COVID-19 safety measures. Nearly half (46%) anticipate greater awareness among leaders and managers about the challenges of balancing caregiving and work, and 40% predict greater consideration for well-being and mental health in the workplace. 

These shifts indicate that the pandemic pushed employers to see employees as people and that this empathy will guide future hiring. Thirty-two percent anticipate designing jobs with increased flexibility moving forward, and 29% of leaders and managers plan to be more accommodating of workers’ personal commitments. Nearly one-quarter (24%) say they’ll likely adopt measures such as four-day workweeks and unlimited paid time off or unpaid leave — marking a significant departure from workplace norms.

Although 47% of employers believe the pandemic produced a permanent shift toward work-life blending, another 35% say the divisions between these spheres are more clear than ever, and 15% don’t think things have changed at all. Perhaps 2021 will bring more clarity to this split as remote work becomes more mainstream: over half (57%) of employers surveyed plan to increase work-from-home options.

Employers stress it’s time to move forward — together

Despite the tremendous challenges of 2020, employers are hopeful as they look ahead. Employers and employees largely banded together during the pandemic and, in the process, showed their true strength. 

Looking back, employers are heartened by workers’ commitment and productivity during tough times, and they’re hopeful this will bring big benefits in 2021. Many predict increased hiring and more opportunities for the workforce, along with even higher salaries. 

Virtually all employers look ahead to new processes and initiatives, and most are prepared to implement necessary COVID-19 safety procedures. More employers plan to add remote work options, too, with increased empathy for workers’ daily challenges. All told, major changes are here to stay, and employers think the future looks brighter.