It’s nearly a year to the day that COVID-19 infected the person we know of as “patient zero”.

No one at the time could have known it would become the defining event of the next 12 months. And few would be able to predict what next year has in store. 

By crunching the numbers from our three data sets, custom studies, and our dedicated coronavirus research, we’ve identified eight trends we believe will shape 2021. You can check them out in full in our connecting the dots report.

The pandemic is global, but the outcomes are numerous, and look different in different countries. 

In this year’s report, we’ve offered some guidance on how to respond to these trends in the best and worst case scenarios of the pandemic. 

Get a taste of what’s ahead with these trends, taken straight from the report.

1. An environmental backlash is coming.

For a couple of months in 2020, the common thinking was that while COVID-19 was a desperate global crisis, lockdowns might just eke out a win for the environment.

Clean water in canals and sights of mountains from previously smoggy cities spawned a new phrase – “nature is healing”. It caught on so quickly it soon became a meme accompanying the return of dried pasta to grocery store shelves.   

If only it was that easy. The drive to reboot economies around the world has virtually wiped out any reductions in air pollutants, suspicion of public transport is driving car usage, and aspects of the response to COVID-19 are detrimental to the environment by their very nature. 

We’re confident we’ll see more images of beaches and beauty spots littered with single-use masks next year. 

This hasn’t escaped consumers’ attention. During lockdown, optimism for the future of the environment grew by 28% – a staggering, and unprecedented, increase for an attitudinal data point in our research. By Q3 though, this had decreased 12%. 

Consumer concerns closely mirror industry developments. Without further action on the environment, there may be a sense of “paradise lost”, that the rosy future for the environment briefly glimpsed during lockdown hasn’t been followed through. 

Consumers haven’t forgotten about one crisis in the midst of another. Businesses’ environmental credentials are still very much under scrutiny, and in the eye of the consumer, action on the environment is just as important as action on COVID-19. 

2. Cities aren’t dying, but they are changing.

Ongoing concern about the environment will be a trigger for another of our trends – the reshaping of the city. 

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve often heard cities around the world were poised for a mass exodus

Whether out of personal safety, or to find more room to work from home, the expectation was urban dwellers would be packing their bags and getting ready to leave. 

That isn’t going to happen. For one thing, cities still hold considerable appeal. 

The vast majority of urban dwellers chose to continue living in a city when asked where they would ideally want to live.  

What will change about cities is their shape. Instead of being built to serve commutes from outlying neighborhoods into the centre, they will be built around clusters of local neighborhoods where schools, retail, leisure, and work is all within easy reach – what urban planner Carlos Moreno has dubbed the “15 minute city”, an idea getting traction with city mayors even before COVID-19.

The pandemic has brought his vision to life, almost by default. 

We can see this in the changing interests of urban dwellers during the pandemic. They’re now less interested in “going out” activities, whether it’s going to restaurants, live events, museums or theaters, and more interested in their immediate environment through things like gardening, home decoration, cooking, and fitness.

Much writing about the future of cities has concentrated on places like New York, where some high-profile people opted to spend lockdown in a second home in leafy suburbs.

But these kinds of takes often miss the global context. In places like India and China, people may leave cities because of COVID-19 – but there will be many more going the other way. In these fast-growth markets, there is a considerable economic imperative to move to urban areas, looking for work and better opportunities. 

This trend will impact virtually all businesses, and marketers will have many questions to consider.

How does messaging change when neighborhoods become more important than cities? If journey times around cities are reduced, how can businesses and ad channels built to serve the commute respond?

3. 2021 could be the year of flexible working, not just remote.

2020 will be remembered as many things. For one, it led to the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment.

Even before COVID, our research had identified just how beneficial remote working could be. 

Those with a licence to work remotely rated their company higher on many factors; not just productivity but also collaboration, the very thing usually cited as a drawback to remote work. It’s not always appropriate in every single sector, but in the vast majority of cases, more is gained than lost when working from home. 

But there are two threats to this more effective working culture. One is that some decision-makers are effectively waiting for a green light on the back to normal, where employees can be summoned back to the office en masse. The other is that remote working is really only half the story. 

It’s not just about working remotely, but working flexibly.

WFH can mean freedom from a strict 9-to-5 schedule, as well as from a physical office. Providing workers with more autonomy to choose their hours and measuring their performance on productivity, rather than hours worked.

In many cases, remote work has simply moved inefficiencies and bad habits to a different place. 

In some cases, it’s made the working culture worse, creating a new kind of presenteeism based on always being logged-in. Our data highlights that working overtime has increased significantly since 2019.

Many businesses had to adopt crisis mode in the immediate response to the pandemic, and extra hours were a side-effect of trying to survive. But looking to the long-term, the WFH revolution won’t be fully complete until workers are able to work more flexibly as well.

Flexibility providers workers with more of a work-life balance, which has an enormous impact on other aspects of their work. Workers with a good work-life balance are more productive, more satisfied with their job, feel more empowered to pursue new business opportunities, and feel their company is better equipped to respond to industry changes.

The last two points are crucial. The economic climate is likely to be difficult for a while, and businesses will need innovation and agility to best cope with it. Enabling more flexible working helps make this happen. 

Businesses and HR departments still mulling over what the future of work looks like should consider extending remote work even further, not pulling back. And as and when they take the plunge, there will be opportunities for software companies that can help smooth the process.

Get the full view of 2021 trends

As promised, we’ve run through three of the biggest changes coming in the next year. For the other five (as well as more insight into these first ones), get the full report.

Click to access our connecting the dots 2021 report
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Written by

Jason is Chief Research Officer at GWI. He's the main man who leads our global team of analysts, delivering world-renowned research. He's an in-demand data junkie who you might see popping up on your telly screens every so often to show you what's actually happening in the lives of consumers.

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