The global pandemic of 2020 overtook and overwhelmed many companies’ best communications efforts. With communications teams assuming greater responsibility for effective messaging amid an influx of fake news across the media, their companies have faced tremendous pressures both in battling the pandemic and ensuring their brand stays intact.

Long-term Changes

The impact of 2020’s pandemic has become part of a seismic shift in the way companies collaborate and communicate. As we roll into a new year, many companies will find that these changes will carry forward into 2021, even as the pandemic itself fades.

Here are a few ways in which the events of 2020 will affect the communications function in 2021:

  • What we saw in 2020: A massive lift in the value of the Communications function. 

Almost every company had to up their game in communications skills and the intensity of their outreach. 2020 saw pressures not just on external messaging, but also on internal communications. Out of nowhere, companies were forced to massively increase their conversations with employees about critical topics like workplace safety, remote work standards, and even the viability of the business itself.

What to expect in 2021: Expect this trend to continue in 2021 as companies position themselves to transition out of the pandemic.

Themes of corporate and social responsibility, including the concepts of social as well as economic justice, are likely to return to the forefront after having been sidelined by a worsening pandemic. Watch for an increase in conversations about broader shareholder responsibilities far beyond stock price.

  • What we saw in 2020: A move towards putting employees first.

Finally. Many companies realized that employees were really what mattered when the chips were down. When you have to reinvent your business model in real time, you need an engaged workforce that feels like a partner in the business. In many cases, the companies that survived 2020 were those that had the most engaged and dedicated employees.

What to expect in 2021: This trend will continue as employers negotiate the terms of the post-pandemic employment relationship with employees.

Expect more employee input on work conditions, benefits, and even employers’ positions on social issues.

  • What we saw in 2020: A shift to remote work.

Historically a perk for a subset of employees that was only implemented by a small number of organizations, remote work became commonplace in 2020, with many companies forced to make their entire staff remote. After some initial glitches, it was largely a successful transformation of the workplace across industries. Technologies improved, home offices were upgraded, and every function innovated to make it all work.

What to expect in 2021: Where possible, remote work or partial in-office work weeks (like 3-2-2), will become a long-term fixture for many jobs.

Expect a major impact on the size of office spaces leased by companies, and a corresponding hit to commercial real estate that will continue for many years. Secondary effects, like lower public transportation usage (a problem), and lower traffic congestion (a blessing), will have negative secondary impacts on businesses like coffee shops, gas stations, and even commercial construction. 

  • What we saw in 2020: True adoption of video conferencing.

Using video calls for business used to be rare, but now even basic calls have shifted over to video. Social protocols for video calls were quickly developed, and every function in the organization figured out how best to make it work. As a result, in 2020 many businesses improved their ability to build better relationships with customers and vendors across the spectrum. In addition, businesses that used to sell 100% in-person found out that video sales worked, saving them substantial time (and money), all while making sales professionals particularly efficient.

What to expect in 2021: The big unknown in the future is its impact on business travel – how much travel is truly required to build and maintain effective relationships with customers?

Will the sales function migrate back to in-person calls, or will the massive efficiencies of virtual meetings remain so compelling that the days of in-person calls are numbered? Expect the answer to be a blend: some activities will remain virtual, while high-end sales will return to travel because in-person sales work best.

  • What we saw in 2020: The entrenchment of fake news as an art.

The election year (and its aftermath) showed the power of aggressively using traditional and social media to spin and control a message, even if that message was patently false. Many communications professionals (and politicians) were forced to reckon with baseless claims against their companies and brands, while countering them became more difficult as news sources and social media polarized and fragmented in 2020.

What to expect in 2021: This problem is not going away.

Fragmented sources of information will continue to allow fringe conspiracy theories and fabricated news to reach receptive ears. Business and government leadership will need to improve their communications efforts – both the accuracy and the frequency of communications – and they will need to employ trusted voices to rise above the clutter. There is no end in sight for this battle since any regulation of “facts” goes directly against the constitutionally protected concept of free speech.

The Future Has Been Thrust Upon Us

The changes driven by the global pandemic are not going away any time soon. In fact, the fundamental shifts in communications, collaboration, and messaging that were forced upon companies in 2020 will remain with us in 2021, with some of them settling in our daily lives for the long term.

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