Looking forward: Uplevel predictions for 2021

Last year was unprecedented and unpredictable. People around the world adjusted to different working conditions, breaking news, homeschooling, and so much more. Some days, time felt slow, and on others, it felt like the year happened in a flash.
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2021 predictions

In hindsight, we were hugely productive during the tumultuous year of 2020. Considering the data (and some anecdotal evidence), we’re now looking forward to prepare for this year of continued change. What will work be like in 2021? Here are our predictions for the year ahead.

1. Our impressive productivity in 2020 may lead to burnout in 2021.

Prior to the pandemic, many employers were wary of work-from-home (WFH) days, citing concerns that people wouldn’t be as productive if they were in their pajamas. In 2020, engineers and executives alike worked from home for nine straight months—and accomplished just as much as they had in offices the year before (without a pandemic, no less!). 

Data shows that engineering teams spent more time in meetings, which is expected in the Age of Zoom. Unfortunately, that was paired with lower prevalence of Deep Work, indicating that engineers had shorter windows of truly interruption-free time, instead switching from one task to the next every hour or so. Here’s the catch: with more meetings, more context switching, and less Deep Work time, engineers still managed to increase pull request (PR) throughput. This impressive feat is counterbalanced, however, by increased “Always On” metrics, like working long hours or multitasking.

This indicates two things about 2021. First, our teams deserve a celebration! We encourage recognition of accomplishments, both measurable and intangible. Second, managers should take the long-term view of this trend—which entails burnout prevention. Every season of productivity has to be balanced by a season of lower intensity. This might mean clearing space for big-picture strategy or brainstorming new features, rather than beginning yet another code-intensive sprint.

2. WFH days will flip with WFO days.

Although we’ve adjusted to working from home, many companies and engineers are eager to get back to an office. Uplevel will return to the office as soon as it’s safe to do so, but we know that our work lives are forever changed.

Instead of marking your calendar with WFH days, we expect that they will officially take place as the norm. Instead, work-from-office (WIO) days will become notable. It’s likely that many teams will have a common WIO day, with the goal of getting everyone together for meetings and collaborative work at set times. Google has already publicly declared their new plans to do the same.

Some people may prefer to work in the office five days per week, while others will make rare appearances. Understandably, we find that homeschooling parents are most ready for the return to offices. (Who knew that we’d miss school drop-off?) This flexibility will benefit companies by accommodating all workstyles and schedules. More than anything, the changes will be guided by empathy.

3. We will re-prioritize Deep Work.

The downward trend in Deep Work can have negative impacts in many ways. When engineers lack uninterrupted focus time, they lose opportunities to solve complex problems or create innovative solutions. On the flip side, this also typically correlates with too much context-switching and too many simultaneous projects. Here’s that common villain again: burnout.

Managers can support engineers by enabling flexible working hours or protecting Deep Work time, using Uplevel insights. Where social distancing led to more meetings, we expect that 2021 will retreat toward pre-COVID meeting time. As some team members transition back to days in the office, while others stay home, you might collaborate to define effective ways to use Slack so that communication doesn’t distract from productivity. Anything that supports less context-switching and more Deep Work will help your hardworking team through whatever this year brings.

4. Teams will synchronize in new ways—despite living across multiple zip codes.

The year of remote work introduced many new ways to collaborate, some temporary and some course-altering. Given the trends, we anticipate that decentralized teams will endure, potentially with enhanced or formalized practices of remote collaboration. At Uplevel, we’re committed to hiring within our local Seattle region, knowing that some office presence is in our future. We’re betting on the value of in-person collaboration, which served us well prior to 2020. As for other companies, we will likely see remote hiring and long-term impacts in the talent market, including differences in where applicants live and what they expect from employers.

Leaders can continue to explore effective ways to manage a remote team. Managers will benefit from reaching out to team members that struggle with isolation, which could continue in a hybrid office-remote world. One trend we hope to see continue is the idea of all-company OOO, as we enacted in the summer and over the holidays. This synchronized time off allows everyone to fully unplug, knowing that inboxes aren’t filling up during relaxation time. Outside of Uplevel, we saw many companies close for the full week of Thanksgiving or the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, letting everyone recharge at the end of a hectic year. Especially in times when “vacations” aren’t quite the same, it helps to clear all responsibilities during out-of-office time.

5. Our (empty) offices will get a makeover before we return.

Remember open concept offices? The great debate between shared spaces and isolated offices has likely been settled. We no longer need each employee to have a dedicated desk. Instead, offices will serve as collaboration spaces, where everyone comes together to work as a group. Office layouts will transform to include more brainstorm-worthy spaces, like big tables and whiteboards. In place of a one-employee-one-desk policy, we’ll see several private desks that can be reserved or claimed by whoever needs them that day.

With more employees taking advantage of flexible schedules, time in the office will become more purposeful. Those days will be centered around in-person 1:1s, team-based creative time, and company events, rather than simply a place to work from 9 to 5.

The rest will unfold.

We have extensive data to understand 2020, but nothing could fully prepare us for this year ahead. If the first few weeks are any indication, 2021 could be equally unprecedented. Our best bet is to remain adaptable and to nurture team cultures of support and compassion.


What are your predictions for 2021? Share with us @UplevelTeam on social!