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The Biggest Threats to Business Productivity in 2021

The key to success for a business of any size is productivity, and the foundation of productivity is rooted in a secure workforce—both in the office and while on assignment outside it. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining productivity was of high importance to organizations. Now that the pandemic has disrupted what’s typically known as the norm within the workplace, productivity has been challenged more than ever. As the world continues to navigate through the pandemic, risk managers are still grappling with the idea of how to ensure business continuity while revitalizing productivity and employee engagement in the workplace.

International SOS recently released its 2021 Risk Outlook report, which outlines the top risks businesses will face in the next year. As part of that report, experts predicted the top causes of decrease in employee productivity, which can be broken out into two categories: employee health and employee security. The top causes for decrease in productivity in 2021 include:

  • Infectious diseases
  • Transport concerns
  • Security threats
  • Mental health issues

Employee Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wakeup call for employers and exposed vulnerabilities regarding the importance of the health and wellbeing of the workforce. Businesses are now realizing that the viability of their organizations is dependent on the health and viability of their teams. The health, productivity, and performance of workers are inextricably linked to the bottom line of the company.        

The 2021 Risk Outlook found that 91 percent of risk managers said they believe that infectious diseases will be the cause of decreased productivity in 2021—which in turn led to the fourth cause, mental health issues, which 30 percent believe will cause a decrease in productivity.

In some cases, experts believe mental health will eventually overtake the risk of infectious disease in 2021. With this said, it is clear that both the mental and physical health of employees will be key drivers in productivity in the new year, especially as many, if not all, offices have shifted from in-person to at home.

The traditional understanding of health, and specifically mental health, has pivoted completely from the start of the pandemic until now. It is now impossible to meet employees’ health needs without taking into consideration their mental and emotional health. Mental wellness within the workplace was on the rise pre-pandemic, however, its importance and complexity has since grown massively, forcing organizations to improve mitigations plans and become strategic very quickly. Given this complexity, provision of mental health assistance to employees is critical to ensure a productive workforce.

Employee Security

The Risk Outlook also found that 30 percent of risk professionals felt that security threats would be among the top causes of employee productivity decrease in 2021. Alongside security threats, another top cause for productivity decreases was transport concerns at (32 percent) because regular travel will slowly open back up and eventually become a top resource for maintaining business sustainability—as it has in the past. Because travel has been stagnant during the pandemic, this might be a stressful transition for many individuals in 2021.

In the United States, public perception of governments’ and health bodies’ management of the pandemic will play into pre-existing politically driven divisions such as social justice issues, U.S. election disagreements, and growing political unrest.

On an international level, the pandemic will leave businesses with blind spots as the current heavy focus on COVID-19 will open the door to other longstanding security issues that have not been solved. This includes cybersecurity issues such as hacks and breaches, which are now happening with many employees accessing VPNs and drives from remote locations. The issues that have not been solved will be factors that ultimately shape the overall environment in 2021.

Between public health, geopolitical, and economic crises, the productivity gap will continue to grow and affect workforce and business on a global scale further in the new year, International SOS found in the Risk Outlook. In fact, this gap is constantly being exacerbated by the infodemic as trust in local government and governing health bodies has reduced greatly in 2020, due to the pandemic.

Businesses will continue to become more vulnerable during the pandemic if they do not protect employees and have their wellbeing at the top of their agenda. Looking into the future, implementing a strategic risk mitigation plan for your workforce is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have to achieve growth and productivity. The most successful plans will be ones that incorporate an approach that is inclusive of all aspects of employee risks and ensure strong, open communication between employer and employee. Three major variables will define how things will play out in 2021:

  • An organization's willingness to change, seeing this as positive opportunity to deliver more value to its people;
  • Ability to afford the necessary resources to deliver change, in light of the economic downturn; and
  • Introduction of new regulation and legislation.

The new year will force businesses to increase the emphasis on maintaining a healthy and safe workforce as the key driver to business sustainability, and the best way to mitigate against these risks is to do everything possible to be prepared now. In 2021, there will be an expectation that there will not only be an increase in preventive measures, but also that there will be investment in long-term health monitoring of a company—not just ensuring the business is healthy, but that the people who work there are, too.

Jeremy Prout, CPP, is security director for Security Solutions for International SOS, where he is responsible for the provision of security services and assistance to International SOS clients in the Americas Region. Prout has more than 15 years of experience in global security operations and consulting.  Prior to joining International SOS, he served as a security manager for several premier organizations. Prout served for six years as a U.S. Marine Corps officer, specializing in overseas security, training, and risk management. He holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from Rutgers University and is a Certified Protection Professional, Board Certified in Security Management.