A new year always brings new business tools, strategies and solutions. But given just how much has happened over the past twelve months, 2021 is on track to be a particularly momentous year when it comes to enterprise technology trends. COVID-19 pandemic is ushering in massive changes to the way employees work, and—with uber-competitive business environments—companies find ever-more creative ways to improve efficiency and productivity.

Digital transformation and future business trends

Digital transformation is the driving force behind all business trends for 2021. If refers to the use of modern technology to drive business change. It has been around for years, and it may feel like a tired buzzword at this point.

Yet the meaning of digital transformation is constantly evolving as new types of technologies appear. Whereas achieving digital transformation once meant adopting basic technologies—such as building a website or moving applications to the cloud—today’s technology landscape offers a variety of sophisticated new solutions and services that allow business to achieve unprecedented levels of efficiency and resiliency.

What this means is that digital transformation is not something that one simply achieves; it's not a linear process with a beginning and an end. It’s an ongoing process that requires constant reevaluation of the available opportunities for making a business run better. All of the trends below are examples of opportunities that companies can leverage to continue along their own digital transformation journeys.

Here’s a look at the top trends that will impact businesses in 2021.

Trend 1: Hybrid work models

Unless you’re lucky enough to own a private island where you’ve been waiting out the pandemic, you’ve probably noticed that a lot more people are now working from home. Whereas only 3.2 percent of U.S. workers worked from home in 2019, current projections suggest that 30 percent of workers will work remotely on a permanent basis even after the pandemic ends.

The explosion in the number of remote and hybrid workers carries substantial implications for businesses. Companies that once kept their critical IT resources behind a firewall now must figure out how to allow employees to connect securely from remote sites. Businesses that previously expected employees to attend planning meetings in person have to hold such meetings remotely; or, even more challenging, deploy a hybrid model in which some employees attend on-site and others log in from home. Managing a distributed workforce spread across multiple time-zones is critical.

Employees generally report being more satisfied when working from home, which means that companies that implement the technology necessary to support remote workers will excel with recruitment. They may also be able to reduce their payroll costs by hiring more employees who live in areas with modest costs of living, where salary expectations are lower.

Trend 2: Increased use of no-code and low-code platforms

No-code and low-code platforms, which allow employees to develop business applications with little or no programming, have existed for years; however, in 2021 businesses will integrate these solutions into new types of workflows.

For example, Gartner’s Market Guide for Intelligent Business Process Management Suites notes that low-code and no-code development solutions are a key feature for iBPMS platforms, which help to automate business planning, intelligence and decision-making.

It’s easy to see how low-code and no-code solutions offer value in contexts like this. IT departments are overwhelmed, and many organizations must enable non-IT professionals to build lightweight business applications. When any employee can write an application that analyzes financial results for the quarter, for example, or predicts future hiring needs, a larger share of a business’s workforce is able to leverage automation tools to help with business planning and assessment.

What’s more, these solutions mean that ordinary employees—or citizen-developers—can quickly and easily build automated tools tailored to the specific business workflows that they oversee. In the past, when software development required the specialized skills of software engineers, or when low-code and no-code tools where standalone technologies not integrated into broader workflow-management platforms, it was difficult for an average employee to implement a business application to help solve a problem that affected only one department or only one project.

Trend 3: Increased focus on workflow automation

Expect workflow automation to become a juggernaut in 2021. The combination of pandemic-induced budget constraints, an overworked workforce, a limited talent pool, and general economic uncertainty is bogging down many businesses of all sizes. Smart organizations employ automation to relieve the knowledge worker and optimize the workflows and underlying processes on which their very survival depends. In this context, workflow automation is more valuable than ever.

Hiring

Workflow automation can make a variety of business processes more efficient. Take hiring, for instance. A typical hiring process involves several discrete steps: 

  • Allocation and approval of budget

  • Assessment of candidates

  • Scheduling of interviews

  • Interview tests assigned

  • Hiring decision is made

  • Offer letter created

  • New hire signs

  • New hire is onboarded

  • When these processes are handled manually, many individuals and groups must collect and exchange the requisite information, and there always is a risk of delay and inefficiency as one stakeholder hands off a task to the next stakeholder.

    However, when an organization uses workflow automation tools, manual handoffs become unnecessary, and data is automatically collected and stored in a central location. The result is a faster hiring process that demands less time and effort from all employees and candidates.

    Finance operations

    In a similar way, finance departments can use workflow automation to streamline operations. Instead of manually performing tasks like enforcing business policies, sending out payment orders, updating vendor data, getting purchase approvals and securing contract signatures, finance teams can use software to automate these operations. 

    Procure-to-pay is a typical finance operation that can use automation to improve efficiency, reduce error rates and reduce processing time. A typical procure-to-pay process includes these steps, which can be automated: 

  • Checking spend transactions against budget

  • Enforcing business policies

  • Sending out POs

  • Updating vendor data

  • Updating payment status

  • Getting purchase approvals

  • Getting contract signatures

  • Software tools can send automated emails, forms and contracts to employees and vendors, which not only ensures greater efficiency but also reduces the risk of errors resulting from manual operations. Automated software tools also can integrate with ERPs and most accounting software.

    Customer service

    Customer management, too, benefits significantly from workflow automation, especially when the customer base grows and businesses must scale up their operations. 

    Automating customer success processes helps the CS team to scale the operation as the customer base grows without the need to proportionally scale headcount and without compromising service quality. The following steps, and more, can be automated to increase customer satisfaction and success:

  • Send feedback messages and update customer on ticket status

  • Send checkpoint emails to customers you are onboarding

  • Route customers to the best CSM for them depending on a given criteria

  • Process automation solutions don't just expedite business processes; they also help companies achieve greater rates of worker productivity, another important consideration at a time when more and more employees are working remotely. Automation can reduce the time and money that businesses must invest to manage operations, which leaves them with more resources to devote to innovation. Automation solutions work no matter how organizations are structured, meaning that they can support traditional departments as well as multidisciplinary fusion teams, and they bring businesses a big step closer to achieving hyperautomation.

    Trend 4: Continued proliferation of IoT

    The Internet of Things, or IoT, is another decades-old technology that is poised to assume new importance and deliver increased value in 2021, due especially to the need for businesses to achieve automation across large-scale infrastructures.

    If predictions are correct, the total number of IoT devices in use in 2021 will be three times higher than in 2016. That change reflects not just the growth of existing IoT deployments, but also new ways in which businesses use IoT devices.

    For example, a traditional use case for IoT devices might be the monitoring and managing of buildings and other physical infrastructure. But, in 2021, businesses are likely to use IoT devices to collect employee and customer location data to inform real-time business intelligence processes, achieving a level of speed and scale in decision-making not feasible when relying on manual data collection.

    Expect continued IoT adoptions to affect businesses and verticals of all types, although industries like healthcare, manufacturing and retail may see the greatest change.

    Trend 5: Artificial intelligence and assisted intelligence

    It’s no secret that AI has been eating the world for some time now, but AI and automated decision making are set to become more important in 2021. AI is projected to power about 80 percent of emerging technologies, and will be a part of 75 percent of enterprise applications.

    The continued proliferation of AI introduces opportunities for businesses to automate decision-making and other processes. For example, a company that needs to predict budget requirements can use AI-powered analytics to project spending needs based on historical data. Or, AI can help manage employee schedules, a feature that may prove especially valuable when companies must coordinate the schedules of employees working remotely.

    At the same time, however, AI poses challenges. Because AI requires data, businesses must ensure that the information that their AI tools ingest is secure and that they manage it properly. AI configurations also may lead tools to make biased decisions, another key challenge that businesses must address to leverage the full value of AI solutions.

    Trend 6: Total experience optimization

    Businesses have long sought to optimize customer experiences, employee experiences and user experiences on a separate basis. In 2021, businesses looking for an edge over customers will embrace the concept that Gartner calls total experience, or TX.

    Optimizing total experience means organizations must manage the intersections among customers, employees and users in order to ensure that all groups achieve optimal outcomes. These stakeholders aren't looking for another tool; they want a platform that is built to address their needs, whether those needs are convenience, speed, security, or something else. For example, if an organization has multiple forms that are shared frequently, it can locate all of those forms in an easy to use portal, to make it easy for any stakeholder to make a request.

    Understanding how employee morale impacts customer experience is another way to work toward TX optimization. Likewise, examining data from multiple channels or touchpoints—such as CRM software, traditional websites and mobile apps—to understand what users, customers and employees do on each platform helps businesses understand and improve their total experience.

    Trend 7: Continued acceleration to cloud services

    More than 90 percent of organizations already use the cloud in one form or another. Still, there remains a lot of room for cloud-based service deployments to grow. Businesses face more pressure than ever to leverage the scalability and reliability of cloud platforms, and organizations that have already deployed some cloud services can double-down by taking advantage of other solutions they have not yet explored.

    For instance, Gartner points to cloud solutions like Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS), which replaces physical workstations with cloud-based virtual machines, as one category of cloud service that is poised for major growth, due in part but not only to the need to allow employees to work from anywhere. Gartner also believes that SaaS and PaaS deployments will increase over the course of 2021.

    Trend 8: Privacy and security remain a top concern

    Privacy and security have been a key focus among businesses for years, thanks to the seemingly never-ending stream of headlines about embarrassing security breaches that expose customer data and harm businesses’ reputations.

    The SolarWinds breach that was disclosed in late 2020, however, has raised anxiety about privacy and security to an unprecedented level. That breach, whose full ramifications are still being explored, exposed volumes of top-secret U.S. government data to unauthorized access. When even the federal government can’t reliably secure its private data, it’s a safe bet that consumers will remain deeply concerned about businesses’ ability to protect their information, too.

    This makes it likely that, in 2021, businesses will look to strengthen their security postures. By updating and hardening software systems, and ensuring that the businesses processes that define how private information is collected and stored are well-managed and free of oversights that could lead to data leaks or other privacy issues.

    New solutions for a competitive edge

    Many of the business technology trends that will define 2021 are not totally new, but they assume novel forms or move into new areas. From expansion of IoT deployments, to low-code development, to workflow and process automation, organizations will embrace new solutions that help them build and retain the necessary competitive edge to succeed in 2021.

    Pipey’s process automation platform addresses many of these trends. For companies seeking to add efficiency and reliability to their operations, Pipefy offers an intelligent workflow automation and process automation solution tailored to a variety of verticals, such as HR, finance and customer service. Pipefy’s workflow automation platform leverages no-code tools that enable any employee to build and manage automation workflows, integrations with other business software and apps, while also offering rich analytics and visualizations features to help assess business metrics and performance.

    Learn more by taking a Pipefy tour.

    Digital transformation is the driving force behind all business trends for 2021. If refers to the use of modern technology to drive business change. It has been around for years, and it may feel like a tired buzzword at this point.