Lost in the euphoric rise of upbeat digital growth predictions this year is a corresponding wave of people-first trends.

Here’s how some research and business leaders viewed the latest deluge of upcoming technology innovations, accompanied by a resurgence of people-centric exigencies for brand trust, ethical responsibility, and sustainability.

Digital Can Boost Customer Trust in Brands

Since the pandemic compressed expected years of digital evolution into seemingly overnight transformation, the consensus is that cloud-based technology is the only way to future-proof business.

IDC analysts predicted that by the end of this year, 65% of organizations will shift to digital-first through automated operations and contactless experiences. But that doesn’t reduce an organization’s ability and imperative to build trusted, personalized relationships with customers. Indeed, the idea is to use digital technologies to improve customer experiences.

For example, Forrester researchers viewed digital as a double-edged sword when it came to brand trust. They predicted that “consumers will give brands permission to become more creative, entertaining, and immersive than they’ve ever found palatable before. Chief marketing officers will need to create consciously and sincerely; if manipulative tactics destroy trust among this emotionally vulnerable population, consumers won’t give your brand a second chance.” Calling disjointed experiences the “antithesis of customer obsession,” Forrester analysts predicted market spend on loyalty and retention marketing will increase by 30% in 2021 as CMOs assert control over the full customer life cycle.

Managing Employee Experience for Trusted Relationships

The impact of digitalization in the workforce was also profound. IDC predicted that by next year, 45% of repetitive work tasks in large companies will be automated and/or augmented via “digital coworkers,” powered by such innovations as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Forrester researchers agreed, forecasting that one out of every four remote workers will be supported by new forms of automation, either directly or indirectly, by the end of 2021.

In the same breath, every analyst talked about managing the employee experience — with good reason. Gartner predicted that by 2024, organizations providing a total experience will outperform competitors by 25% in satisfaction metrics for both customer and employee experience.

It’s no wonder that IDC predicted 60% of enterprises will invest heavily in digitalizing the employee experience this year, transforming the relationship between employers and employees. Further out, Gartner predicted by 2023, large organizations will increase employee retention by more than 20% by repurposing office space as on-site childcare and education facilities.

Some analysts expect high-performing organizations will make digital the default, adding in the physical to deliver the best holistic experience for team productivity. Gartner predicted that 40% of organizations will blend virtual and physical experiences, leading to increased workforce productivity and customer reach during the next couple of years. Hybrid working environments may well become the post-pandemic norm.

Here again, ethics loomed large. Forrester analysts saw regulatory and legal activity related to employee privacy infringements doubling this year. They put the onus on employers to adopt a “privacy by design” approach when handling employee personal data. This included identifying and assessing privacy and ethical risks and requirements, and transparent employee communication.

Digital Power Brings Ethical Responsibility

Many businesses have done some soul searching in the wake of the pandemic, political discord, and long-simmering equity demands. Two years ago, Business Roundtable, an association of U.S.-based CEOs, updated its purpose statement of a corporation to “take into account all stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the community,” rather than only profit.

Maybe that’s partly why Gartner analysts predicted the emergence of responsible AI, meaning the operationalization of AI accountability across organizations and society. They saw responsible AI as an umbrella term covering many aspects of AI implementations including value, risk, trust, transparency, ethics, fairness, interpretability, accountability, safety, and compliance.

Most analysts predicted that sentiment analyses and metrics documenting a company’s contributions to society’s measurements will matter even more in 2021 and over time. Gartner analysts predicted 30% of major organizations will use a “voice of society” metric to act on societal issues, and assess the impacts to their business performance by 2024. It turns out that what’s damaging to society is damaging to business. These analysts think organizations have a fiscal and moral responsibility to measure, reduce, or eliminate tone-deaf or insensitive racial and ethical concerns.

IDC called this phenomenon “empathy at scale” where companies increasingly used sentiment analysis, fueled by AI, to measure how customers perceive their vendors. They predicted by 2024, 32% of consumer brands will use AI-enabled contextual sentiment analysis to measure customer perceptions of empathy. This is where experience management technology such as Qualtrics comes in, connecting data for actionable insights company-wide in an intelligent enterprise.

What’s more, trust directly relates to AI-based data explainability. IDC predicted that by 2022, over 60% of consumer-focused AI decisioning systems in finance, healthcare, government, and other regulated sectors will include provisions to explain their analysis and decisions.

Sustainability is Table Stakes for Responsible Business

IDC analysts reported that the most favored companies are not only transparent and secure, but also give back to their communities, concluding that, “trust is not just about security anymore; it is also about responsibility.” Most analysts predicted increasing investments in sustainability initiatives, fueled by public sector mandates, shifting societal demands, and the realization that it’s good for business.

One Forrester analyst said that “sustainability-focused companies have better financial results relative to their peers, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.” By next year, IDC predicted the majority of companies will realize greater value by combining digital and sustainability, giving rise to digitally driven and sustainably enabled projects as the de-facto standard. IDC said that by 2025, 90% of G2000 companies will mandate reusable materials in IT hardware supply chains, carbon neutrality targets for providers’ facilities, and lower energy use as prerequisites for doing business.

Optimists look ahead to 2021 and beyond as a major reset for the next phase of the digital age. Let’s all plan to make the most of this digitally fueled opportunity for the business at hand, and the greater good worldwide.

Susan Galer is a multi-media communicator at SAP. Follow her on Twitter @smgaler.

This article first appeared on the SAP Global News Center.