There may be enough light at the end of the pandemic tunnel to be more intentional in considering what the future of work may look like post-COVID.
For many people, few things will change. Supermarkets will still be the weekly trek. Restaurants, bars, gyms, hotels, and performance arts spaces may finally reopen for good. Likely, libraries and sporting venues will be more consistent in serving their clients.
Yet, globally there are likely over a billion knowledge workers, those who work primarily in cognitively intensive roles and involve thinking for a living. Many of these people have continued to work during the pandemic, shifting in many cases from office towers, shared workspaces, and cube farms to be just as productive working from home.
Many will go one step further and state that knowledge workers are more productive working from home.
Home-based intellectual efforts and those that do not require daily commutes and physical meeting rooms can focus more on work because they waste less time attending large meetings, getting pulled into impromptu office chats, and leaving to grab a coffee several times a day. The result is they are more flexible in getting the critical work done.
Given these factors, what will life look like post-COVID for this population? As the case with many knowledge-intensive firms, they are on track for record earnings. Why would anybody even consider forcing staff back into a traditional butts-in-seats-where-I-can-see-them office model that does not seem to work as well?
This is the essence of what the considerable workforce research and consulting firms are trying to understand, in part as they can guide employers and employees who have now worked successfully from home for nearly a year.
Deloitte, the audit, consulting, and professional advisory firm, provided ten general considerations for organizations to guide their future steps. I have expanded based on my years working in human resource development.
Firstly, remote working can be very productive, though we still need to feel we belong within an organization and connect with others with whom we work. Socialization is an informal benefit to working together in person, yet a post-COVID world has likely shifted this. Working now involves getting the work done while still feeling connected, even when not possible due to social distancing.
Work is about getting the job done, though people are more effective with this when work is balanced, and the focus is on output and less-so on activities that promote burn-out and fracture personal needs. We get paid for doing our jobs, yet the days of endless work needs to balance with home responsibilities such as child-care, dog walking, and working-home task distributions. We never worried about scheduling meetings simultaneously as the kids were in school or at the sitter, though all that shifts when we all need to be physically home at the same time.
3. Generations Cannot Easily Group Workers
Generalizations about age and who is in this or that generation have always been oversimplified, yet that has become more pronounced when facing unexpected events (namely, the forced shift to working remotely). Making data-free generalizations is not sufficient, so in light of the pandemic's shifting of the economy, organizations need to collect better data and robustly analyze it to meet both people and profit needs.
4. People and Technology Work Better Together
Artificial intelligence and job elimination for only current projections are shortsighted, as organizations thrive more when people and technology work better together. The outdated investment in more effective technology in place of staff substitution (replace people with technology as much as possible) does not work well when we all use Zoom. If anything, better empowering people to use technology will increases value as it increases inclusion and new ideas.
5. Knowledge Management
Information and its resulting knowledge are of little benefit if people cannot utilize them when needed. We cannot act upon our shared knowledge if it is not available and searchable. Often knowledge management is held as an ideal, yet like most ideals, if it is not implemented as part of risk management, then when it is needed, it is already too late. We don't know what the future may bring, and if anything this past year has taught us, we need to prepare our knowledge resources better. This is not a post-COVID goal but one that strategic organizations are doing along the way as a critical competitive differentiator.
6. Invest in Resilience
Those organizations that will survive are most resilient, and as such, they can prepare for risk while also meeting it head-on through a culture of adaptability. Growing people in ways beyond their current position or planned career path alone is one way to handle this. People are always the most critical element in every organization, and now is the time to strengthen that.
7. Compensation Principles
Many of those most needed during the pandemic were not those who were highest paid, and this presents invitations to consider how people and their work are valued and assess what is both fair and strategic. While this usually means salary and bonuses, there are all sorts of ways this can be done, as working remotely expands the pool from which future hiring will be possible.
8. Governing Strategies for the Future Workforce
New and widespread approaches to work result in needs to understand and manage given these shifts. What worked before cannot work in the same way in the future, and indeed there will be needs for different data points to make informed decisions. This involves asking the right questions and updating governance processes to answer them.
9. Broader Ethical Issues
Organizations face new ethical implications for fairly supporting staff, including expectations for support and how efforts are distributed. This includes keeping an account of governmental and regulatory guidance, such as inter-state and international implications for safety. In its minimal state, ethical implications about relying on staff to use their own equipment and resources, especially when people were not hired with those implications. Ethics that focus on the workplace and not the full working-at-home dynamic will increasingly fall short while needing expansion.
10. Human Resources
The need for human resources guidance and support shines a light on that department like never before. Rather than being the hiring and firing department alone, it is now needed as the real business partner many have always hoped. Organizations need to ask if their HR departments are resourced and capable of these new demands. The complexities of large-scale workplace shifts and related policies, procedures, and expectations have generally not been needed before as much as now.
While these considerations will likely contextualize differently, all organizations will do well to use them to guide their future of work discussions. People will probably not go back to nameless office parks lightly, especially if they believe organizational leadership has not adapted to the times.
I will leave this with two questions that face us all:
- How has your workplace started discussing these issues?
- What can you do to prepare your efforts for this future, filled with opportunity?