The coronavirus pandemic has been monumental for the world of work – offering “a time machine to the future”, according to some. Alongside immense economic causalities, businesses across the world have quickly reinvented themselves – remodelling processes, ways of working, management, workforce planning and operations almost overnight.
But in the face of potential global recession and renewed outbreaks, it’s difficult to gauge the full cultural and psychological fallout of the pandemic. Even as many companies start to reopen offices, it is not clear what employees are returning to; while some work trends seem inevitable, many have yet to take full form.
But one thing is certain – 2020 has not just accelerated the future of work, it has fundamentally recast it. Businesses and employees now need to carefully consider the challenges that lie ahead and how they will navigate them. So, what can we expect from work life after COVID-19?
Changes to employee planning, management, experience and performance all hinge on the irresistible expansion of remote working. The mass COVID-19 remote work experiment has shown companies that certain business functions can be sustained remotely long-term. It has also provided a taste of the potential cost savings and cultural benefits of a distributed model.
While it hasn’t been a universally positive experience, many employees have adapted well to remote working in lockdown; with research from McKinsey reporting that 80% of participants enjoyed working from home, and 41% found themselves to be more productive. Many are now keen to secure long-term remote work opportunities, with 98% of people from one recent survey expressing a desire to continue remote work in some capacity for the rest of their careers.
So the stage seems pretty set here – Gartner now predicts that 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19. Whether your company plans to offer a blend of remote working and in-office days, or a full-blown remote outfit, you need to develop the infrastructure to enable it – from technology and recruitment to policy and culture.
Equity – not all employees have equal access to high bandwidth internet, workplace equipment, privacy or space.
Individuality – remote arrangements should reflect individual priorities (e.g. caring responsibilities, personal health) and working preferences (e.g. high vs. low social contact).
Cyber security – security breaches have risen 67% since 2014 and will likely rise further as work moves outside of private company networks and supervision.
Future of the office – should your company downsize office space, create distributed local hubs, or close them completely?
Flexible, contingent workforces
The uncertainty and unpredictability of COVID-19 has reminded companies of the importance of flexibility. According to Harvard Business Review, a company’s adaptability quotient is now the key to true competitive advantage, and allows companies to achieve “dynamic stability” – adapting and settling into new challenges, instead of trying to fight or resist them.
So it makes sense that more companies are looking to build flexibility into their biggest expense: their workforce. While the beginning of the pandemic witnessed a reduction in contractor work, the sector now seems to be growing – 32% of companies have replaced permanent employees with contingent ones. In addition to the growth of contingent workforces, we can expect to see companies continuing to experiment with alternative job models, like reduced hours and talent sharing.
This flexibility will impact training too, as companies seek to develop resilient workforces that can adjust to meet future challenges. Instead of focusing on past activity, businesses are being encouraged to judge employee potential for upskilling. As Deloitte explains: “organizations should consider how to encourage and offer opportunities for workers to continue to grow and adapt based on their potential, rather than solely on their existing skills or certifications”.
Corporate responsibility: workforce flexibility is clearly a very employer-centric strategy that affords little security to employees. Companies need to consider the cultural implications of transferring risk to workers.
Workforce disengagement: while they may be a company’s greatest expense, employees are also their greatest asset. Trust, enthusiasm and morale are quickly eroded when employees don't feel valued or prioritized.
Training: company interests in upskilling need to be married with each individual’s aspirations for their own professional development.
Remote tracking and digital management
As collaboration shifts to a virtual, distributed setting, managers are turning to remote tracking tools to keep work visible. The pandemic has already increased the use of remote data collection – with 16% of employers using technology to monitor employee working hours and activity during lockdown. But this is set to expand and diversify further as companies move to offer long-term remote work.
A huge driver for using this technology will be purely operational. Research suggests 82% of managers are concerned about remote work reducing employee focus and productivity, and are seeking out employee monitoring software to review team activity. This information will also be important for employee performance reviews, informing regular one-to-ones as well as annual pay reviews and promotions.
But increasingly, companies are using remote data collection to manage and optimize the remote employee experience. That can mean tracking employee hours to ensure labor compliance, review workloads, assess work/life balance and protect against remote burnout. It can also mean using tools to gauge remote employee engagement, satisfaction and wellbeing, and capture qualitative feedback via online surveys and forums. Such technology aims to empower employees and protect their interests, providing the building blocks for remote-first company culture.
Trust: companies need to be extremely sensitive about how they approach employee data – securing active employee consent and ensuring company-wide transparency.
Employee privacy: underhand data collection and surveillance destroys company culture. Companies should always choose employee-first tracking tools that protect employee privacy and dignity.
Cultural change: to get employees to accept remote management technology, companies need to introduce it the right way.
Virtual presenteeism: in the struggle to stay visible, managers need to set clear expectations and boundaries so employees don’t work additional hours, or make unnecessary digital displays to prove their loyalty.
Corporate responsibility and values
COVID-19 has placed “meaning” center-stage, forcing companies to actively live and breathe their corporate values. As Nick Gold, Managing Director of Speakers Corner, explains: “The current situation is thrusting the issue of purpose into full focus. We’re also witnessing communities working together, an appreciation for the work our public service workers do for us, and the little things we take for granted no longer being accessible.”
This feeds into the idea of a “new social contract” for organizations, based on more human-centric relationships between employees and companies, and companies and society. As Mary Baker writes for Gartner, “employees and prospective candidates will judge organizations by the way in which they treated employees during the pandemic” – whether they supported their employees, customers and local community or not.
Increasing support for employee mental, financial and physical wellbeing are crucial to achieving this, especially in the face of expanding remote working post-pandemic. Employers will be expected to provide financial support – such as remote stipends and allowances – to ensure the costs of remote working aren’t transferred to employees. They will also need to investment in employee wellbeing to tackle the potential problems of remote employee isolation, burnout and disengagement.
Equal treatment – remote working severely limits employee union and collective agency. To build transparency and ensure equal treatment for all remote employees, companies will need to build robust remote policies.
Woke washing – 2020 has made clear that insincere action is just as bad as inaction. Companies need to think carefully on what social values they want to amplify, and fully commit to supporting them long-term – not just for the instant PR pay-off.
Above all else, COVID-19 has reinforced the power of community. It has forced companies to prioritize team wellbeing and confirmed the primacy of employee experience. In the face of an uncertain future, those who offer their people security, support and trust will ultimately thrive.