While it would be easy to reflect on 2020 as a disastrous dumpster fire of a year, the reality is that the pandemic has changed the workplace for the better. And many of these modifications are likely to be permanent.
This is undoubtedly difficult to appreciate from our current vantage point, but by the end of 2021, we will likely witness the seeds sown during the crisis begin to bear sustainable fruit. In fact, you can already observe alterations that have had an almost universal impact regardless of industry or geography.
The last 50 years of work have been defined by predictable patterns involving who is doing the work, where it occurs and when it happens. While these standards have been impacted by technological advancements, demographic shifts and emerging social norms, COVID-19 has accelerated new ways of working.
While most organisations initially resisted the inevitable reforms that accompanied the crisis, virtually all of them eventually accepted that work could be done anywhere, anytime and by almost anyone.
A major US outdoor gear retailer announced earlier this year that it was selling its brand new, never used corporate headquarters. The reason was simple: it was no longer necessary and would save a significant amount of money as it looked for ways to endure the coronavirus's economic impact.
According to a recent Gartner survey, this is not a temporary shift that will revert to ‘normal' post-pandemic, as 82% of company leaders plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part-time going forward. These same leaders understand that it will be the elastic enterprise that withstands the future's inexorable disruptions.
While it is easy to point to technology as the enabler of the new work-from-home environment, the truth is our mental mindset is the crucial component for long-term acceptance of this new model. The visceral reaction that usually accompanies the request to allow people to work remotely is based on the assumption that they will be less productive and more prone to laziness.
The reality is quite different, according to Natalia Emanuel and Emma Harrington, PhD candidates in economics at Harvard. They evaluated call centre workers in a Fortune 500 retailer and found that productivity increased 8% to 10% in remote workers versus on-site. And while our attitudes about the evolving world of work are important, technology may hold the key to the long-term future of work.
Humanity at work
Before the pandemic, the topic du jour was how technology (particularly artificial intelligence and machine learning) was destroying our economic livelihood. A study by Pew Research found that 82% of US adults say that by 2050, robots and computers will likely do much of the work currently done by humans.
While politicians and prognosticators have wielded this platitude for decades, recent computing and automation advancements have given it fresh fuel. Research by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo seems to corroborate this point of view as they predict a reduction in employment and wages resulting from industrial robots.
Others suggest that technology has historically created more jobs than it destroyed, and that workers have benefited from improvements in quality of life and even income. It may sound counter-intuitive, but could technology be the key to creating a more human experience at work?
As work has emerged from industrial roots to more of a services orientation, the number of jobs that require manual labour has declined. Even as those jobs shifted to ones requiring more administrative and transactional work, new forms of automation have replaced those positions as well.
What is left is work that requires a genuinely human skillset, including critical-thinking, problem-solving, creativity, communication and even compassion. This is the reason that a global eCommerce giant announced last year that it was spending US$700 million to retrain its employees. It recognised that eventually, their operations will be comprised mostly of machinery, and that their people will need to upskill and reskill to remain relevant.
As we migrate to these new roles and responsibilities, ubiquitous cloud technologies have enabled us to maintain uninterrupted connectivity.
5G has arrived and is enabling mobile devices, IoT sensors and video platforms while work/life balance transforms into work/life integration. We get to peer into our colleagues' personal lives through Zoom calls, and we realise that they have kids and pets and a decorating style we would not have guessed.
And all the while, the world moves away from traditional models of 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, on-site, full-time work arrangements and toward 4-day work weeks, temporary gigs from anywhere and daily pay.
Data has changed everything
As the pandemic accelerated the adoption of new technologies and operational models, it also hastened the digital transformation of the workplace.
Virtually all work is somehow captured in a computerised format, which provides endless opportunities to elevate how work happens. By aggregating the droves of data now readily available, organisations can predict and prescribe the orchestration of work in an evidence-based format. And as companies concede that their ability to harness the power of data is the key to sustainability, the most intriguing reservoir of data is arguably in their HR systems.
While this people data could be used in various ways, including real-time engagement scores, quantitative productivity ratings and optimised schedules, the real value lies in the utilisation of behavioural data.
Top companies like Google and Hilton no longer require degrees, and employers acknowledge that specialised skills can become obsolete in a matter of months. Instead, these organisations have prioritised hiring individuals with transferrable skills and foundational behavioural characteristics so that they can redistribute talent as environmental and economic conditions change.
Most of us would likely agree that 2020 has been a year to forget. But it would be a shame to revert to the way things were once vaccines are widely distributed, and the world opens back up.
We have seen wild experiments based on necessity, and lessons learned that should not be forgotten. And we have real potential to continue the momentum created by this crisis for the betterment of workers everywhere.