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Thirty years ago, work happened at work. Very few people were able to work remotely, and even fewer expected to do so. However, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted a large portion of the workforce to remote work overnight. And while life changed rapidly in 2020, the path forward is looking slow and unsteady.
Much has been written attempting to predict what the “new normal” will look like. But work is a huge part of our lives, and therefore there is no “new normal” until we consider the future of work. As both vaccinations and variants are on the rise, we’re even less sure of what “going back to work” will look like than we were two years ago.
Going back to work isn't as simple as just reopening offices. After all, as productivity experts will tell you, it takes 21 days to start a new habit. So what happens after two years? For many people, they moved away, changed careers, went back to school, started — or grew — families, and there's no sense trying to fit back into the box they were in before.
Like it or not, work has changed for good, and we don’t have to try to recreate the past to make the future make sense. Instead of the new normal, COVID-19 is the new Industrial Revolution — and it's already made its mark on the future of work.
What is the future of work?
What exactly do we mean when we talk about the “future of work?” The future of work is the term coined to refer to changes in how we approach work, get tasks done, and integrate our jobs with the rest of our lives, based on changing economic, social, and global dynamics.
Generally, societal changes happen incrementally. But sometimes, a catalyst produces a history-defining moment that forces life to change an unprecedented ways.
The last major catalyst for change in how we work was the invention of Henry Ford's assembly line. Ford Motors paid workers a higher wage while simultaneously cutting the work week from 72 hours down to 40. As a result, productivity skyrocketed, along with employee well-being and retention.
Now, a 40-hour work week is considered standard in many places and industries around the world. Most of us associate that with full-time work — but it's only truly been around for the last hundred years or so.
From 2020 to 2021, we said goodbye to some of the other standards of professional life, like offices, business travel, and pants with belt loops. The pandemic has accelerated a shift towards a new work dynamic — but if embraced, this new dynamic could be the answer to work-life balance, productivity, and climate change.
COVID-19 and the changes in work dynamics
When the pandemic and social distancing measures forced people to look for alternatives to in-person gatherings, workers were quickly split into two categories — essential and non-essential. There were the workers who were able to work from home by adopting or changing their use of technology, and then there were the workers that were needed to keep essential functions (like groceries, transportation, and medical care) available to everyone else.
A group of workers, however, were trapped in the middle — those whose careers depended on people being out, but who couldn’t do their jobs remotely. These included actors, food service workers, fitness instructors, and a number of other professions that — for one reason or another — had limited ability to work online.
Companies were also split among similar lines. Some of them had already embraced remote work, and therefore were relatively unaffected. They didn’t bear the immediate logistical challenges of needing to shift an in-person workforce to a remote one or shutting down a brick-and-mortar network of offices.
Others depended on recapturing foot traffic or finding new ways to provide their services — some of which meant cutting the cost of human capital. And a final group is still waiting on the return to business as usual (commercial landlords in urban spaces being the standard-bearers of this group).
What some companies were able to weather for an extended amount of time, many employees were not. And with unemployment running out and desperation running high as the pandemic stretched into its second year, something had to give. Many people began switching careers or moving to less expensive areas — or both. This is just one of many factors that triggered the Great Resignation, where companies are now struggling to entice employees back to their 2019 lifestyles.
3 challenges of the post-COVID world for companies
During COVID, some workplaces argued that employees could not collaborate effectively while working remotely. While some employees did, in fact, miss water cooler talk and in-person meetings, many employees (across many industries) found that they were just as productive — if not more so — while working remotely.
When starting a new job, meeting in-person is a big part of connecting to your new co-workers. After all, onboarding is interactive by nature. But because work forces are spreading across time zones and geographic locations, it's harder for people to connect to their new co-workers and feel a sense of belonging in their jobs. This is especially prevalent for Generation Z, since these roles often represent their first foray into the workforce.
Many people in industries that were disrupted by coronavirus, such as hospitality and foodservice, have changed careers as a way of regaining control in the cycle of lockdowns and ever-changing laws. As a result, business leaders have faced a challenge in enticing workers back because they can no longer promise security.
On the other hand, industries that are growing rapidly are able to offer incentives to hire workers to meet the new demand. The bulk of these pandemic-proof industries are either resistant to automation (like healthcare) or uniquely suited for hybrid work (tech).
Some lower-wage roles are attempting to compete by offering higher rates and improved benefits. However, they may not be able to sustain these initiatives long-term if the industry does not match the growth.
The shift in the mix of occupations
Overwhelmingly, the jobs that were eliminated due to the pandemic were low-wage jobs. While some of these represent essential workers, some were able to be — and therefore were — outsourced or automated. This was an unfortunate but sometimes necessary way for cash-strapped businesses companies to offset the losses they experienced during COVID.
A McKinsey report suggests that employees in low-wage jobs may be able to move into other labor markets (for example, someone in data entry could potentially move to home health care). But for many roles, workers will need new training, education, and skills to move into these rapidly growing industries post-COVID. McKinsey estimates that as many as 25% more workers will need to switch into higher wage roles and new careers (up from just 6% pre-pandemic).
Making more money is great right? it may not be that simple. With pandemic-induced languishing, people may not be in the mental frame of mind to simply move into a more lucrative role. Reinventing your career — whether interviewing for a new role or creating one — requires a certain amount of energy, effort, and confidence. These are traits that, for many of us, may be lacking after the last two years of uncertainty and emotional distress.
The workforce may be overdue for a win, but they'll need support to reach out and get it. Even as the world of work is changing, there's a reckoning that still has to happen as we learn how to process this collective trauma.
Is remote work the new reality?
If the Great Resignation is showing us anything, it's that remote work is not going anywhere. Some companies, such as BetterUp, employed a largely remote workforce pre-pandemic, with great results. Even without the need for social distancing, there are benefits to working from home that will keep the trend spreading, both throughout and across industries.
But whether in-person or on Zoom, face-to-face connection and interpersonal collaboration will always be important. As John Kotter writes for Forbes, we'll have an opportunity to design a personalized workplace — one that asks what it can do for both the people we serve and the people we employ.
The answer to the uncertain future of work isn’t to go back or try to recapture what worked in the past. It’s in the watchwords that have been whispered since 2020. We need a new normal, and the sooner we embrace this metamorphosis, the sooner the roadmap will become clear. The future of work lies in a personalized experience that empowers each person to show up at work as their whole selves — fulfilling their roles with support, purpose, clarity, passion, and balance.
BetterUp Staff Writer