The Future of Work in a post-COVID World

When COVID hit in early 2020, the world was in shock, especially with the lockdowns and cities shut down. Workplaces became empty and many city centres which were dominated by towering skyscrapers filled with office spaces became ghost towns. COVID has dramatically changed the way we live and work and affected virtually every element of life.

COVID has been the most significant, and perhaps the most traumatic, experience of our lives. It will have a huge impact on us as individuals, as a society and as a workforce. And even when this crisis ends, things will never be back to normal. We will live in a completely different world and that will be the new normal.

The abrupt closure of many offices and workplaces ushered in a new era of remote work for millions and has shown a significant shift in the way a large segment of the workforce operates in the future. Most of those who say their work responsibilities can mainly be done from home say that, before the pandemic, they rarely or never teleworked. Very few could work from home all or most of the time, but today more than half of such people are doing their job from home all or most of the time. And more than half say, given a choice, they would want to keep working from home even after the pandemic.

While not seamless, the transition to working from home has been relatively easy for many with most of them saying it has been easy to instal the technology and get hold of the equipment to do the job. Most also say it’s been easy for them to meet deadlines and complete projects on time, get their work done without interruptions and feel motivated to do their work.

Many of us, especially those of us who are technologically challenged, had to adjust to new technologies and learn new ways of interacting with colleagues and friends. Zoom and other video conferencing apps became part of our lexicon and we learnt to find those corners at home which would not reveal the mess behind.

The idea of working at home in itself is not a new concept with many, especially those in the IT sector working from home is an old concept. I read somewhere that working from home or telecommuting has grown by as much as 173% since 2005 due to improvements in technology, innovation and communication. As a result, more than half of employees have a job where at least some of what they do can be done from home.  A 2019 Owl Labs report found that as many as 80% of employees wanted to work from home at least some of the time, before the crisis. Flexibility is one of the top-ranked work benefits amongst the millennial workforce and pre-crisis, more than a third of employees would go so far as to change jobs if they had the chance to work from home, whilst over a third would take a pay cut of up to 5% to work at home some of the time. Today, these figures will most likely have gone up.

Remote work and virtual meetings are likely to continue, albeit less intensely than at the pandemic’s peak. Many companies have transitioned to hybrid work culture and many organisations have decided to reduce their office space. As a result of this demand for restaurants and retail in downtown areas and areas with a concentration of office spaces as well as for public transportation may decline as a result. And while working on this post, I decided to check on job sites and saw that now there are many full-time remote opportunities in sectors that traditionally did not offer it like IT. This means that in countries with smaller cities and rural areas, when people can work anywhere, reverse migration can and is taking place. I have heard of people moving out of the big Indian cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru and going back to their hometowns so they can be with family and yet earn the income they were already earning. I remember reading an article about professionals renting large apartments in places like the seaside and the hills and with access to high-speed internet, they were able to have a much better lifestyle and standard of living.

Remote work has also put a dent in business travel as its extensive use of videoconferencing during the pandemic has ushered in a new acceptance of virtual meetings and other aspects of work. While leisure travel and tourism are rebounding, and are likely to rebound after the crisis, McKinsey’s travel practice estimates that about 20% of business travel, the most lucrative segment for airlines, may not return. This would have significant knock-on effects on employment in commercial aerospace, airports, hospitality, and food service. E-commerce and other virtual transactions are booming.

Many consumers discovered the convenience of e-commerce and other online activities during the pandemic. In 2020, the share of e-commerce grew at two to five times the rate before COVID-19. Roughly three-quarters of people using digital channels for the first time during the pandemic say they will continue using them when things return to normal, according to McKinsey Consumer Pulse surveys conducted around the world. Other kinds of virtual transactions such as telemedicine, online banking, and streaming entertainment have also taken off including online doctor consultations. This shift to digital transactions has propelled growth in delivery, transportation, and warehouse jobs. In China, e-commerce, delivery, and social media jobs grew by more than 5.1 million during the first half of 2020.

Many companies deployed automation and AI to reduce workplace density and cope with surges in demand. Research finds the work arenas with high levels of human interaction are likely to see the greatest acceleration in the adoption of automation and AI. Hiring has also changed. Today, the default way of interviewing potential candidates is by video call when only a few months ago the default was face-to-face interviewing.

So what does this mean moving forward? It means that for employees, the chance to balance work and home will be important. Now that the world has shown that regular remote and flexible work can be productive without disrupting or undermining established ways of working, it will be the new normal going forward. A lot of people, especially introverts who do not need to showcase their gregariousness and be extroverts, can showcase their productivity and prove their mettle. There are already reports of the positive impact that more frequent, structured and focused communication is resulting in increased collaboration, teamwork and support. Now that more people have had a taste of it and proven their productivity, it will be hard for companies to take it away from their talent. A Gallup survey revealed that 54% of U.S. workers would leave their current job for one that allowed them to work remotely. And while professionals were celebrating their 30-second commute, it became clear to companies that the huge line item on their spreadsheets for real estate may not be the best way to spend their money. Having people work from home, even if it’s not everyone all the time, is proving to be profitable.

Flexibility will be the new mantra—where people will be given more freedom to choose to work from home. Some people missed the commute and cherished their in-person connections, so the new normal will be increased flexibility. Conference rooms, meeting spaces and video studios will take up a lot of office space with the workplace becoming a far more social environment, not a lock myself in the office scenario. It will be designed to foster and promote interaction and community engagement, taking advantage of the times talent is collocated in one place.

Many professionals found working from home a challenge not because of isolation, but because they didn’t have the ideal space or a dedicated home office. They didn’t have a Zoom-ready spot for video meetings. A study reports that the majority of survey respondents cited a lack of proper technology for remote work that hindered their success and productivity. One of the biggest challenges people experienced while working fom home was internet performance. According to a survery by WhistleOut, a company that provides information about mobile phone and internet services, 35% of adults who transitioned to working from home said that weak Internet has prevented them from doing their work at some point during the coronavirus crisis and 43% said they have had to use their phone as a hotspot during the crisis. Internet in homes will improve, and home offices and even home video studios will become a priority. As new homes are built or existing ones are remodelled, a home office will be the top priority for

Post COVID-19, e-learning will become a bigger part of ongoing learning. In-person learning won’t go away, but it’ll be reserved for certain functions and certain populations within the company. Face-to-face learning will likely be just a small element of a learning curriculum. Ramping up their e-learning platforms, companies moved quickly to ensure that their people were still building important skills and developing professionally.

Video is at the heart of many of the changes above. The developers behind Zoom, WebEx, Hangouts, Skype and other video communications tools made the grand work-from-home experiment possible. The video became fully integrated into the work experience in an astonishing variety of ways. As supervisors and staffers have gotten used to seeing each other in their natural habitats, the line that separates work life and personal life has faded. Ironically, technology has made this transition possible, but it has also led to a decidedly low-tech reality: this new corporate world has made us value our organic, non-robotic humanity more than ever before.

The shift to remote work led to the complete collapse of the work-home boundary, especially for parents juggling child care and homeschooling with job demands. Poorly timed or endless Zoom meetings interfered with people’s ability to get work done and sometimes harmed relationships with colleagues. At the same time, people, especially those with comfortable home offices and few parental responsibilities, found benefits in working remotely. Being on their own gave them greater control with fewer distractions. The absence of commuting gave people more time and energy while saving them money. People who had been working in unpleasant or hostile workplaces were now free from disrespectful encounters.

The Coronavirus pandemic has seen a sharp rise in mental health issues. While this is in no way a positive outcome, it has resulted in businesses focusing more closely on employee’s mental wellbeing. Companies are doing more than ever to protect and promote positive mental wellbeing among teams; a trend that will continue even as the world returns to normal. People burn out because their employers have not successfully managed chronic job stressors.

The pandemic has taught many people that the job does not have to be the way it was. This realisation may be one reason that many are not going back to their old jobs. The workplace must change. So as we transition to a new normal of working, it is with the hope that many of these positive work outcomes such as a greater focus on mental health and wellbeing, more freedom and flexibility for employees and outstanding innovations will keep workforces happy and healthy while businesses will remain creative, responsive and successful.

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