The New Future of Work in A Post-Pandemic World
One of the few certainties coming out of the COVID-19 shutdown is that it will have a lasting impact on how people work going forward. Employees will have to adjust to a new set of realities in the workplace, and HR professionals will not only have their work cut out for them, but will find that many aspects of the work have changed.
If ever you needed a test case for how organizations would fare if most of their employees—especially office workers—worked from home, this was it. It’s clear to me that the work-from-home model, which many companies had previously viewed with suspicion, has been legitimized. Employees have been asking for workplace flexibility for years now, and despite the circumstances forcing our hand, we now have it. The question is – will it last? And how exactly will this global pandemic impact the future of work?
I recently caught up (remotely, of course) with Dan Schawbel, best-selling author, future of work expert and managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, to explore these questions and more. Here is what we discussed:
Remote Work Will Remain Mainstream
As noted, the pandemic has caused more organizations to acknowledge that a large portion of their workforces can function just fine outside of traditional offices. Close to 75% of the 317 CFOs surveyed by Gartner said they will shift at least 5% of their company’s employees to a remote working model.
I personally think that may be an underestimation. Companies as disparate as Nationwide Insurance, the 95-year-old financial services giant, and Twitter, a bellwether of the internet economy, have said they will make remote working a much bigger piece of their businesses going forward.
We tend to forget that many years ago, families were the center of society. With remote work becoming a more permanent fixture in our future, I believe – and hope – we will be forced back to that structure, with a heightened focus on our families first and everything else falling into place around them.
A Surprising Generational Divide
Other reverberations of the pandemic are more subtle. For example, Schawbel noted that surprisingly, younger workers appear to have more problems with working from home than their elders.
“It’s the reverse of what you might think,” Schawbel said. You would think that tech-savvy 20- and 30-year-olds would find remote work less challenging than baby boomer colleagues, who tend to be less familiar with the latest devices and apps. But a recent study indicates the opposite.
For example, 60% of all respondents said they feel less informed about what’s going on at their companies since the lockdown. But the younger cohort feels this more acutely: 74% of Gen Z workers feel less informed compared to 53% of older Gen X colleagues and 50% of still-older baby boomers.
Too Much of a Good Thing
While remote working lets many employees set their own schedules, the irony is many of them increasingly feel they are expected to be available around the clock. The fact that so many people have been laid off or furloughed across industries due to the pandemic heightens the anxiety of those still employed, who worry they may be next.
“Not having your phone is the new vacation – people are working more hours without additional compensation and with all the tech at their disposal, they are always on call,” Schawbel said. That means nights, weekends, and even vacations (when they become a thing again). The price of this pressure to be available is burnout.
Videoconferencing keeps colleagues in touch but even these great tools have a dark side. “There is such a thing as ‘Zoom fatigue,’” Schawbel noted. Anyone who has sat through a multi-party Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype call knows the jarring dynamic of people talking over each other, being overstimulated by non-verbal communication, forgetting to mute themselves during private moments, and overall confusion. The perks of a relaxed dress code aside, this is not a Zen-like experience.
This glut of digital communication, combined with the social and physical isolation imposed by the pandemic, is sparking more need for actual human connection.
This is one area where tech can play a positive role. We know that Artificial intelligence (AI) properly applied can take low-level but time-intensive tasks (i.e. data entry, image sorting, transcriptions) off workers’ plates.
But typically we talk about this in the context of giving employees more time for high-value jobs, like analyzing data provided by the models. Going forward, Schawbel thinks HR should push the notion of devoting more of that newly emancipated time towards leisure activities – exercise, hobbies, and other things that can help relieve employee stress.
The evolving role of HR Pros
HR is more valuable now than ever before. In this environment, HR plays an essential role in driving the success of new workforce structures, keeping employees regularly informed, and managing large swathes of layoffs or furloughs. For example, HR has had to figure out how company rules and standards meant for office workers apply (or don’t) to people working from home.
“The old notion that HR is the last to get hired and first to get fired is gone,” Schawbel said.
When the crisis subsides, HR professionals will need to bring employees back on board, and adjust job descriptions to reflect new realities brought on by the pandemic. And as more people work remotely post-pandemic, HR will need to focus on flexibility benefits and employee assistance programs (EAPs). This goes beyond work-from-home privileges, and puts a heightened focus on things like flex-time schedules, child care benefits, and mental health support.
We bear in mind that, given the anxiety the virus has caused for nearly everyone – especially those who have lost family or friends – the impact will not disappear with the availability of a vaccine.
HR will be called upon to not just ramp up new hiring, but devise ways to help employees cope with the aftermath of the pandemic.
Many employees will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so the importance of EAPs will soar. I agree with Schawbel that developing and administering mental health benefits will become a bigger part of HR’s role, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
Far from becoming an afterthought in a post-COVID-19 world, HR will have a greater role than ever in helping companies manage new realities. With increased remote work, new ideals of work-life balance, the integration of AI, and the psychological impacts of monumental disruption on the home front, the future of work will look far different than what we’re used to.
Source: Forbes / Emily He
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