For almost a year, COVID-19 has forced a workplace “experiment” with distributed work that represents a remarkable achievement for U.S. workforces and worksites. The percentage of Americans working some from home jumped from around 25 percent to more than 60 percent essentially overnight, and most of those workers report a nearly seamless transition.
Many of the workplace changes necessitated by COVID-19 are likely to impact how we will work long after the pandemic ends. Some employees have found that they like working from home, at least some of the time, and with fewer workers on-site full time, many employers are considering reducing real estate footprints to reduce costs.
But this rapid shift in how Americans work has accelerated a number of workforce trends that will require changes in employer approach—from both a legal and business perspective. Five key trends we believe will influence work beyond 2021 are:
An Increased Expectation of Flexibility – in Work Location and Work Time
The pandemic has not only shifted where we work but when we work as well. With child care centers closed and schools also shifting to distance learning, many of us had to adapt our work schedules around the needs of our children. The work day for many is now chunks of time spaced out over day and night. These circumstances have thrust flexibility and adaptability to the forefront of critical skills for today’s employers and employees.
After nearly a year of this “new normal,” we can see that some employees can work remotely all of the time, without any loss in productivity. Many office or technology workers fit into this category. Another segment of employees simply must be on site to perform their jobs, perhaps to operate a piece of equipment or engage directly with customers. Examples include many employees in the manufacturing, retail and healthcare sectors. And then there are those employees who can work remotely, but with diminished returns in terms of quality of work or productivity. In the education sector, many parents, teachers and students recognize that while school can be done remotely, the quality is usually better when conducted in person.
Employers have an important opportunity at this stage of the work-from-home period to assess exactly what is working and what isn’t. What tasks are being done well, which aren’t, and which aren’t being done at all? By looking beyond job titles, employers can map out essential functions and activities, and reimagine work flows in order to anticipate tomorrow’s workplaces and the expectations of tomorrow’s workforces. Employees expect increased flexibility, both for the benefit of the employer and employee, yet whether distributed work is really the way of the future for employees depends on the job tasks and activities to be done. While employer investment in technology is an important element, some functions can’t be performed as well remotely – and in-person work at least some of the time will persist. Employers will be challenged to create a work environment that optimizes flexibility for employees, but also facilitates maximum productivity. And the workers of the future are expressing a willingness to work less than the workers before them, necessitating a fresh look at how to deploy technology and structure the work roles of tomorrow.
The long-anticipated shift from hierarchical work organizations to flatter, more collaborative workplaces will accelerate. It will be critical for management to acquire the skills necessary to manage (and lead) employees from a distance on a long-term basis. Relatedly, we expect new technologies for monitoring worker productivity to surge, and a resultant increase in worker privacy laws at the state and local level.