One of the questions that I have been asked the most over the past few weeks is, "what do you think the workforce will look like after the restrictions die down?" And the truthful answer is, I simply don't know.
Deloitte's report of Workforce Strategies for Post-COVID-19 Recovery tells us that a "typical" crisis plays out over three timeframes: Respond, Recover, Thrive. But can COVID-19 be considered a "typical" crisis when it is estimated that 2.7billion people have been affected by lockdowns and stay-at-home measures globally?
The recovery phase of the COVID crisis response is not about returning to how things were, it's about identifying new ways to achieve success.
We've all had the phrase "new normal" drummed into our heads this year to the point where it's almost 2020's slogan, but the most annoying thing about the phrase is its accuracy. The recovery phase of the COVID crisis response is not about returning to how things were, it's about identifying new ways to achieve success.
COVID-19 has forced an evolution of sorts onto us on a global level. We have had to rethink the way we do our work, the way we reach our markets, the way we engage with each other, the way we value each other and how we identify what's important to us. I really don't think that there's any going back from here - once our values have adapted, it's next to impossible for them to adapt back.
The biggest question to ask is, do we want them to? Or perhaps even, why would we want them to?
Most of us have been in "crisis mode" for the majority of this year. Whether in business, or in our personal lives, living on the constant knife-edge of fight or flight leads us to adrenal exhaustion. When we think about where we were before this happened, our "normal," we think of routine, certainty, familiarity. It is scary to answer the question "what do you think the world will look like after all this craziness is over?" with "I don't know." But it's also kind of empowering.
Researchers believe that flexible and remote work is here to stay: a battle many of us have been fighting for years. Flexible work options and work from home arrangements have long since been considered honey to the worker bee, but companies have been reluctant because of fears of drops in productivity, an inability to oversee (ahem, micromanage) their workers, beliefs in interruptions to workplace and team cultures and the cost and disruption of implementing the infrastructure required to facilitate it.
In one year, COVID cleared up all of these problems. Companies were forced to adapt to facilitate remote work opportunities or face ruin. They had to trust their workforce to meet targets and work productively, to invest in technology/infrastructure to enable the development of remote work deployment, and to face the reality that a team can be extended to include remotely connected team members who can work together effectively without the watercooler gossip, while still maintaining genuine relationships and a positive workplace culture.
Studies like that which Nicholas Bloom and James Liang undertook back in 2013 discovered that workers were 13 per cent more productive at home. This same study concluded that for half of the workers in the experiment who were still working from home nine months later, their productivity went up by over 20 per cent. COVID-19 has given the world the opportunity to put this to the test on a grand scale and the results are unsurprisingly consistent.
In fact, not only are workers more productive, but we have seen a decrease in pollution due to the lowered amount of traffic on the road, increases in worker wellbeing, fewer issues with gender inequality, and regional inequality etc. What's not to love?
The OECD warns us about ensuring that teleworking remains a choice, to avoid issues such as social disconnection, concerns of hidden overtime, and issues of increasing costs for the worker who now has to pay for extra power, internet, etc.
However, at the end of the day, while we can't all work from home, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to reshape our workforce and address imbalances in work/life balance, gender inequality, regional employment limitations and productivity growth.
So while I don't know how the chips will fall, I'm hopeful we don't squander the opportunity to come out of this crisis stronger and more connected to what we value the most. Whatever that may be.
Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au