With a sense of normalcy on the horizon again, many are wondering, “What does ‘normal’ even mean anymore, anyway?” It is clear that work, healthcare, and finance will not go back to where they were in 2019, but they won’t look like they did in 2020 either. Many venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs are predicting a permanent radical transformation of how people work, while the country’s largest employers are more nuanced in their vision of a post-COVID world.
With so much changing on a daily basis, it is impossible to determine what exactly the future of work will hold in the near-term. However, talking to leaders that hold the keys to the country’s largest and most influential workforces, it is possible to discern what the future of work will not look like in 2021. As Joe Bosch, former CHRO of DIRECTV said, “Anyone that thinks the next six months is going to be any easier than the last six months is sorely mistaken.” For better or for worse, it will certainly not be what many expect.
1. The future of work is not 100% remote.
The promise of fully distributed work includes the ability to live anywhere and still work for the company of your dreams. The reality of being remote is far less glamorous, and the long-term impact on team health, work product, career trajectories, and earning power remain unknown. Although it is impossible to ignore the benefits of flexible hours and controlling one’s own schedule, the need for social connection, collaboration and creativity is undeniable.
The need for certainty tempted many leaders into making long-term commitments to new ways of working, but Mala Singh, Chief People Officer of Electronic Arts, predicts, “Companies that have come out with bold statements during the pandemic about becoming distributed first may be reversing course in 3-5 years.” Instead, employers are moving toward a flipped workplace model, which is a hybrid of individual work at one’s pace and place coupled with in-office collaboration and creative work. This model allows for the best of flexible work environments with the magic of in-person work.
2. The future of work is not making bold statements about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) took center stage in 2020 as the country finally came to grips with the horrifying reality of the Black experience in America, both in everyday life and in the context of the workplace. Many employers responded by making donations, bold statements, and long-term commitments to change. However, as Diane Gherson, former CHRO of IBM aptly stated, “The DEI conversation is here to stay, and it is not going to be easy because all of the easy stuff has already been done.”
There are now significant, multi-year budgets committed to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and this will be a critical year for deploying them effectively, and doing more than simply shifting around candidate pipelines. “Now, more than ever, it is about considering the diversity dimension in every business decision. How is it valuable for product, for design? How can diversity help you compete and win in the marketplace?” said John Renfro, former CHRO of Disney and HP.
3. The future of work is not avoiding political conversations.
Political speech is not protected by the First Amendment in a workplace environment, but where does that line get drawn when your workplace environment is your own home? Whether it is employees staging walkouts, unionizing, or participating in political protests, the lines between personal political views and those of the employer have been inextricably entangled. “Companies are now learning it is almost impossible to separate your company from the external world,” Bosch said.
“When you can’t count on the leaders outside, people look to the leaders inside to respond, and we feel that responsibility,” Mala Singh pointed out. The events of the last year highlighted the changing relationship between personal identity and work identity, as well as the responsibility of the employer to listen to and adapt to its employees points of view. As much as many leaders wish they could put their head down and power through, the only way to find the answers to the new role of politics in the workplace is to face the issues head on.
4. The future of work is not cost conscious about employee benefits.
Although the economic shock of the past year put a freeze on new spending, it also unlocked new data demonstrating the impact of well-being benefits on the workforce. Whether it is caregiving, mental health, financial wellness, “We need to improve the social fabric of support for employees,” said Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao, Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior, GSB, Stanford University.
Even if it means higher per employee costs in the near-term, the impact on engagement, productivity, and retention is undeniable. “It is a CEO and Board imperative to make sure employees and their families have access to the resources and expertise they need to support their mental well-being. The stakes are high and employers are working hard to get it right,” said Michael Ross, former CHRO of Visa.
5. The future of work is not hiring new talent.
Millions of jobs were lost in the midst of the pandemic, and the unfortunate reality is many will not be coming back. It will be tempting for employers to simply reinstate previous roles, but application of new technologies in the name of safety has catalyzed automation across all jobs and industries. Instead, employer focus will shift inward by taking inventory of the talent they have and figuring out how to develop them into the talent they need. “Having a static inventory of skills is like having a static inventory of products. It should be unthinkable,” said Diane Gherson, former CHRO of IBM. “We are moving away from the concept of jobs to the concept of work, which requires redefining people from resumes to skills.”
This enhances the need for better data connecting people, skills, and the core business. Jolen Andersen, CHRO of BNY Mellon highlighted, “We need to reverse the order that things are done when it comes to the workforce. First we need to engage, collaborate, assess, and then train.”
While technology might seem like the root cause of these challenges, it is also a big part of a more productive path forward. Renfro emphasized, “We can now focus on creating a more positive associate experience by reinforcing the opportunities for more interesting and impactful work, and developing competitive skills for their future careers.”
The future of work is now.
When history books are written, 2021 will be noted as a critical time of transition into a more technology-infused economy. Although the pandemic accelerated the shift toward a more digital, distributed, and data-driven future of work, employers have the ability to shape the path forward for their employees. However, forging a promising path forward requires acknowledging the current state of work, which is not optimistic. The challenge that lies ahead is well worth the struggle as it will determine the well-being of the next generation and beyond.