Three ways the world of work has improved due to the pandemic

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(By Ranga Pothula)  

While it would be easy to reflect on 2020 as a disastrous dumpster fire of a year, the reality is that the pandemic has changed the workplace for the better. And many of these modifications are likely to be permanent. This is undoubtedly difficult to appreciate from our current vantage point, but by the end of 2021 we will likely witness the seeds sown during the crisis begin to bear sustainable fruit. In fact, you can already observe alterations that have had almost universal impact regardless of industry or geography.

Redefining workplace norms

The last 50 years of work have been defined by predictable patterns involving who is doing the work, where it occurs and when it happens. While these standards have been impacted by technological advancements, demographic shifts and emerging social norms, COVID-19 has accelerated the arrival of new ways of working. While most organizations initially resisted the inevitable reforms that accompanied the crisis, virtually all of them eventually accepted that work can be done anywhere, anytime and by almost anyone.

REI, an outdoor gear retailer, announced earlier this year [i] that they were selling their brand new, never used corporate headquarters. The reason was simple: it was no longer necessary and would save them significant money as they looked for ways to endure the economic impact of the Coronavirus. According to a recent Gartner survey, this is not a temporary shift that will revert back to “normal” post pandemic, as 82% of company leaders plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part time going forward. These same leaders understand that it will be the elastic enterprise that withstands the inexorable disruptions of the future.

While it is easy to point to technology as the enabler of the new work-from-home environment, the truth is our mental mindset is the crucial component for long-term acceptance of this new model. The visceral reaction that normally accompanies the request to allow people to work remotely is based on the assumption that they will be less productive and more prone to laziness. The reality is quite different according to Natalia Emanuel and Emma Harrington, PhD candidates in economics at Harvard. They evaluated call-center workers in a Fortune 500 retailer and found that productivity increased 8% to 10% in remote workers versus on-site. And while our attitudes about the evolving world of work are important, technology may hold the key to the long-term future of work.

Humanity at work

Prior to the pandemic, the topic du jour was how technology (particularly artificial intelligence and machine learning) was destroying our economic livelihood. A study by Pew Research found that 82% of US adults say that by 2050, robots and computers will likely do much of the work currently done by humans. While this platitude has been wielded by politicians and prognosticators for decades, recent advancements in computing and automation have given it fresh fuel. Research by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo seems to corroborate this point of view as they predict a reduction in both employment and wages resulting from industrial robots. Others suggest that technology has historically created more jobs than it destroyed, and that workers have benefited from improvements in quality of life and even income. It may sound counter-intuitive, but could technology be the key to creating a more human experience at work?

As work has emerged from industrial roots to more of a services orientation, the number of jobs that require manual labor have declined. Even as those jobs shifted to ones requiring more administrative and transactional work, new forms of automation have replaced those positions as well. What is left is work that requires a truly human skill set including critical-thinking, problem-solving, creativity, communication and even compassion. This is the reason that Amazon announced last year that it was spending $700M to retrain their employees. They recognized that eventually their operations will be comprised mostly of machinery, and that their people will need to upskill and reskill in order to remain relevant.

As we migrate to these new roles and responsibilities, ubiquitous cloud technologies have enabled us to maintain uninterrupted connectivity. 5G has arrived and is enabling mobile devices, IOT sensors and video platforms while work/life balance transforms into work/life integration. We get to peer into our colleagues’ personal lives through Zoom calls and we realise that they have kids and pets and a decorating style we would not have guessed. And all the while the world moves away from traditional models of 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, on-site, full-time work arrangements and toward 4-day work weeks, temporary gigs from anywhere and daily pay.

Data has changed everything

As the pandemic accelerated the adoption of new technologies and operational models (about 25 times faster according to a recent survey by McKinsey), it also hastened the digital transformation of the workplace. Virtually all work is somehow captured in a computerized format, which provides endless opportunities for the elevation of how work happens. By aggregating the droves of data now readily available, organizations can predict and prescribe the orchestration of work in an evidence-based format. And as companies concede that their ability to harness the power of data is the key to sustainability, the most intriguing reservoir of data is arguably in their HR systems.

While this people data could be used in a wide variety of ways including real-time engagement scores, quantitative productivity ratings and optimized schedules, the real value lies in the utilization of behavioral data. Top companies like Google and Hilton are no longer requiring degrees, and employers are acknowledging that specialized skills can become obsolete in a matter of months. Instead these organizations have prioritized the hiring of individuals with transferrable skills and foundational behavioral characteristics so that they are able to redistribute talent as environmental and economic conditions change.

Knowing each individual’s behavioral DNA can enable a high degree of personalization in their hiring, development, coaching and career growth. This information has even been used to determine their aptitude for working from home, as characteristics like pace and discipline have been proven to be strong predictors of success in remote work environments. Most importantly, we need to stop pigeon-holing people and recognize that people can serve in a variety of capacities regardless of their current background and title. A comprehensive profile of each human allows organizations to develop a data-driven strategy to move people around based on changing demand.

Most of us would likely agree that 2020 has been a year to forget. But it would be a shame to simply revert to the way things were once vaccines are widely distributed and the world opens back up. We have seen wild experiments based on necessity, and lessons learned that should not be forgotten. And we have real potential to continue the momentum created by this crisis for the betterment of workers everywhere.

(The author is the MD India Sub-continent & SVP Global delivery services, Infor)


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