The Brave New World of Work: What Employers Can Expect After the Pandemic
As we turn the corner on the first year of the COVID-19 national health crisis, the fog is beginning to clear. We can finally catch a glimpse of how the world of work might look by this time next year.
Several workforce trends that had emerged before the pandemic have exponentially accelerated over the past 12 months, including the mass adoption of remote working by previously office-bound employees. As vaccine distribution rolls out around the world and we edge toward the eventual end of social-distancing protocols, our goal is to paint a picture of what employers can prepare for in both the coming year and the long term.
We come from two different but related perspectives in the world of work. Bert is the CEO of MRINetwork, an organization of independent search and staffing firms with 300 offices around the world. Sasha is the president of CareerBuilder, a global HR technology leader and the fastest-growing job site. Each of our companies regularly conducts its own employment research, and we closely monitor relevant research from other organizations.
Adopting a Flexible Workforce Model
First, let’s look at the most talked-about trend affecting the world of work. Research indicates that more than 80 percent of company leaders will allow remote work after the pandemic. For most professional industries, including tech, communications, marketing, and finance, the percentage of remote workers could be even higher. According to the Partnership for New York City, only 10 percent of office-based employees in Manhattan had returned to their offices by the end of November. Now, amid new COVID outbreaks and variants, many businesses have put their efforts to return to a pre-pandemic “normal” on pause.
Facebook’s projection that half of its workforce will be remote by 2030 and Twitter’s announcement that employees never have to return to the office are indicative of a larger acceptance of distributed workforces. And it’s just not the tech industry making these adjustments. Today, nearly all of Accenture’s 500,000 employees are working from home, an immense shift from the 10 percent who previously worked remotely on any given day. Even legacy industries like banking are in no hurry to bring back employees, with most US banks indefinitely suspending the return-to-work plans developed last fall.
The bottom line is that remote work in one form or another is here to stay through next year. Should the current vaccination plans succeed and our population reach herd immunity, then companies can begin to seriously think about a return to pre-pandemic office life — to some degree. Chances are organizations will move toward a hybrid model in which employees work from a shared office two or three days per week.
Not only does a hybrid model address safety concerns, but it’s also increasingly critical to meet employee expectations. Throughout 2020, workers proved they could be productive working from home, and many are now reluctant to return to their former lifestyles in which work had decisively won the work/life balance battle. A recent CareerBuilder survey showed that many employees would bet their futures on remote work, with 35 percent of respondents saying they would turn down a job offer that didn’t allow the possibility to work from home. While flexible environments have been steadily on the rise for a few years now, the pandemic expedited and amplified adoption.
The good news is that adopting a flex model has benefits for both parties. Despite concerns about decreased productivity, both employees and employers now have the opportunity to create a better balance that prioritizes output over hours. Additionally, more flexible work environments allow companies to widen their talent pipelines and look outside their immediate regions for top talent.
Data Collection Goes Internal
Related to the surge in remote work, many leadership teams around the world are concerned about translating their company cultures into virtual settings. This focus on corporate culture intersects with other workforce issues caused or amplified by the pandemic, social justice movements over the past several months, and increasing concern about employee mental health. Employers must find creative ways to engage and connect with their employees remotely in order to evolve and strengthen their cultures within this new dynamic.
As organizations revisit their physical presences, they can turn to data to inform themselves of what’s resonating with and what’s missing for their teams. Data is still being collected, but early indicators show that remote workers, who are essentially stuck at home 24/7, suffer disproportionately from mental health issues. The stress of getting the virus is ubiquitous, as are related stressors like caring for children and other loved ones, particularly elderly parents who have contracted the virus.
Employers should consult with healthcare professionals as they craft employee wellness initiatives, but the first step in supporting your employees is knowing what they’re experiencing. Encouraging transparency is critical. Be it through one-to-one manager conversations or formal employee surveys, maintaining an open dialogue can shed light on a number of factors, including how the pandemic is affecting your workforce’s mental health. For the first time in history, the workforce is made up of five distinct generations of employees, each with their own defined cultural identities. How each group handles the pandemic and other social topics, their working styles, their technology skills, and their preferences will differ. Finding out how much they differ is the first step in anticipating challenges and devising solutions.
Data collection is a similarly critical starting point to effect change and make real progress in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Gathering data to benchmark things like salary bands by demographic group or representation by department, for instance, can help leadership teams highlight where current imbalances exist and devise impactful strategies to build more diverse and inclusive corporate cultures in their organizations. Ultimately, data shouldn’t be used to set quotas but to ensure that assumptions and discomfort don’t allow leadership teams to overlook the current reality.
Adding EQ to the Hiring Mix
Another workforce trend that predates the pandemic but has seen growth in the past year is an increased focus on the emotional quotient (EQ), or emotional maturity, of job candidates and employees. Before 2020, research indicated that 60 percent of businesses saw EQ as a vital skill for their employees. Still, one in four admitted EQ was likely to be eclipsed by more traditional hiring considerations such as education, experience, and IQ.
Upskilling employees’ technical skill sets seems to be a given with most companies today, and without a doubt, it’s essential. But the idea of training workers in EQ still seems foreign to many employers. Smart companies in 2021 will invest the resources in moving the EQ needle through training and education that is culturally sensitive and designed to address everyone’s preferred learning style. Prioritizing EQ will ensure that, as in-person communication remains limited, teams can still effectively solve problems, deescalate conflict, and collaborate.
Increased Pressure on Employer Branding
Finally, because of these many converging trends, employer branding has never been more important. More than ever before, employees expect a company to demonstrate that it is actively engaged in making their work safer, more equitable, more representative of their needs, and more enjoyable. Research has shown that 80 percent of HR managers believe their company’s employer brand impacts hiring, and 75 percent of job applicants seriously consider an employer brand before applying.
A company doesn’t have to engineer an entire campaign to tell a story that resonates with prospective employees. If its efforts to improve the workplace are meaningful, an employer should be comfortable encouraging employees to organically share their opinions about their jobs on their own social media channels and through word of mouth. In an era of heightened transparency and glass-box brands, any employee can be an ambassador of their organization. This can be game-changing for employers — for better or for worse. By listening to their teams’ needs — be it with regard to flexible work, mental health support, DE&I, or the host of other trend-worthy topics — companies can build authentic external reputations that attract talent for years to come.
An Optimistic Outlook
While the new world of work presents unique challenges to employers and employees, it also presents new opportunities to advance workforce trends that benefit both parties. Employers should anticipate that expectations for a better work/life balance, increased diversity, celebrated individuality, and an emphasis on emotional maturity will persist well beyond a vaccine rollout and have a positive impact on their organizations.