As a business executive in a human capital company, I’ve spent the last few weeks responding to—and trying to anticipate—COVID-19's trek across the globe.
It’s meant constantly monitoring guidance from health agencies spanning the WHO to local authorities; nearly constant communications with employees; ensuring our people have laptops for work-from-home and that the VPN won’t crash; not to mention refereeing an ongoing “it’s not as bad as people think” vs. “it’s worse than people thought” debate around the conference table. Or, more likely these days, on a teleconference.
It is a challenging time for HR. But I also think this is a moment to take a step back and look at a much larger story that’s emerging. How will people work in the future? What will be the lasting effects of the current crisis? Some companies are ahead of the curve with agile thinking and planning: they’ve developed work-from-home arrangements; they engage agile teams instead of FTEs; they’ve deployed online collaboration tools; and they have policies in place to manage full-time and gig-workers productively. All of these actions bring to mind a quote from science fiction author William Gibson:
“The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”
I agree. But I’d amend it to say, “The future will likely be more evenly distributed once COVID-19 is behind us.” In fact, the workplace may never be the same after the pandemic fades from the headlines.
Numerous companies around the world have announced work-from-home arrangements for employees whose jobs can be done remotely.
On the bright side, that new flexibility will likely be greatly welcomed. According to a Harvard Business Review study, some 96% of employees said they would like more workplace flexibility. But only 47% reported having access to the flexibility they need, including: non-standard hours, location variety, remote access, and more agility during the day to tend to personal matters while making up the time later, etc.
I predict that a 49% gap between expectations and reality will shrink—perhaps even dramatically—in the months and years ahead. Why? Because today’s workforce is facing an inflection point and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely accelerate these workforce changes that were either only partially implemented to date—or barely on some companies’ whiteboards.
Consider three megatrends already well underway long before this pandemic hit.
There wasn’t much public fanfare, but three years ago, the US workforce crossed a major generational threshold. For the first-time ever, Millennials (today ages 24 to 39) made up the largest generational cohort in America’s workforce—surpassing Baby Boomers and Gen Xers according to Pew Research and US Census data.
This year, 2020, will mark another threshold being crossed. Millennials will soon compromise a majority of the US workforce with their born-digital successors—Gen Z who are just now entering the workforce in their first jobs—not far behind.
What does this mean for workplace flexibility? A lot actually. One study found that 92% of Millennials—a near total majority—identified flexibility as a top priority when job hunting. Many may not even consider a job offer unless remote work or other options are on the table.
And what companies giveth, they better not taketh away. Only a few years ago, Yahoo, Best Buy, and a handful of others abruptly ended work-from-home arrangements for different parts of their businesses only to face a backlash from employees.
As Cord Himelstein, VP of Marketing at employee rewards and incentives company HALO Recognition told SHRM, these companies thought that “going back to the way things were will restore old glory…” It didn’t. “They also made the fatal mistake of simply delaying the inevitable. Younger generations confidently know they can be anywhere virtually. The telework genie is out of the bottle, and in a lot of ways, there’s no putting it back.”
And it’s not just Millennials. For example, a recent UK study found that only 17% of those over 50 favored traditional patterns of 9-5 office work, leaving the vast majority favoring more part-time and other flexible options—just like their younger colleagues.
To paraphrase an iconic automobile ad of yesteryear, this isn’t your father’s workforce anymore—even if your father’s still working.
The second megatrend is the widespread introduction and adoption of digital collaboration tools.
Think Zoom not workstations; clouds not cubicles. By combining platforms like Slack, Smartsheet, Microsoft Teams and others with 5G connectivity—not to mention mobile devices with massively larger computing power than all the combined systems that helped NASA put humans on the moon—and we’re talking about the potential for more people to have more tools for more collaboration than ever before.
And it’s not just for full-time employees. Cloud-based freelance management systems (FMS) are also helping companies manage freelance and gig workers with onboarding, assignments, invoicing, payments, and tax forms enabling new and more agile workforce ecosystems.
It’s democratizing business tech, as well. Instead of the IT department deploying software on a corporate server, all one needs now is a corporate credit card to subscribe to cloud-based platforms that work on any laptop, mobile phone, tablet, etc.
But just to level-set—it’s still early days for this trend. According to one expert, online collaboration tools are actively being used by only 10% of the addressable market which means huge upside potential ahead. Watch this space.
Which brings us to the third megatrend: COVID-19 itself. Not a long-term trend, but—hopefully—a short-term catalyst that will accelerate the ongoing demographic and tech trends I just mentioned. Specifically, as more companies respond to the COVID-19 with greater workforce flexibility, I’m confident these agile changes won’t all be temporary fixes. Rather, I believe they can easily become long-term practices as well as newly embedded behavioral changes that will be difficult to reverse as several companies have already discovered.
Finally, business agility is an imperative today!
HR professionals know that human agility in the workforce is good for business. But they also know there are times when face-to-face meetings and on-prem teamwork are needed. Steve Jobs, for example, wasn’t a big fan of work-from-home arrangements and even helped design Pixar’s offices to intentionally encourage spontaneous in-person meetings to spark creativity.
But the workplace of the future isn’t about the rigid inflexibility of either/or. It’s about the agile flexibility of this/and. By offering the traditional on-premises office environment—plus—many other options that suit individuals’ needs, we can help people flourish in environments that best suit them so it’s win-win for talent and company alike.
The timing is also auspicious. We’re now at a demographic and technological inflection point where workforce flexibility is not only demanded more than ever, it can also be supplied more than ever: faster, cheaper, and more efficiently.
To paraphrase William Gibson once again, if there is a silver lining to this global pandemic, COVID-19 may ultimately make the workplace of the future more evenly distributed than ever before. We should welcome that trend.
Kate Duchene is the CEO of Resources Global Professionals (RGP), a publicly held global consulting firm enabling rapid business outcomes by bringing together the right people to create transformative change. She previously was an employment attorney for a global law firm.