World Reimagined

Companies Scramble to Define the Future of Work as COVID-19 Lingers

Videoconferencing
Credit: fizkes / stock.adobe.com

The persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses to rethink once-entrenched policies. And as CEOs look down the road, they’re realizing that the office of tomorrow will be much different than the one they walked into at the start of the year.

The digital transformation of many workplaces has come faster than anyone expected. Instead of crowding into conference rooms, we gather via Zoom or Microsoft Meetings in spare bedrooms and our kitchen tables. And with the virus still running rampant, many people will be there for months to come, if not longer.

Experts say the future of the workplace is still very much in flux, but whatever the end result, they expect it will be vastly dissimilar to what we’re used to seeing.

“The work of the future is going to be a hybrid,” says Brandon Smith, a professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, who specializes in workplace issues and topics. “Virtual work is going to be more accepted, but there will be a time and place for people to connect in person...We’re missing the back and forth, the interpersonal connections and relationships and the ability to collaborate and share cultures.”

Not everyone’s a fan of the hybrid model, though. Some 78% of business leaders think hybrid and home-working will have a negative impact on productivity, according to the recently issued World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2020—with 22% expecting a strong negative impact. But they’re adjusting their companies quickly to meet the new normal.

The report found 84% of employers are rapidly digitizing their work processes, potentially making up to 44% of their workforce remote.

Working from home, especially if you have kids, is different than being at the office, though. And that could force employers to reset the standards to which they currently hold employees.

“There are real tough questions that have to be asked – like are goals set before the pandemic reasonable and attainable right now?,” says Rachel Thomas, CEO and cofounder of Lean In. “Are we holding employees to standards they cannot possibly hit? Do performance reviews need to be handled differently this year and what might that look like? And they need to be more aggressively setting norms for virtual work, because all of a sudden our work lives and home lives are mashed together in ways that seemed impossible a year ago.”

The future of work might look very much like the near-future of schools, says Smith. One scenario would be employees spending some days at the office and others at home, perhaps with hard scheduled times on when people would be able to physically go to work.

The emphasis of those work days would be collaboration, letting teams who need to work together do so.

CEOs and other leaders, meanwhile, might need to adjust their own corporate priorities, focusing more on a short- or mid-term view, rather than further down the road.

“The most successful leaders have been executing on 3-5 priorities,” says Smith. “Clarity is one of the key antidotes to preventing uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds anxiety. And anxiety breeds a lack of focus, so leaders need to work around that anxiety.”

With video calls seemingly a permanent part of the work landscape now, companies also need to set some guidelines for those, building a new sort of culture for the office. That can range from acceptable screen backgrounds to appropriate clothing for the calls. The answers are less important than asking the questions and establishing clarity of expectations for employees.

A recent program hosted by Harvard University on the future of work and managing the impact of COVID-19 noted that one of the possible scenarios for the post-COVID workplace is employees will be reluctant to engage in optional interactions with coworkers. That could put a company’s culture at risk. And even onboarding employees could be more challenging than in pre-pandemic days.

There are two kinds of dynamics that make up our work life – operational components (such as clarity around goals and deadlines) and communication, the connections we make with coworkers. Working from home and virtual meetings help people achieve the operational components, but are far less effective with communication.

One way around that? Assigning a mentor to new employees to learn more about them and try to give them an emotional connection to the office.

“A lot of culture is something you smell and feel,” says Smith. “You’ve got to share with them in words what your office is like. It’s incumbent on the team to be proactive in building relationships.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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