Navigating the New Normal: The Future of Work
Conversations about the return to work, and what that will look like, are taking place in every corner of business. Leaders of companies both big and small are not only trying to figure out how and when to bring people back into the office safely, but also how the coronavirus crisis has reshaped the very idea of a work week. With homes turned into offices (and gyms and schools), the clear boundaries that once existed for many employees have been blurred almost entirely.
“There are three dimensions of work,” explains Ravi Kumar, president and chief operating officer of InfoSys, an IT and digital transformation company that has clients in multiple industries across 46 countries. “There’s the work itself, the workplace, and the workforce. All three are in the midst of massive change because of the pandemic."
While no one knows exactly what this shift will ultimately look like, there’s one positive that’s already emerged: remote work does work. After decades of debate around the pros and cons of working remotely, few companies can argue that it’s not a viable option. “Before the pandemic there were always managers who claimed that this job or that job could never be done remotely,” says Johnny C. Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Now, they can’t say that because it’s working. And not for a week because of a hurricane, but for months now.”
But even in the midst of managing remote workforces, companies have been preparing for the day when they could bring workers back to the office. Among the many high- and low-tech solutions being discussed now are contact tracing, Plexiglass barriers between workstations, carpet that indicates proper social distances, and touchless elevator pads and doors. Hand sanitizers built into desks, company-supplied masks, new signage, and air filters that push air down and not up are also being considered.
Available technology such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is enabling contact tracing to be done faster and more effectively. Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman of PwC, the professional services firm with 55,000 global employees, says most of the companies his firm speaks with are doing contact tracing manually. In May, PwC launched an app that will be used when it begins to bring its people back into the office. Employees download the app on their phone and it allows the company to track them anonymously only when they are in PwC’s building. Ryan says the firm will also make the app available for any of its clients.
“If someone does test positive for the virus we can tell quickly and accurately who they’ve been in contact with in the prior days and reach out to those people,” Ryan said. “It reduces anxiety because we know who to contact and we can do it much faster.
Kumar of InfoSys says his company is partnering with the state of Rhode Island to offer a similar contact tracing app. Called “Crush Covid RI,” the app will use InfoSys’ location-based services platform to create individual location diaries while protecting user privacy. The mobile app will also serve as a one-stop-shop for pandemic response, connecting Rhode Islanders with resources about quarantine and isolation support, symptom monitoring, and up-to-date disease information from the Rhode Island Department of Health. Kumar says InfoSys is in talks to offer the app to its enterprise clients as well.
A new office place
Of course, once employees are physically back in office, they’ll also be met with a whole new world of concerns to contend with. Marc Spector is the principal of SpectorGroup, a global architecture and interior design firm in New York City that’s overseen projects such as Brookfield Place and Uber’s headquarters in New York City. He’s working with clients now on what needs to be done to “de-fear” the workplace so that employees can return and feel safe. “There’s so much that’s going to be thrown at people when they come back in terms of protocols of what they can and can’t do, where they can stand and gather,” he says. “We are trying to take all those things and put them in the workplace in ways that don’t make people overly fearful.”
SpectorGroup’s 100 employees are working remotely, but Spector says he’s looking to bring them back into the firm’s New York City and Woodbury, Long Island offices by June 15. “We’re calling it resiliency planning, not post-Covid planning because I want to de-associate with the virus as we move forward,” he says. He and his senior team have created an office procedures memo that outlines what’s required of workers as they return (a mask and gloves, hand washing before going to their desk) as well as sending an email each morning before arriving at the office stating that they have not had any of the symptoms of the virus in the prior 24 hours. Spector has also used his design skills to create clear plastic face shields for his clients that they can use to cover their eyes as well as the mouth and nose.
“We have some clients that say this, and a bottle of hand sanitizer at every desk, is all they’re going to do,” he said. “Then there are others that are looking to redesign entire floors. It all depends on how comfortable people feel being back in a public space after months of working from home.”
The longer term question that CEOs and others are pondering now is how much work will actually change in the wake of the virus. The reskilling of the American workforce that had been taking place before the pandemic will now likely be thrown into overdrive as companies continue to lean in on digital transformation. Gabe Dalporto, CEO of Udacity, the online learning platform, says that monthly enrollment in his company’s nanodegrees has increased by a factor of four since the beginning of the lockdown.
“Many of the companies we deal with have aggressively taken advantage of the work-from-home downtime to accelerate the rate at which their employees reskill,” he said. In fact, Dalporto recalls a recent conversation with one of IBM’s senior IT managers who told him the computer giant is encouraging their WFH employees to use the time they’d normally spend commuting to learn a new skill.
As the return to work unfolds in the months ahead, companies will undoubtedly face fears and concerns that they haven’t planned for. But that’s not all bad news, says Ryan of PwC. “Our world moves on big shifts,” he said. “We’re in another one of these moments where we’re going to see a huge wave of change. But because this pandemic is truly a shared global experience, we have the opportunity to work together to move forward very rapidly.”
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.