The Future Of Work Post-Pandemic: Beware Of Creating Haves And Have-Nots
by Michael Litt
A year ago, the corporate world had to improvise like never before. Seemingly overnight, one business after another adopted work-from-home routines to protect their employees and slow the spread of the coronavirus. But, with the end of the pandemic now within sight, companies face an equally momentous decision — one that may decide whether they number among tomorrow's winners or tomorrow's has-beens.
As more people receive the vaccine, it's feasible to imagine a calendar date when it's safe for employees to return to work in their offices. Yet, that doesn't mean it's going to happen. About 42% of the U.S. workforce has been tele-commuting full-time during the pandemic, according to Stanford University. Meanwhile, employees have warmed up to the new normal, with nearly 30% of working professionals saying they would quit if forced to return to their offices.
This isn't just about health concerns. Something has clearly changed in the business culture and people are moving on from long-established conventions that governed how we think about work. It's why Ford Motor Co. recently told 30,000 employees that they can continue to work from home indefinitely. It's the same story at outdoor retailer REI, Zillow, Twitter, Square as well as a long and growing list of other forward-looking companies.
So, let's stop pretending that we're going to turn back the clock. Employees have demonstrated that they can be as productive working at home as they are from corporate headquarters. Let's also recognize the new reality of the post-pandemic era — we're destined for a hybrid future between remote and in-office work. Yet here's where it gets harder: As companies let their people decide, it's also going to present complications for companies, employees and managers.
Zillow CEO Rich Barton was onto something recently when he cautioned that the future of work might result in a "two-class system" that's to the detriment of remote workers. The potential problem is that managers may view employees who come into the office as better employees, consciously or not.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
I have experienced this myself.
There was a period where the vast majority of my executive team was based in the U.S. with the rest of our team in Canada. So, our team in Canada would sit in a boardroom, while the individuals who weren't present would be on a separate video conferencing screen.
Every once in a while, I'd receive complaints about the audio quality in the room. Not only that, but people would be upset about feeling virtually sidelined in larger meetings, relegated to just being a projection on the screen in a room full of colleagues. My initial reaction was, "How bad could it be?" But when I needed to travel for business and would jump on a Zoom call, I became that ghost in the machine, that face on the wall, watching while everybody else talked among themselves and laughed at the inside jokes.
Looking ahead, I realized that we needed to change our approach to how we work and how we run meetings, otherwise we run the risk of treating our remote people very differently. While the rest of us might gather in a meeting space and have that in-person interaction where we could interrupt each other or take note of various body language intonations, anyone on the screen was at a major disadvantage.
That's why we moved to put everyone on an equal playing ground. If any single person logs in via Zoom to attend a meeting, then everyone else attending that meeting is also required to log in, no matter whether they are working in the office and could just as easily walk down the corridor to meet everyone in the conference room. If people later on want to meet informally for a one-on-one and they happen to be in the same location, that's great.
But the overriding concern was to prevent favoritism from taking root. People need to feel as if they are on equal footing with equal participation, no matter where they're working when it comes to collaborative experiences.
This ought not be a tough sell to boardrooms. No doubt this will be a lot easier for so-called digital native companies, but as we're seeing at Ford, a few banks and other long-established companies, this is a matter of will and vision. Will it be for everyone? No. Of course, there are industries and sectors where you need people working on the shop floor, but less human beings are required in the manufacturing processes than before thanks to automation and robotics.
But when it comes to the vast cohort of knowledge workers in the economy, we've proven over the past year that businesses can be very productive using technology to facilitate remote work. What's more, it's in the organization's enlightened self-interest to formalize the arrangement.
Companies that embrace a distributed work arrangement are no longer confined to hiring people who live in their region. Instead, they now have the advantage of cherry-picking talent from around the world. So, if nobody wants to work for your business because you're demanding they put their butts in a seat at headquarters, good luck with that.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, companies that adapted to the internet thrived at the expense of the holdouts. We're seeing something similar going on with the emergence of hybrid and distributed work. The companies who resist this inevitable charge will find themselves at a severe disadvantage. Not only will they ultimately lose access to the talent pool, they are going to have to pay way more to retain current — and unhappy — employees.
As CEOs try to figure this out, the reality is it doesn't matter much what we think. The future of distributed work is going to be both asynchronous and autonomous and ultimately, the marketplace — i.e., the choices made by employees — will decide what employers have to do.