Reimagining the World of Work: 6 Provocative Predictions

June 16, 2020

Photo of person wearing face mask writing on white board in office

Many things have been put on hold recently — weddings and vacations, family reunions and company offsites, sporting events and schoolwork. But Lars Schmidt says there is one thing that will no longer loom on the horizon.

“We talk about the future of work,” says Lars, the host of the 21st Century HR podcast, “as though it were a far-off concept. The reality is that it’s already here.”

Adds Fortune: “The workplace is being reinvented in real time.”

COVID-19 has triggered what looks to be a monumental shift in how and where work gets done. The pandemic has compelled businesses to invest time, money, and belief in telework, to re-examine the relationship between their employees’ professional and personal lives, and to re-envision what their offices will look like when they reopen for business. The time seems right for seismic change — why think incrementally when you can fundamentally reimagine the future of work?

To gather perspectives on what that new world of work might look like, Lars created the Reimagining Work Idea Board, to which dozens of the best and most innovative minds in the HR space have contributed their visions or upvoted their favorites.

Here are six brainchildren that we found particularly provocative and compelling:

1. Companies will make substantial investments in remote work technology and employee well-being

Companies will quickly embrace remote work as a long-term operating priority rather than a short-term contingency plan. A handful of businesses, most notably Twitter and Facebook, have already made work from home (WFH) a permanent option for some or all of their workforce and many others will soon line up for it. 

Telework will save these companies significant money on real estate and travel. Businesses will reinvest those savings in technology and programs that support employees’ mental health and well-being. 

Companies will make sure their employees have access to the technology — laptops, monitors, keyboards, headsets, and videoconferencing, chat, and document collaboration tools — they need for remote work. They will also help outfit home offices with desk lamps, ergonomic chairs, and, of course, company-branded coffee cups.

But successful WFH won’t be just about stuff. Companies will work hard to make sure teleworkers feel every bit as engaged and connected as their colleagues in HQ are.

Toward that, Lars sees mental health and wellness support becoming a core company benefit. And Megan James, an employee benefits strategist, suggests companies “either cover all therapy appointments as ‘in-network’ or cover the full cost of any therapy appointments. Simply covering these services in full would be a huge win for employees. And employers, of course, will benefit too.”

Beyond counseling sessions and coaching, far-sighted companies will offer meditation apps, online exercise and well-being classes, and more flexibility and time off. They will encourage employees to unplug at the end of the day and to make sure there’s some division between their work and home lives, even if they’re happening in the same place.

2. A widespread adoption of distributed work will nudge diversity efforts forward

As WFH becomes the new norm, both opportunities and challenges will arise. One of the opportunities will be to recruit a more diverse workforce.

“One of the biggest upsides of a remote working world,” says Brendan Browne, global head of talent acquisition for LinkedIn, “is you can recruit and hire awesome talent wherever they are.” Think about the implications for high tech: Silicon Valley, as one example, has some 3.1 million residents but only 3% are black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“For years,” Brendan adds, “TA teams have tried to convince executive teams to open offices in cities with vastly more diverse populations. That can be challenging — high cost, long timelines, competition. But now the energy can shift to sourcing, nurturing, and recruiting incredible people where they live.”

And that, says John Vlastelica, founder of Recruiting Toolbox, will allow for better diversity hiring and “encourage more local investments in cities and schools that don’t get the attention of big tech and other big employers today.” It will also allow employees to stay where they’re already happy, productive, and connected.

Remote work won’t be a panacea for companies that have struggled to get traction with their diversity efforts. But the total addressable market explodes when businesses can look everywhere for their next hire, rather than relying only on talent that lives near the home office.

3. More and more companies will offer onsite childcare or underwrite childcare expenses

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the new norm for companies will be to support childcare given that more people will likely be working from home and more companies will be struggling to make ends meet. But the reality is most workers will continue to be needed onsite, and employees, too, are facing tough times financially.

Katelin Holloway, a partner in Initialized Capital and the former VP of people and culture at Reddit, envisions a world of work where “companies commit to onsite childcare as parents become wary of sending their children to larger daycare centers.” Katelin sees the “reliability and convenience” of onsite care increasing employee retention and engagement.

This has been the experience at Patagonia, which offers subsidized childcare at three of its facilities. “Turnover for parents who have children in our onsite childcare program,” says Dean Carter, Patagonia’s head of HR, finance, and legal, “runs 25% less than for our general employee population.”

The lockdowns that have shuttered businesses in so many countries are not sparing childcare providers, some of whom will not reopen for business when parents start looking to return to the office. “A second childcare crisis is coming,” says Employee Benefit News, “and employers will need to address it.”

Not only will there be fewer care options, those remaining options will be too expensive for many employees — annual childcare in many U.S. states costs more than a year of public college and, between furloughs and pay cuts, many employees will have fewer resources with which to tackle the issue. As a stopgap measure, a number of companies, including CVS Health, Ally Financial, and Target, have rolled out new and expanded childcare packages that offer 20 to 30 days of paid care to each employee.

4. Workplace design will get a massive overhaul

The post-COVID workspace, while not necessarily provocative, will be anything but business as usual. Speculation about what it will entail has run amok. Suggestions range from voice-activated elevators to sneeze guards at every desk, from windows you can actually open to more outdoor gathering spaces and fewer conference rooms. And everyone seems to agree that air-filtration systems will be greatly improved by incorporating fresh air rather than simply recirculating stale air.

“Individual workspaces are reimagined to allow for more privacy and new health standards,” says Initialized Capital’s Katelin Holloway, who believes the open-floor plans of the last few decades will become a relic of the past. And the privacy Katelin foresees will have enormous practical implications. Many employees may be leery of crowded conference rooms and will expect to continue taking meetings via videoconferencing — without disturbing their six-feet-distant officemates.

Technology will be a big driver of the new office. To make future workspaces as touchless as possible, companies will allow employees to control doors, lighting, audio and visual equipment, and even coffeemakers with their smartphones or their voices. According to Fast Company, businesses will deploy beacons to track employee movements via their phones. Getting too close? The beacons will beep as a way to encourage employees to keep their social distance.

The one certainty is that workforces will return to something different than they left. “Form has always followed fear of infection, just as much as function,” says The Guardian, pointing to everything from antibacterial brass doorknobs to hygienic tiled bathrooms.

Epidemiologists seem to agree that while companies can slow the spread of viruses, they won’t be able to eliminate them when they reopen their doors. “[R]esearch shows that one of the best ways to reduce transmission in the workplace,” says The New York Times, “is to provide paid sick leave that encourages ill employees to stay home.”

5. Work will be based on projects rather than roles

Workers in many roles across many industries have had to drop what they’ve been doing and take on work they’ve never tackled before — from librarians serving as COVID-19 tracers to distillers producing hand sanitizer to assembly-line workers turning their skills from cars to ventilators. Many businesses have seen some of their portfolio dry up at the same moment that other parts have exploded, and those companies have asked parts of their workforce to pivot to where they are needed most. 

Companies can both anticipate and expedite this shift by developing an internal mobility platform. “Many organizations,” the Harvard Business Review reported recently, “such as Allianz Global Investors and Cisco, have already set up internal project marketplaces that break down work into tasks and projects that can be matched with people from anywhere in the organization with relevant skills and availability.” Schneider Electric, the France-based energy management giant, has developed the Open Talent Market, which allows its managers to post short-term projects and its employees to raise their hands to help out if they have reduced demands in their regular roles.

The future of work may end up looking more like the way Hollywood makes films. A team is brought together — director, actors, gaffers, grips, best boys, and others — to create a movie and, as soon as they’re done, they’re disbanded to pursue other projects.

Accenture foresees what it calls “the liquid workforce” — a blended group of full-time workers and freelancers, contractors, and consultants who can work anywhere, anytime on projects of variable length. “Integrating the liquid workforce,” Forbes says, “will bring fresh and diverse perspectives to companies and add new energy and ideas.”

Shannon Teixeira, the head of people at Waste Management, says that with a project-based approach “experimentation will happen more regularly.” She sees this model leading to an acceleration of innovation, time to market, and market differentiation.

6. Companies will develop internal career coaches to support nimble teams

In a world of work that focuses on projects rather than roles, what would happen if companies developed coaches who work with teams to see what opportunities beckon them and to ensure that they continue to develop in-demand skills? Lars thinks there could be magic.

“Create internal career coaches who proactively track the acquired skills, capabilities, and interests of your team to deploy them to different projects as needed,” Lars writes, “rather than keeping them locked into rigid roles and teams.”

In the past, most companies that have engaged career coaches have done so to help with leadership development. When Google launched its hugely successful Career Guru program 10 years ago, it certainly had elements of leadership development baked into it. But Googlers could also call on Gurus for help with presentations, sales, team development, innovation, or well-being. Building a program that provided coaching to front-line employees and that helped them move into different jobs was a truly positive innovation.

Internal career coaches assigned to teams will be a win for everyone. For companies, it will allow them to attract and retain talent; to fill skills gaps; and to increase agility by deploying proven, work-ready teams to projects that are most critical. For employees, it will keep their skills and their focus fresh and ensure they are attaching to projects that are meaningful.

Final thoughts: The future is now

Lars has long touted “the future of work,” but recently he has come to believe that the term itself keeps the actuality at arm’s length and makes it something for a future to-do list rather than today’s. So, he decided to seize the moment and share some of his thoughts while soliciting those of his network.

Some of the ideas in the Reimagining document come from Lars, many do not. All six of the ideas above share one feature: Each, done right, would be a win-win, bringing benefits to both the companies and workforces that embraced them.

“This collision of global circumstances, from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter and racial inequity, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our field to drive change at scale,” Lars says, “and follow the examples set by people teams that have been leading the way and operating in this progressive space. The inspiration and examples are there. Work out loud. Share with your peers. We’re in this together. Now is our time to build the future of work.”

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