The very concept of “work” has undergone a major shift since COVID-19 arrived. Many are now working remotely from their homes, and people who have lost their jobs now face an uncertain job market. But existing trends provide some important clues about the future of work. From temporary workarounds to novel software, businesses around the world have been forced to adapt and innovate in order to stay afloat. And it’s only going to become more essential for employers and employees alike to innovate, communicate, and redefine the anatomy of work.
In other words, the new normal is here to stay. Here are some of the most significant shifts in “work” since COVID-19 and some predictions about what the future of work could look like in the near future.
Business Lessons from the Pandemic
TREND: Temporary Workarounds and Initial Adaptations
Early in the pandemic, customers and businesses turned to the tools they knew best: email, phone and video conference, and online collaboration tools like Google Suite. Without in-person options, both employees and customers had to learn to work and shop from home. For businesses built entirely around in-office tools and in-person meetings, these temporary workarounds were universally stressful and mostly ineffective.
In fact, studies show that a person’s preference for working from home depends on their region and demographic. For instance, Gen Z indicated low productivity when working from home. On the other hand, there is a general aversion to working from home among people in the Midwest.
With stressed-out employees and customers, all signs pointed towards economic stagnation. Businesses soon realized they needed to pursue something better than temporary workarounds. After the initial panic, companies took a step back and pursued solutions for their unique businesses.
TREND: Adoption of Remote Tools and Tailored Solutions
In pursuit of remote-specific solutions, tools like Zoom and Slack became widely attractive. Habitual work structures resumed, such as continuing with face-to-face meetings via virtual video conferences. Many online project management platforms like Asana offered their tools for free, leading to the rapid adoption of collaborative SaaS solutions.
The learning curve was steep for companies that had previously relied on in-house tools and employer-owned computers. But the adoption of remote collaboration tools helped companies resume near-normal operations and get back on their feet.
TREND: ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and the Need for the Second Wave of Innovation
Zoom Fatigue describes the extra layer of exhaustion people feel due to constant video conferencing. Think of it like this: In a regular water cooler chat or staff meeting, people can shift their bodies freely and rely on multisensory contextual clues for information. But in a video chat, none of these things are possible.
Workers suddenly began to experience dissatisfaction with their initial work solutions, including eye strain, video conference fatigue, and a general malaise with virtual collaboration. The timing of this coincided with reports of growing COVID infections.
TREND: Improved and Personalized Remote Tools
There is a rising trend toward greater personalization — this was true before COVID and across many industries. For workers, this has meant coming up with ways to individualize their experiences with mass virtual collaboration platforms.
The use of interactive media backgrounds helped alleviate Zoom fatigue and helped employees bring their personalities back to work via virtual environments.
Companies found their creativity and got comfortable taking advantage of the unique affordances of virtual platforms. Breakout rooms, polls, and other customizable features helped improve engagement and interactivity.
TREND: Renewed Consideration of Security Concerns
Hundreds of employees working from home via their personal computers might be doable from a project management point of view, but this scenario presents a nightmare of challenges from an IT and security perspective.
This is a huge concern for any company where employees need to regularly handle confidential client data or access proprietary information. It’s one thing when a family member interrupts a private virtual meeting, but security takes on a whole new meaning when the computer itself is vulnerable to hackers (or roommates) with malevolent intent.
An excellent way to protect against data hacks is to utilize some form of identity verification. Options range from the less intrusive like biometric verification, scanning of government-issued ID, or two-factor authentication, to the more complex such as behavioral analytics.
Predictions for the Future of Work
Electronic Contract Signing
The signing of contracts is a vital part of business. But a prolonged inability to meet in-person safely may result in an actual preference for electronic contract signing.
Working virtually during COVID has enabled many companies to realize the distinct opportunities for global collaboration. More than ever before, digital communication has stood in for in-person meetings. And they are realizing that virtual collaboration can deliver more efficiency, resilience, and stakeholder management.
Electronic signing will mark the beginning of a transition toward virtual-first solutions for making deals and collaborating.
Increased Data Collection and Employee Monitoring
A majority of employees will continue to work from home, and all signs indicate at least one more year of remote work as the COVID vaccine undergoes testing.
As a result, employers will seek additional methods for verifying worker tasks and screen time. With a slowly recovering economy, workers will have no choice but to accept greater monitoring in exchange for employment.
Within the next year, it’s likely that there will be an influx of new startup companies focused on employee management. Specifically, there will be more two-sided SaaS products designed to connect employers and employees. This will aid the post-pandemic onboarding of digital natives like Gen Z while also empowering employers to monitor software usage and offer health incentives based on verifiable employee data.
Voice Technology, Office Layouts, and Robots
Even if a vaccine is made available within the next 12 months, everyone who lived through this pandemic will have a long-lasting aversion to public spaces, touching shared objects, and being too close to others.
Thankfully, experts like architects and theme-park designers have already begun designing social-distanced spaces in preparation for the inevitable return to communal workspaces.
It’s also probable that workplaces and public-facing companies will be quick to adopt voice technology and robots in ways they may have previously resisted.
The good news is that most of these technologies are already tested and in use in businesses around the world. To stay relevant, companies should look to become fluent in virtual-first solutions for collaboration, onboarding, and stakeholder management.
The future of work will be bright and robust if companies meet the call for innovation and keep the lines of communication open for employees and customers.