For months now, the coronavirus pandemic has dominated our headlines, captured our attention and transformed our lives – both at work and outside of it. But with the gradual re-opening of the economy, COVID-19 has quickly transformed from being primarily a public health emergency to also becoming a potential economic crisis of a global scale.
Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and entering a new phase of the crisis, what are the lessons learnt from the past months? Coronavirus has enhanced our understanding of health and safety and made remote work the new norm. But it has also underlined some of the structural problems of the labour market that have gained in importance and will need resolving.
To mitigate this threat, governments around the world have taken necessary measures to save businesses, keep people in work and avoid mass layoffs. As we enter the new phase of the crisis, however, one that will be dominated by physical distancing and the emphasis on health and safety, employers and workers will play an increasingly important role in helping deliver a quick, safe and sustainable recovery.
Here are three emerging challenges that we see as the future of work shakes out, along with suggested solutions on a path forward.
1. Decisions should be taken as close to the problem as possible
Governments have assumed a key role during the coronavirus pandemic. Their decisions to reduce the mobility of people, shut down parts of the economy and enact lockdown measures might not have been politically easy, but for the most part they have been necessary in order to protect public health.
Moreover, to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis, governments have resorted to numerous exceptional macroeconomic measures including stimulus packages and various short-term work schemes. Countries that have invested in both policies seem to have done better in weathering the storm than others.
However, with the world entering the new phase of the COVID-19 crisis, it is important that businesses themselves do everything they can to re-open the economy and help workers safely return to their workplaces as soon as possible. To that end, the three leading HR companies have recently joined forces to develop a concrete guide that collects more than 400 examples of health and safety protocols across 13 countries and five sectors.
The success of these measures and the extent to which the economy will quickly rebound will depend on how disciplined people and businesses will be. Precisely because of that, and to maximise their effect, many of the future decisions will need to be taken as close to the problem as possible, oftentimes at the level of companies.
2. Technology is here to facilitate, not dictate the future of work
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has significantly altered the way we work. Many of us have either redeployed our talents to industries where they have been needed most such as e-commerce or logistics or we have been forced to work remotely from home. For instance, The Adecco Group alone had more than 30,000 of its own workforce operate from home throughout the past weeks while it has continued facilitating work for more than 400,000 associates every day.
But while the initial decisions of businesses to embrace flexibility were driven by the necessity of the COVID emergency, looking ahead, many companies will need to decide to what extent and how they want to continue with these arrangements into the future.
One of the key lessons of this pandemic is that people have come to appreciate the freedom to balance their personal and professional lives, putting pressure on employers to become more serious about remote work and employee wellbeing.
However, that is not to say that offices will cease to exist in the post-COVID era. Quite the opposite. Many businesses will continue to depend on the human-to-human interaction that people still prefer to happen in person and face to face. Yes, companies will need to find the way to leverage the tools and technology that employees have become so used to over the past weeks. But at the same time, they will have to ensure that the necessary human element and personal interaction will be retained in their operations.
And this is where the idea of flexibility comes into play. Thanks to the flexibility, workers will be in a position to decide to what extent, how and when they will want to take advantage of remote work. After all, the tools we use and the work arrangements we have should be here to facilitate the future of work, not dictate it.
3. Structural problems have been sidelined and exacerbated by COVID-19
These past weeks and months have redefined our understanding of the world of work as we know it. Many sectors of the economy have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn, including the sectors of hospitality and air transport while others such as e-commerce or logistics have seen their demand boom.
As a result, the coronavirus pandemic has led to the largest employee redeployment since the Second World War, which has further emphasised the need for upskilling and reskilling. Benefiting from the numerous online resources that have been made available for free, a record number of workers have recently invested in development of their skills partly due to fears that they will not have a job to return to when the lockdowns are lifted and partly in the hope these new skills would make them more employable in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of the underlying and structural problems such as the widening skills gap. As we emerge from the current crisis and potentially enter another, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture – that the structural challenges might have been sidelined by the pandemic, but that they will continue to hamper the labour market until we address them head-on. High on that list of challenges and priorities will be the investment in reskilling and upskilling by all parties involved, the governments, businesses, and individuals.