As organisations prepare for new ways of working and define their post-COVID-19 objectives, priorities and strategies, it has become clear that there is a significant gap between the expectations of business leaders and those of workers in terms of the post-pandemic workplace.

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This is explored in detail in Adecco Group Foundation’s latest white paper ‘Future of Work post-COVID: Bridging divides for shared prosperity’, which complements the company’s earlier research, Reset Normal, a global survey of 8,000 people that revealed their thoughts on the key drivers of change in the world of work beyond the current crisis.

The whitepaper highlights the workplace disconnect that exists, particularly around:

  • Digital transformation – business leaders are more upbeat than workers about the positive impacts of technology on the future workplace

  • Remote working – leaders envisage a move towards more remote working, while workers are focused on more flexible work schedules

  • Sustainability and security – operational sustainability is a bigger priority for leaders than workers, while the latter have more concerns about employee welfare

  • Skills – High-end tech skills are valued by leaders and workers, but their views differ on the merits of those all-important soft skills

However, while workers’ and business leaders’ expectations for the future differ, they are not mutually exclusive, and the white paper also explores the solutions for aligning them more closely.

Workplace digitization

The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across all sectors and unlocked new opportunities for growth through AI, robotics and automation technology. Business leaders are optimistic about the benefits that these changes will bring to the workplace, with as many as 74% polled in an informal survey with business leaders during the FU.SE Digital 2020 event sharing that sentiment.

However, with the impact of COVID on the jobs market, coupled with apprehensions about the impact of automation on jobs, only 35% of workers shared the same optimism about the future as their bosses. Female workers are less optimistic than their male counterparts, with 43% of women expecting the post-COVID future of work to be worse, compared with 39% of men. Predominantly still the main carers, women are more likely to lose jobs.

This expectation mismatch could mean further polarisation of the workforce in the future, with leaders that are overly optimistic failing to recognise the biggest concerns of their employees and not taking the right measures to engage them in the transformation of the workforce. If female workers are disadvantaged as a result, many of the gains made in terms of gender equality, diversity and inclusivity over the last decade could be undermined.

The hybrid model of work

Business leaders and workers share similar expectations for long-term changes in the workplace beyond COVID, but, where they differ is on the subject of teleworking, with 82% of business leaders expecting to facilitate more remote working, compared with 48% of workers. In Adecco Group’s Resetting Normal study, a key finding was the desire for greater flexibility over working schedules and a split between home and office-based working, as cited by 75% of those polled.

While leaders and workers clearly embrace the prospect of greater flexibility and autonomy within the workforce, expectations of exactly how such a hybrid model would work need to be more closely aligned to meet the needs of both business and employees.

Workers’ welfare

The whitepaper exposed another very important difference between leader and worker expectations, that of employee security. Things like job security and income support weigh heavily on the minds of the worker, with the data revealing that over 80% of workers think their company should prioritise implementing financial support programmes, compared with less than 30% of leaders. The same percentage of workers also prioritised greater reassurance around job security, compared with 50% of leaders. This is an important message for business leaders; as the pandemic has shown, companies that respond to the concerns of their workforce are likely to achieve a stronger performance.

Skills for today and for the future

On the crucial issue of skills, leaders and workers are closely aligned on the value of high end digital skills, such as data analytics and data science, with 56% of workers and 54% of leaders deeming them most important. However, as the pandemic has shown, crisis-related soft skills like resilience and emotional intelligence are also key, yet workers appear to underestimate their importance, with 47% choosing hard skills as among the most important, compared with just 38% of business leaders.

There are global variations. While business leaders in the EU and the US are largely aligned on future-critical soft skills, workers in the EU are more likely than those in the US to include them among their top priorities for development. The latter rank problem solving in their top three important skills, behind coordination, time management, and attention to detail.

In building the right skills for the future, both groups agreed that the employer should take the lead, however, a more collective multi-stakeholder approach, involving business leaders, workers, and governments, could be the most effective way of establishing a workforce with the capability to secure long-lasting prosperity in an increasingly digital economy.

Bridging the gap

The gap between workers’ and leaders’ views and expectations about the working environment of the future gives some cause for concern. Yet these are driven by the same ambition: to deal with the challenges and make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.

In the post-pandemic working landscape, an alliance forged between companies, governments and individuals through a new social contract, can deliver a triple-win situation that would fundamentally disrupt labor market convention.

In examining the priorities of each stakeholder it is clear that their expectations are not mutually exclusive. Workers, for example, seek flexibility paired with income security, which aligns closely with business needs for workforce agility paired with economic stability. Governments, meanwhile, expect companies and their employees to act sustainably and responsibly.

Companies that proactively seek to understand workers’ needs and prioritise them in their workforce transformation plans, are best positioned to re-bound and succeed in the uncertain post-covid economic conditions.

In the future, the challenges created by COVID could enable workers to organise their working lives as they see fit, help businesses to become more competitive, and reduce the governmental challenges of high unemployment levels and economic hardship, with sign up to a new social contract that sets out the road map for achieving that.

To download the main conclusions and graphs, please click here.