Over the past decades, rapid digital transformation has enabled organizations to completely reimagine the way they work and manage talent. From reliable video conferencing platforms to digital collaboration software, to ubiquitous cloud-based connectivity, and a data-centric approach to strategic decision-making powered by the synergy between artificial and human intelligence, an imaginary worker from the 1950s would surely marvel at the current landscape of work as if they were in a Black Mirror episode.
And yet, it took a pandemic to truly accelerate this trend and transform the way most people work day to day, leveraging these foundational aspects of technology to dramatically change how we approach jobs and careers, perhaps forever. Indeed, for those with the skills to work remotely, the crisis has turbocharged an unparalleled shift toward more flexible work, and being able to live one life that better blends work and home — trends we know workers have wanted for some time.
Technology has the potential to be a great enabler, providing humans with the tools to remain emotionally and socially connected even while in physical isolation, and the crisis has been the critical catalyst for change. At the onset of this crisis, talent literally left the building, and we’re now beginning to realize that in many places, it is unlikely to come back. In what will surely count as one of the strongest demonstrations for the extraordinary human capacity for adaptability, workers of the world have been able to remain productive even in lockdown.
Humanyze, a technology firm that specializes in social sensing (led by MIT’s Ben Waber, who coined the now widely-used term people analytics), mined anonymous company e-mail, chat, and calendar data to find that working without an office has actually extended people’s working time by an average 10–20%, while also reducing work-related stress and negative emotions, increasing confidence and well-being, and increasing communication with close collaborators by a staggering 40%. In the early days of the pandemic, Microsoft reported a 200% increase in virtual meetings (mining their client data from Microsoft Teams), with a total of 2.7 billion meetings per day. Although virtual teams and remote work were already quite prevalent prior to Covid-19, it is likely that overall collaboration will actually increase when everyone is remote, with firms like Twitter and Square announcing their employees can work from home forever, and early indicators suggesting that business collaboration is stronger now than before the pandemic.
As we look to the new next, unsurprisingly, many people have no desire to return to the office full-time, and, by extension, be forced to live close to it, especially if it is there mostly for symbolic or decorative purposes. As our newly released ManpowerGroup global analysis shows, 8 in 10 workers want more remote work to attain a healthier work-life fusion. To be sure, we had been talking about the benefits of an agile, hybrid, and fluid workforce for some time, but the pandemic marks the formal entrance to the age of digital nomads and a personalized workforce, with five salient trends (and opportunities) to consider:
1. Technology Is Deepening Human Connections: Discussions about new technologies, such as AI, often paint a bleak and dehumanizing picture. For example, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, has warned of the rise of a “useless class” of humans. And there are vastly exaggerated alarm bells being rung over automation. A more obvious trend so far has been that humans working with, and enhanced by, AI, almost always produce better results than humans without AI, or AI without humans. While the crisis accelerated the use of technology, which enabled the decoupling of work from a “place”, this shift was already occurring as a large proportion of organizations — large, medium, and small — made necessary investments in online collaboration tools like Zoom and Teams, growing the market for collaboration software to more than $45 billion globally (resulting in a 300% increase in Zoom’s share price since the pandemic started).
Technology is rapidly becoming more human. We aren’t simply collaborating; we are running businesses, visiting family, attending weddings, and educating our children through technology, making the virtual world more humane, forging deep digital connections that are founded on true human connectedness. The crisis has converted collaboration software to “cohabitation software,” with Microsoft reporting a 10% increase in social meetings (including “pajama day” or “meet my pet day”) during the past few months. All this allows us to exist “in the same space at the same time” together, while we determine the place.
2. Building Culture Outside the Building: Last year, when the world could not even imagine the present state of affairs, we presented our research on What Workers Want, and a Fortune 500 CEO asked us: “How do you possibly build culture when you don’t sit together”? Our response was that culture doesn’t exist within walls; it exists within people, so you have to build culture through people, wherever they sit. We could tell he was skeptical — yet the pandemic has proven that we can and must build culture from living rooms and home offices across the country. Workers knew this a while ago. It’s why people may use the exact same technology yet experience work in a very different way when they move from one company to another. Fundamentally, culture is “how we do things around here,” and it’s the sum of default behaviors, preferences, values, and decisions that make each organization a unique habitat, regardless of whether people frequent an office or not.
Now company leaders are realizing it as well. Leaders can focus on building culture anywhere by refraining from micromanaging, getting over the politics of presentism, and learning to measure what each employee actually produces and contributes to the organization with as much objectivity and data as possible. Above all, by nurturing trust and fairness in relationships with employees, leaders can upgrade the company culture even in a virtual-only world.
3. Work That Supports Life:Our ManpowerGroup research shows that the second concern after health for workers post-crisis is maintaining flexibility. Most workers want to work remotely a few days a week; they want a hybrid workplace between work and home that allows for better balance. But the office does still have a role in human connection. Companies like Ford are taking this as a moment to redesign how office space works. Others are investing in new hubs where people come together to collaborate and socialize. Gen Z employees are most positive about coming back into the office (on their terms), and they, especially, look to the workplace as a source of socialization as much as a place to network and learn. Gen X and Boomers, who are leading many companies today, enjoy the separation that the physical workplace brings in their efforts to keep work and home a bit more separate.
It’s critical for leaders to realize that while workers may still want to occasionally come to the office, few want to come in every day. For jobs that must be in-person, it’s going to be important to flex the hours to minimize the commute, flex the shift to allow parents to be part-time teachers, and flex the days to enable the workforce to work in a way that supports life.
4. Screens as the Great Equalizer: The great thing about video calls is that the boxes are all the same size — it’s a great equalizer. Prior to the crisis, we had all been in meetings where a portion of the team was in person and part was online. The online participants were primarily bystanders to the actual meeting. There was an advantage to being “in the room,” akin to being in the right place at the right time, and saying the right thing to the right person.
As companies work to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, technology provides the level playing field most groups want. Not only is it harder to engage in office politics, show-off, or manage up when you are in a Zoom call and everyone is watching, but the ability to capture, record, and analyze meetings data provides organizations with hard facts to evaluate DE&I in real-time. Diversity analytics, including a measure of how much people from different groups speak during meetings, whether they are included or excluded from the informal social networks that govern the power dynamics of an organization, and whether their ideas and comments are well-rec