Here's how we put it just a few years ago, in reporting on some of the biggest trends in workplace technology:
“For an interesting look at what’s happened to the modern office, consider the 1970s manager and how this person would have spent his or her day. The manager came in first thing in the morning and unlocked the building, turned on the lights, and maybe set the coffee pot brewing. Maybe he or she got some visitors, clients, or suppliers, who shook hands and sat down in front of the manager’s desk, in a room at the back of the building. The manager probably hovered around for part of the day, signing off on routine paperwork and micro-managing all of the details involved in maintaining the commercial space, dealing with payroll, and other staff issues. Plus, the manager of times past depended on a good, old landline phone to complete the kinds of communications needed to keep the business growing, support core business activities and plan for the future…”
So what’s changed since then? Well, we had a pandemic that changed the ways that we work, and the ways that we live, fundamentally, because of how it affected all of us.
In the wake of COVID-19, we see things a lot differently, especially when it comes to a shared workplace. So a lot of the trends that we talked about a few years ago – remote office work, a distributed workforce, more flexibility and more family support – have been supercharged by necessity in a way none of us could have predicted back even five years ago!
The Remote Workforce
As things went into shutdown in March of 2020, all of us finally got the memo – COVID is real, and it's important.
Even those who "didn't believe" in the science around the virus had to deal with the same practical issues that everyone else did, to a considerable extent.
What that meant for companies was that many places of work suddenly became empty. Others suddenly became dangerous.
Over the next weeks, people scrambled to figure out a new normal, and put in place protocols and restrictions for safer work. That included marks on the floor (which, in many cases, are still there) – signs on doors, and applications of the CDC science on social distancing.
When it came to employees, once companies and governments deemed it safe to return to the office and vaccines lowered our levels of risk, managers and planners were left with a very different landscape than what they had been used to in previous decades.
“Before the pandemic – and probably too long for any catchphrase to exist – we wanted people to ‘think outside the box,’” writes Michele McGovern at HR Morning, under a subhead titled: The box became smaller.
“But the box – the building where people worked and the like-mindedness that grows inside company walls – was already big. Forced remote work made a lot of the things that once seemed impossible, possible. For instance, jobs and functions that we considered too dangerous to take off-site – such as big banking and processing confidential information – are commonly done remotely. And all those meetings we felt we needed to have in the conference room worked just as well via Zoom.”
Indeed, we collectively moved into a different space, in terms of remote versus in-person transactions – and that included the workplace.
The Great Resignation and Workplace Flexibility
After pandemic closures and restrictions, companies were basically forced to be more flexible. (Read also: Post-Pandemic Life in the Tech World Looks Pretty Good.)
A lot of the shift flexibility that we see now came from situations where companies had to stagger work shifts in order to meet social distancing requirements. After they started having people work at different hours, they figured out how to make that practical and how to make it work for their business processes and operations. And, in many cases, the workers won!
The “Great Resignation” added to that effect. People thought about the dangers of coronavirus, and what they had been used to, and many thought they needed a new job or a change of scenery. And managers and business owners were forced to make more concessions.
Fast forward to today, as Starbucks stores and other franchises are seeing new union initiatives, and we can see that this seismic shift in American business is far from over.
One of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic was that a remote workforce can be a viable model and that it can save the company and its workers massive amounts of time and resources.
In the best outcomes, businesses found that they could easily allow employees to work from home without losing productivity, and by re-envisioning this process, everyone was saved. Gasoline use went down, and so did the number of stressed-out employees eating lunch from a vending machine. (Read also: The Pros and Cons of a Hybrid Workforce.)
But we had not yet seen the demand-side blossom – famously, one of the biggest top stock winners from the pandemic was Zoom for teleconferencing (as mentioned above).
In many of those teleconferencing patterns, people have not gone back to face-to-face meetings.
The difference between then and now is that these new models were largely untested prior to the pandemic. Now they are mostly de rigueur.
Family Support and Childcare
Many parents found themselves at home with their kids when the schools shut, creating tough situations as they tried to balance childcare and schooling from home with their own work demands.
A huge crunch came for those parents deemed essential staff who were required to work on-site, but had children at home. (Read also: How the Pandemic is Affecting Women in Tech.)
While there is been a move to try to tackle the childcare issue, there is not yet any new core support for working parents, and some are now reporting that companies are requiring parents to have children in childcare even if they work from home. Companies that support and set up resources for employees who need a new kind of childcare will be the ones parents want to work for.
Employees and employers continue to look for balanced solutions for work. For example,
offices that offer a hybrid work from home/on-site are looking at desk-sharing or "hot desk" options. Keeping a space reserved for someone who is only there a few days a week
In conclusion, the pandemic has changed the way that we think about work and the ways that we think about workers. In many quarters, there's more of a focus on family support and equity, with unionization efforts increasing, and people really, fundamentally, pondering new ways to work.