The Future of Work After COVID: Turning Crisis into Positive Change

May 13, 2020      By Karina Schultheis

Ultimate Takeaway
  • As the dust begins to settle and employers gain confidence in current routines, now is the time for business leaders to begin developing comprehensive people strategies that will work for the future of work after COVID.
  • 55% of employers expect that their work-from-home policies will remain in effect after the pandemic ends, and 49% expect to continue offering flexible work arrangements.
  • While remote and flexible opportunities are often viewed as an employee-facing benefit, employers can benefit from significant cost reductions and improved retention, productivity, and engagement.

In approximately 60-some days, nearly every organization has had to completely reimagine how they manage workforce operations and their bottom lines. As the dust begins to settle and both employers and employees gain confidence in current routines, it’s time for business leaders to look forward. The long-term impact of the pandemic on government policies and financial projections remains uncertain, but now is the time to begin developing comprehensive people strategies that will work for the future of work after COVID.

The pandemic has created many inherent challenges and devastating job losses, but it has also pressure-tested and accelerated potentially positive changes in many areas of our society. Every period of rapid transformation brings progress. And, as we wait to see the long-term impact on our country, economy, and organizations, I anticipate both business leaders and their people will take this opportunity to re-evaluate conventional ways of working and consider how the lessons we’re learning today can be applied to reimagine tomorrow.

The role of flexibility in the future of work after COVID

Many organizations—those who were able to retain their people and transition them remotely—faced initial challenges in doing so. But thanks to enhanced technology, collaboration, and communication, most have found success and settled into a routine. As a result, according to a recent study by Willis Towers Watson, 55% of employers expect that their work-from-home policies will remain in effect after the pandemic ends, and 49% expect to continue offering flexible work arrangements. Some organizations—such as Twitter—have even announced that they will allow eligible employees to work from home permanently.

Temporarily, at least, this is operationally imperative: Many schools and daycare centers will remain closed until the fall (at least), making it simply impossible for many employees to return to the office. And even employees without dependents may be afraid to return to work (or actively participate in their communities, for that matter) until it’s been demonstrated safe to do so.

What’s more, employees have been clamoring for more flexible arrangements for years. Before the pandemic, several surveys suggested that 80% of employees (or more) wanted the ability to work from home at least some of the time. More than a third would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for the option. And many organizations have been supporting flexible schedules for years; back in 2016, Gallup revealed that 43% of the workforce was already working from home at least part-time.

I think it’s likely that, once employers are able to fully reopen their doors, many employees will desire more flexible options after experiencing what it’s like to work from home firsthand. Furthermore, data suggests working from home can be a boon for success: Last year, our State of Remote Work research revealed that, on average, virtual employees are not just surviving—they’re thriving. In fact, remote workers reported feeling more productive than their in-office peers and were actually 40% more likely to have been promoted in the past year.

Cost-savings, retention, and engagement: Benefits for employers

While remote and flexible opportunities are often viewed as an employee-facing benefit, there’s incredible value here for employers, too. Recently, remote work has been touted as a powerful recruitment and engagement tool, but many employers encouraged remote work back in 2008 as a way to cut costs during the Great Recession. (On average, employers can save about $11,000/year for each person who works remotely half of the time.)

Hopefully, this experience has also reduced fears for employers and managers about their teams’ ability to perform well remotely. The outdated concept that in-seat-equals-productivity has been disproven many times over, but concerns about managing remote workforces remained. As organizations have seen the efficacy of working from home—during a pandemic, with significantly heightened levels of stress, lack of childcare, and other unusual considerations negatively impacting productivity—they will likely find more creative and effective ways to measure output, productivity, and results.

Looking to a more flexible future

Now is the time for companies to step back and consider how they can best meet the needs of their customers and their people. There has been a decades-long push for reevaluating longstanding norms about how work gets done, and we may find that traditional conventions, such as rewarding a highly visible employee versus a highly effective one, doesn’t fit in the future of work.

I am extremely grateful to work for a company who is (and has always been) a Best Place to Work, supporting flexibility, work-life balance, and so, so much more. I hope that as we begin to emerge from the immediate crisis of this pandemic, more organizations will apply these lessons, giving employees greater choices in how their work and families fit together and ultimately supporting healthier, happier, more productive employees and better-performing organizations.


Learn how strategic foresight and scenario planning can help you prepare for the future of work after COVID, and read our recent research on the State of Remote Work.

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