For all the speculation about what the future of work will be like, one could argue that “the future of work” is already here – it actually began in mid-March 2020 when workers around the world were sent home by their employers to slow the spread of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, companies were toying with videoconferencing technology and allowing people to work remotely – but then things got serious. Suddenly, everyone was thrust into action as part of an impromptu, widespread experiment in real time.
For the last few years, we’ve all been grappling with rapidly unfolding changes. Now that the situation has stabilized, it’s a question of which changes will stick around for the long term.
We occupy an evolutionary state in which we’re investigating the choices before us and how to move forward:
- What aspects of the pre-COVID workplace will we return to?
- What new changes will we further revise going forward?
- What aspects of the current workplace will we adopt permanently?
- How will leaders need to adapt in the post-pandemic workplace?
Let’s discuss eight hot issues impacting the future of work.
1. Remote work and, ultimately, flexibility
The pandemic proved that employees can successfully work remotely, without negatively impacting productivity or quality of work.
During this time, employees got to experience a whole new day-to-day routine and, for many, they were able to enjoy not just a better work-life balance but a work-life integration. For the first time, they were, for example, able to walk their dog in the middle of the day, run time-sensitive errands or exercise during breaks. If they were parents or caregivers, they could engage more easily and frequently with children or relatives throughout the day.
For many employees, the new normal works well for them. They’ve become accustomed to it and they don’t want to give up their newfound freedom for a commute and long hours in a cubicle again.
Despite this, a sizeable portion of employers report wanting to return to the office full time, for various reasons. It appears that employers and employees could be headed for a stand-off.
Going forward, most organizations will likely settle on a hybrid work arrangement, as well as flexible work schedules or even shortened workweeks, as a compromise. In terms of remote work, the “cat is out of the bag” and there’s no going back to five days in the office for most companies.
Currently, employees have a lot of say over their work conditions – and they clearly want more agency in how, where and when they perform their work. Companies must recognize this and take action to incorporate more workplace flexibility – or risk losing top talent to competitors.
In this remote and hybrid work environment, workplace leaders will need to become adept at managing remote employees by:
- Cultivating relevant and valuable skills, including empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ)
- Focusing on how to build trust and conduct difficult conversations over distances
- Letting go of any tendencies to micromanage
- Understanding how to lead employees across time zones,
Companies that insist on 100% on-site work will need to be prepared to:
- Fully explain the business needs or the “why” to employees for a fully on-site schedule.
- Consider taking steps to enhance their workplace, making the office more amenable to collaboration and creativity
- Institute more rigorous health and safety standards
- Focus on how to introduce flexibility for employees in other ways
2. Investing in time and attendance tracking
In remote, hybrid or flexible workplaces, work is no longer centralized at the same time and location This leads to some big questions for employers to consider.
- Have workplaces been focusing on the wrong things all along? Where work-life integration exists, is it the deliverables and results that matter more, or hours spent in a chair? How does this impact time tracking?
- Where there is fluidity between work and life, how can companies make time tracking fair and equitable to everyone?
- How should employers measure productivity in general?
- Which key performance indicators (KPIs) or metrics need to change per role?
- Are there other ways to leverage technology to help companies understand the value they’re getting from individual employees – without being intrusive or making employees feel micromanaged?
Now more than ever, with remote and dispersed workforces, companies need a time and attendance policy to address these issues. A time and attendance policy doesn’t have to conflict with solidifying norms around workplace flexibility. Rather, this type of policy exists simply to establish basic ground rules, set expectations around availability and accessibility, and ensure fairness for all employees.
3. Relying on independent contractor labor
As businesses face post-pandemic turnover and a tight, ultra-competitive labor market, hiring talented independent contractors to fill knowledge gaps and complete specific deliverables in a timely manner is growing in popularity.
Often, it can be a great idea.
- Contractors can enable your business to scale up or down efficiently, according to your needs at the moment.
- As people reassess their priorities, goals and interests post-pandemic, many workers are open to temporary and short-term work because of the lack of long-term commitment.
- Contractors are usually highly skilled or knowledgeable in a specific area and don’t require lots of training to get up to speed.
However, there are some drawbacks.
- Independent contractors, or any temp worker, can be difficult to retain.
- They are more disconnected from your workplace culture and lack the sense of loyalty and long-term investment in your company’s success that a full-time worker would have.
- There may be a large pool of willing contractors and temp workers right now, but those conditions can swiftly change.
4. Expanded employee benefits
Of course, the standard suite of benefits will always be important in attracting and retaining employees. This includes:
- Retirement account (401(k))
- Health insurance (along with dental and vision insurance)
- Paid time off (PTO)
- Life insurance
- Disability insurance
But the pandemic shifted peoples’ priorities and exposed needs that were neglected previously by employers, such as the importance of mental health and support for working parents of young children.
As a result, other benefits that would’ve been less common a few years ago have skyrocketed in popularity with employees. Companies looking to step up their game in attracting and retaining top talent may want to consider these options, such as:
- Investments in mental health and physical wellness through a workplace wellness program
- Childcare assistance
- Financial wellness programs
- More PTO (with some companies even considering unlimited PTO)
- Continued ability to work remotely, at least some of the time
There is a growing sense that employers should enable employees to bring their whole selves to work, free of distractions, and make them feel seen, supported and valued.
5. Improved training and development
One of the reasons that employees cite for leaving their companies in the midst of the Great Resignation is that they don’t feel invested in or developed. They feel stagnant and stuck in a rut, as though they’ve learned all they’re going to learn at their current company. Because most people crave growth, upward mobility and opportunities to improve, they’ll go elsewhere to obtain it.
In financially tough times, training and development are commonly among the first line items in a budget to get cut or scaled back.
However, companies should consider not moving training and development to the expendable list. Why?
Training and development are critical in:
- Preventing turnover
- Maintaining high employee morale and engagement
- Remaining competitive in the marketplace by expanding employees’ knowledge and skills
- Reskilling staff to manage worker shortages
In delivering effective training and development that’s suited for today’s workplace, companies must consider:
- The skills that were exposed as lacking among some workers during the pandemic, and how those can be improved (for example: technology proficiency, time management, problem-solving abilities, good communication, empathy and EQ)
- The delivery methods and duration of training for remote, dispersed workforces
- The preferences of Millennials and Gen Z workers, who are growing in numbers and prefer focused, concise and short learning opportunities (“micro-training” bursts)
6. Transparent leadership
Everything boils down to good, regular communication. This certainly transcends current circumstances and is always true, but it’s especially important following tumultuous periods.
In the absence of communication from leadership, employees will fill in the blanks on their own and their input will usually be negative.
Leaders tend to think of transparency as all or nothing and worry about having to share with employees every little thing they’re dealing with. However, it’s much more simple. Transparency is really about informing employees of the matters that are important to their jobs and the organization as a whole in a timely manner.
Employees want their leadership team to communicate openly and honestly about:
- What’s going on with the business now and in the near future
- Changing policies, procedures or expectations – and the “why” behind these decisions
- Company goals and purpose
- How their role supports the overall company
This helps to provide a sense of stability and consistency, and helps people to feel prepared for what’s coming. Furthermore, everyone wants to know whether and how they’re making a difference to remain engaged.
When employees work remotely or on a hybrid arrangement, it can be easy for them to fall victim to workplace isolation and feel disconnected from the workplace culture and their team, or feel like they don’t know what’s going on at the office. That’s why it’s imperative for managers to maintain regular communication and a constructive dialogue. When teams are further apart, more effort and intention is required from managers to connect and inform.
7. Diversity and inclusion
For a long time, a compelling business case has been constructed showing that a diverse workforce, as well as a diverse leadership team, can improve any company’s culture and bottom line. Companies with diverse and inclusive workforces boast higher employee satisfaction and engagement, and are more collaborative and innovative.
For established business reasons and due to major cultural shifts, companies are looking closely at how to support greater diversity and inclusion within their workplaces. As a start, companies should:
8. Importance of human resources
Human resources (HR) has a hand in managing all of the issues outlined here. If anything, the last few years have underscored the fact that people make up companies – and understanding how to get the people part of the equation right is fundamental to the success of any organization. This truth has elevated HR in the minds of business leaders. Going forward, HR will remain a critical organizational function.
For companies that lack a dedicated, in-house HR team, working with a PEO can be a great option in preparing a company for the future of work, whatever that may bring.
Summing it all up
The future of work is here, and there are eight issues that are shaping the discussion surrounding it. Employers need to address these issues to be competitive with employees and job candidates, as well as not be blindsided by unfolding developments.
To learn more about adapting your workplace to current expectations – and even anticipating what lies ahead – to maintain employee satisfaction, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee engagement.