Workforce and Skills

A remarkable thing could happen as we return to work

Why 2021 will be a pivotal moment for leaders as they connect in new ways with their employees and society.

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When COVID-19 forced much of the world quickly to shut down offices, factories, schools, shops and restaurants, and pushed hundreds of millions of people into remote, makeshift workspaces, no one knew how it would all turn out. 

Now we know a lot more—and a lot is quite positive. For millions of people, working from home is feasible, welcomed and productive, even if many companies had to scramble to go digital. Sorting out the fine points will occupy companies throughout 2021, as they analyse the workforce data they’ve been collecting and put what they’ve learned into action. But there were negatives, too: the knock-on economic effects of COVID-19 were particularly rough for women, minorities and low-skilled workers, not to mention emerging economies such as in Africa, where 70% of employment is in the informal sector, and lockdowns are expected to push more than 150 million people into poverty.

The knock-on economic effects of COVID-19 have been particularly rough for women, minorities and low-skilled workers.

Share of US adults who reported the following issues since COVID-19 began in February 2020

Trouble paying bills Problems paying rent or mortgage
By gender
By ethnicity
By education level
High school or less
Some college
Bachelor's degree or above

This crisis has underscored the important role business plays in keeping the fabric of society in repair. And the challenge for CEOs has never been clearer: although societal needs differ according to geography, sector, skill set, risk appetite and ability to work remotely, the world of work needs to work better for everybody. That creates two interrelated imperatives for leaders in 2021, even as they continue prioritising health, workplace safety and preparations for the vaccine. First, reinvent the workplace to address the new realities created (or exacerbated) by the global pandemic. And second, use this moment of reinvention as an opportunity to create fairer, more inclusive, more equitable places to work. 

Reinventing work

Most obviously, we’re in the early stages of rethinking ways of working and working spaces. PwC recently hosted a webinar with 800 international companies, and the overriding priority for most was increasing support for hybrid working configurations, with clear roles for remote and in-person approaches. These types of flexible work models may become a permanent fixture for a range of roles (including sales, finance and technology) across sectors, which would necessitate significant reconfiguration, and companies are in widely different stages of preparing for this possibility. More challenging still is the task facing companies in industries such as hospitality, transportation and retail, where irrevocable business model changes are likely to require bigger shifts in deeply ingrained customer behaviors and employee ways of working. 

It also seems inevitable that geography will matter less tomorrow. Remote working on a massive scale has shown potential for cost savings in transportation and, to a lesser extent, in real estate. It has even helped the environment, though not as much as some had hoped. It also has vastly expanded access to a talent pool that is location-independent. We’re likely to see more initiatives like Hawaii’s pledge to pay the airfares of people who relocate to the islands for work. This was already happening on a smaller scale before the pandemic as non-hub cities sought to lure digital nomads. Countries may now get in on the act.

Creating better work 

The impact of COVID-19 should signal a broadening of horizons rather than a narrowing. We’ve seen how easy it is for whole swaths of society to slip from stability into crisis, in both developing and developed economies. We may see this situation worsen until the vaccine becomes widely available. Those hardest hit need to be the focus of the recovery—which could be a spark to address deep-seated issues around the nature of work. 

The jobs market has had a problem of supply and demand for years: too many people are finding they do not have the skills to take up the jobs available today, much less those that will be at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. COVID-19 has only exacerbated matters, contributing to the continued hollowing out of low- and middle-income work in many developed economies.

The solutions—creating more good jobs that better align human skills to the value chain and drive workplace productivity, and upskilling workers so that they are prepared to fill those jobs—are crystal clear but challenging to pull off. To be sure, the public and investors are beginning to place value on ‘good’ businesses, and purpose-driven business models are gaining steam. Still, making the economics work isn’t trivial, and businesses need to stay in business to create good jobs. 

We’d also suggest that if our goal is to drive out bad jobs that are exploitative, precarious or demotivating, it’s time for business leaders to hold themselves accountable for meeting and reporting results against a common set of standards that transcend traditional value creation to encompass people, job quality and engagement. This, in fact, was a critical element of a September 2020 World Economic Forum paper to which PwC was a core contributor. And standard setters are making tremendous progress around specific non-financial disclosures.

A pivotal moment

COVID-19 has prompted commitments from some CEOs to focus on the workforce, be it adopting hybrid models, placing more attention on well-being and good work, or both. Satya Nadella at Microsoft, for example, is looking at reducing the time employees spend in the office to less than 50% and talks openly about empathy and wellness as hallmarks of the corporate culture. Citibank’s Jane Fraser, who will take over in February as the first female CEO of a large US bank, is openly talking about the challenges women face, including their role as working parents.

As we hope for brighter days ahead, and as our organisations stretch for more sustainable operating models, this is a pivotal moment for leaders. CEOs and their top teams must move from crisis response to ensuring that their organisations reset in a way that leverages the knowledge gained from the experiences of the past year. They also must start anticipating changes to come as the world continues the shift, already begun before the pandemic, toward a more empathetic version of stakeholder capitalism. 

The 2019 Business Roundtable was a formal articulation of this aspiration, but the rubber hits the road in myriad smaller acts by which leaders show how much they value people and societal progress. That’s why we believe the most successful leaders will make 2021 a year of renewed, purposeful, everyday commitment to investing in people, and to making an inclusive workplace fact, not rhetoric.

Read more articles by Bhushan Sethi and Deniz Caglar on strategy+business.

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Bhushan Sethi

Bhushan Sethi

Joint Global Leader, People & Organisation, Principal, PwC United States

Tel: +1 (917) 863 9369

Deniz Caglar

Deniz Caglar

Organization and Workforce Strategy, PwC Strategy&, Principal, PwC United States

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Matthew Wetmore

Matthew Wetmore

Global Industries & Sectors Leader and National Managing Partner, Clients & Markets, PwC Canada

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