Few events have changed the workforce as significantly as the COVID-19 crisis. Sure, the PC, the internet and other advanced technologies have had a tremendous impact on how people work, but the global pandemic may have caused even greater disruption.
When the pandemic struck, the majority of office workers had to abruptly adjust to working from home full time. Many had to learn to use new tech tools to access data and collaborate with colleagues. Employers, for their part, had to outfit employees — virtually overnight in many cases — with a variety of tech tools. Many also had to provide training for their employees to prepare them to handle new or changing roles.
Companies with essential manufacturing, distribution or retail facilities faced the additional challenge of managing a divided workforce, with office employees working at home and others on site. Unfortunately, a number of employers had to make one of the hardest workforce decisions — to furlough or lay off employees.
What helped save many businesses at this point in time? In my experience, part of the answer lies in an organization’s prescient investments in digital technologies, upskilled employees and agile processes in recent years. In fact, had this pandemic happened five years ago, I believe thousands more companies might have folded.
Changing business models lead to changing job roles
Within the consumer markets sector, workers fared very differently during the pandemic depending on where they worked and the company they worked for. Those who worked for consumer products companies that provided essential products like cleaning supplies were often overwhelmed with work and had to put in long hours. Those who worked in travel, transportation and hospitality faced the opposite challenge, as many of those companies had to restructure and downsize — and sometimes accept government assistance — just to survive.
During the pandemic, a number of companies leveraged the platform economy to quickly transform their business model. This shift in business models led to a shift in the types of work available. Restaurants, for example, supplemented — or, in some states, were required to replace — indoor dining by working with a variety of delivery services. That brought contactless delivery to people’s homes and kept many restaurants from going under. A similar dynamic took place in the retail industry, which enabled customers to buy products online and have them delivered to their cars or homes.
2020 became a pivotal year for both job loss and creation. In many instances, those who lost their jobs had to switch to different industries — and to jobs that were often created or increased in response to the pandemic. For example, some wait staff and cashiers who lost their jobs got new ones as delivery or warehouse workers, where the demand grew significantly last year.
As people became more reluctant to go into stores, the need for at-home deliveries of groceries and other consumer products skyrocketed, making new jobs available — many of which did not exist, or were uncommon, before COVID-19. Sometimes, these changes resulted in companies optimizing and staffing up huge distribution centers that employed thousands of people. When large companies began delivering products to people’s homes, that often displaced small neighborhood shops.
Planning the future workforce
In addition to the obvious questions — where will work take place, how can employers bring their people to the office safely and what’s the best way to determine how many people will work remotely versus on-site — there are some nuanced ones. What are effective ways to manage — and compensate — a hybrid workforce? What tax and legal issues does working remotely create?
Employers face another difficult question: What happens if office workers don’t want to go back to their corporate building even though manufacturing, distribution and retail workers have been working safely on-site since the start of the pandemic? Is it fair to allow a divided workforce to continue — some working on-site and some from home?
Many business leaders think it’s important for some employees to return to the office because they feel it’s essential to maintain a collaborative, creative culture. That leads to more questions. How many days do employees need to be in the office to maintain the corporate culture? Does that depend on their role, their distance from the office or their personal circumstances (children at home because of remote schooling, health issues, lack of safe transportation)?
I urge company leaders to try to answer these questions with a people-first mindset: upskilling employees so they can tackle new roles; enhancing workers’ physical and mental well-being (companies should think about safety as a strategy now); strengthening employee trust in the company, which may be shaky during the pandemic; effectively managing D&I; and driving and measuring the productivity and morale of employees who are working from home. Consumer businesses in particular will want to anticipate changes in consumer behavior and build that into their workforce strategy.
Finally, companies should evaluate potential real estate changes and determine whether they require less space, more space in different locations or reconfigured space to accommodate their changing workforce needs.
Companies should consider these workforce-related issues now. They should speak with relevant stakeholders and work together to develop answers that can make the most sense for their business, their employees and their customers. That’s how to develop a workforce for the future that can actually work effectively in the future.
Want more insights on the big issues facing business and society in the year ahead? Our global series reveals how six disruptive forces are shaping our world in the year ahead and also serve as a framework to identify opportunities in the next normal.