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The abrupt and worldwide onset of COVID-19 has compressed workplace and workforce changes — some new and others already under way — from years into just weeks. The work-from-home trend, in particular, changed the nature of work overnight for many businesses, and not just to their existing staff, but to the way they will maintain operations and even grow throughout the pandemic.
ServiceNow, a builder of cloud computing platforms, says it expects to fill more than 1,000 new jobs in the U.S. by the end of 2020 and onboard around 360 college interns for a summer program — with policies that generously support work-from-home arrangements as a potentially better way to do business and attract top talent.
Fidelity Investments announced plans to accelerate the hiring of 2,000 U.S. workers, most of whom will serve as financial consultants and customer service representatives. This includes substantial work-from-home arrangements to ensure the safety of associates.
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Amazon, in addition to seeking 100,000 new warehouse and delivery workers, is extending its work-from-home plan. The company told its staff members whose jobs can be done from home they can do so until at least October 2. That pattern of work has exploded during the emergency. According to a University of Chicago study, 34 percent of the jobs held in America are now capable of being done from home. And experience so far has shown remarkably good results, leading many companies to see working from home becoming a permanent feature of their work environment.
At the same time, many companies have suspended business travel to cut costs and to test how much can be accomplished using video meetings and other sorts of remote connections. That, too, may become a lasting pattern.
One particularly promising form of remote connection involves augmented reality. Using widely available devices such as smartphones and tablets, an expert technician in one location can be connected with a customer needing detailed guidance for the repair, installation, or troubleshooting of a machine, even if they’re thousands of miles apart. Instead of sending the expert in person, a virtual meeting, with real-time images augmented by data and diagrams, allows that expert to respond immediately to the individuals on-site, guiding them through to a solution. That, too, is likely to become a lasting fixture of the post-pandemic workforce as are the remote training, learning and personnel development these technologies make practical.
Other patterns of work that could reshape the traditional workplace are also starting to emerge. A decline of middle management positions is one possibility. Automation, particularly of repetitive jobs, is likely to accelerate. And, augmented by artificial intelligence, other types of work could soon become automated as well, although AI is more likely to supplement human creativity than to replace it.
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Pressure from employees to expand the flexibility of their hours and work arrangements has been growing for some time, with more working couples striving to balance their professional lives with family responsibilities. But satisfying those requests has been a challenge to employers and supervisors, particularly when they are tethered to fixed office locations and their associated cycles of housekeeping, maintenance, security and traffic. Working from home, however, has made much of that difficulty go away. Technology has enabled frequent communication and collaboration with co-workers. And, to the great surprise of some, productivity hasn’t suffered. If anything, it has improved.
Beyond that, the whole nature of the traditional employment contract is coming under scrutiny. Although there will always be some jobs performed by regular, full-time employees, more agile patterns of work, built on cloud-based relationships rather than embedded in conventional employment arrangements, are becoming more viable alternatives in the nation’s work life. Freelance work, gigs, project partnerships, tours of duty and other non-traditional forms of engagement have already become important elements of the emerging workforce. The impact of the pandemic is making them even more attractive.
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But every organization has its own workplace culture, and that won’t change. As a result, the developments under way in the workplace today won’t turn out the same for everyone. To a great extent, the example set by leadership will determine whether change is welcomed or if it’s accepted grudgingly. But rejecting change entirely simply won’t be an option in the post-pandemic world. Survival and incremental success will be achieved by the ones that embrace it.