COVID-19 Pandemic: Silver Lining in the Future of Work

How the COVID-19 is aiding the distributed work revolution, how employers can use data from this global “work-from-home experiment” to their advantage, and which industries may benefit from this long-term.

The impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on where and how people work is like an iceberg; I’m sure we are only seeing the small part of it, now. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers resisted allowing employers to work from home, even when the technology existed, for numerous reasons, including concerns about productivity, security, etc. Additionally, before COVID-19, many employers provided very limited paid sick leave, or combined sick leave with vacation as paid time off “PTO”, so that if you were sick or needed to use that PTO , you would use up all your vacation time on doctor appointments or sick days, leaving no time off free to really rest and rejuvenate your time on an actual vacation.

While devastating in many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has had at least two positive effects that may lead to long-term benefits I am excited about.

First, it has led many countries to pass laws with expanded paid sick time rules. The US has passed federal laws requiring additional paid sick leave, that applies to both full-time and part-time employees. This is a big change from previous laws in the US. Before this COVID-19 specific rule, many companies excluded part-time employees from earning sick time and new employees often had to wait until they had gotten past a new-hire probation period before they could start earning paid PTO or sick time. 

Second, it has forced many companies to choose between either temporarily closing down, or allowing employees to work from home. In the US, many businesses have been forced to close their offices and can even be fined or lose their business license if they stay open. This has led to a significant increase in the number of employees working from home. I recently was on a call with an Apple Care customer service worker, and heard the faintest sounds of a child in the background. The employee apologized, but I was gladdened to hear the “proof” of these long-held societal separations between one’s “work” and “personal” personas being slowly eroded by the accommodations employers are making to adapt business practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the face of it, both these benefits might seem temporary in nature; afterall, won’t employers “revert” to their old ways, when the pandemic is over?. Maybe so, but this still is, as Fast Company referred to it, a “massive work-from-home experiment.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, no large data set for comparison of “work from home” vs “work in office” data existed. Owl Labs (I don’t work there, but wish I did) does an annual “State of Remote Work” survey, and in 2019, this included only 1202 workers. Now, there are millions of new people working from home. As a researcher and data scientist living near Las Vegas, I can’t resist using a buffet analogy: there is a smorgasbord of new opportunities for researchers to collect, analyze, and report on how both of these measures, however temporary, impacted employee thriving, and prove or disprove previously held beliefs relating to working from home.

Say, for example, a customer service call center used to require employees to work from the office. Perhaps they feared that employees would be less productive working from home, or that customers might rate the service as worse. There’s always concerns about inadvertent background noise from a child or pet, at minimum. Now they will have data on staff performance working from home to compare against prior performance working in-office. I think many will find that the benefits outweigh the cons.  While many worry about the effect on the economy the longer the shut-in’s last, from a research perspective, I’m happy to have people work from home longer, so data scientists can better control for factors that might otherwise negatively impact productivity in a worker’s first couple weeks working from home, such as adjusting to new ways of doing business.

Overall, I concur with many others in believing that the pandemic will have a long-term impact on employees being allowed to work from home. I’m also really looking forward to number crunching, and seeing numbers, as analysts are able to evaluate performance indicators compared to relative costs. I agree with the Guardian that COVID-19 pandemic may cause a permanent shift towards home working, and that this will be a significant point for the distributed work revolution gaining momentum. Beyond workers’ own desire to stay at home, I also foresee that working from home may make significant fiscal sense for responsible executive planning, as this “work from home experiment” may provide compelling evidence that many businesses could cut costs by reducing office footprints and related lease costs to a smaller “corporate presence.”  

These shifts provide a number of opportunities for transformative technology companies to support the distributed work revolution. I expect companies such as We Work Remotely, who specializes helping people find jobs and place jobs for remote working, and WorkBright, who helps companies with digital onboarding, will come out thriving. I also think companies like Regus and WeWork, while suffering short term, may end up making a long-term come-back, as more employers exit long-term leases for some staff and transition to a smaller corporate footprint through their more flexible office+shared conference room capabilities. I also would not be surprised to see larger companies who similarly decide to support more employees working from home but may be locked into larger facilities for longer leases start offering more startup incubator programs and/or subleasing to smaller companies. This should help these larger companies offset their own expensive lease costs, while also boosting revenue for co-work, short-term office space sites like Instant Offices.

At the same time, I feel there is room for improvement and strategic market positioning opportunities for those with long-term vision in how these companies provide their services, to improve the long term ROI of these types of services – I plan to write on this topic for the Transformative Technology academy as their resident thought leader on the Thrive @ Work topic.

I also started a small site, to collect like-minded people who are interested in sharing with or working on HR-related issues for the future of work – feel free to check it out if you’re interested.

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Picture credit: Photo by Min An from Pexels, Text and Graphical Overlay, me.

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