Into the Future: How a Pandemic Might Reshape the World of Work

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 1, 2020

​In a post-coronavirus world, what might work look like? Will remote work become the norm, and, with that, will there come increased demands on Internet connectivity, cybersecurity and video conferencing? Will companies realize that some jobs are more expendable than they realized and others more critical than they anticipated? Will some businesses flourish while others flounder?

"In this sudden new reality, we are witnessing a dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order," said Euclides Marin, director of business development at Nakisa, a software solutions company based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. "We have been disrupted and forced to start discussing what the next normal could entail—and how different it will be from our current lives." 

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

For Industries: a Blow or a Boon

The virus has hit certain industries—retail, hotels, restaurants, airlines, trains, cruise ships, theme parks—hard. Millions of Americans already have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis, and the Federal Reserve projects total employment reductions of 47 million, which would translate to a 32.1 percent unemployment rate.

"Companies all across America and the world … are affected in some way, shape or form" by the virus, said Tim Ryan, U.S. chair and senior partner of PwC, a multinational professional services network of firms operating as partnerships. "It's rare, or, I would even say, super rare, that you would have something like this that affects virtually everyone or every organization."

Jeremy Tancredi, a director specializing in productivity improvement and supply chain management for West Monroe's Operations Excellence solutions line, anticipates that these hard-hit industries will flounder only temporarily. Pent-up demand for these services, he predicted, should come roaring back when the virus abates.

"Based on the amount of memes I have seen regarding people losing their mind at home, I think the demand for service industries will pick back up pretty sharply," he said. "People are craving social interaction. The demand for restaurants, bars and travel accommodations will bounce back, but the challenging aspect of planning for this recovery will be how the government gets involved in areas where these types of businesses have been forced closed. Will it simply open the flood gates and re-open everything all at once, or will there be a different approach?" Some governors have already taken steps to reopen their states, and the patchwork approaches speak to how complicated those reopenings can be.

The virus, on the other hand, has been a boon for other industries.

"Some companies are doing relatively—and I stress the word relatively—well," Ryan said. "Health care, consumer packaged goods, pharmaceutical, medical device companies—all have urgent demands that need to be met. They are seeing demand increase or surges in ways that they have not seen in the past."

That doesn't mean supply has kept pace with demand: Health care workers, for instance, don't have nearly enough face masks or surgical gloves.

Online shopping and at-home delivery—for everything from groceries to prescription drugs—have skyrocketed. As millions of people turn to online deliveries, for instance, Amazon has hired 100,000 new associates in the space of four weeks and is looking to hire another 75,000.

"Consumers are being forced to try services that they have been slow to adopt in the past," Tancredi said. "Some consumers had been hesitant to try home delivery because they didn't like the idea of not being able to select the items themselves and were worried about the quality of items such as meat and produce. Now that they have had time to give these types of services a chance, I believe you will see many customers who stick with these services."

The World Online

High demand for services like Internet connectivity may be good for business, but that demand is also unearthing limitations. With people going online more during the pandemic—those working from home, students taking classes online, house-bound people videoconferencing with friends and colleagues—Internet traffic has exploded. And that has, in some cases, slowed download speeds and reduced video quality. This may force companies providing such services to invest in expanded bandwidth.  

In addition, cybersecurity becomes a concern when people use their work computers from home. Hence, companies may need to beef up their security protocols.

And when it comes to online and virtual collaboration, it's the "team" that matters, not the individual, said Ab Banerjee, CEO and founder of ViewsHub, which offers a team-to-team ratings and feedback tool. 

"Individual performance should be examined in the context of the wider team," Banerjee said. "Staff should be encouraged to be empathetic and strong team players. Ultimately, you can't do anything in isolation if you can't be great at working with your own team and with other teams. The retention of individuals who show a greater capacity to work effectively within a team should be prioritized over those who put their own individual performance first."

Reconsidering Supply Chains

High demand for certain products that are now scarce will likely force companies to reconsider their supply chains, Ryan said. Some businesses, he said, "were heavily reliant on other parts of the world, and many companies had already started evaluating supply chains, given trade wars and now the virus."

"Those plans are continuing to pick up, and hard-goods manufacturing and retail are two of the areas where we're seeing more supply-chain planning analysis and likely changes … that we weren't even contemplating a year ago. To simply take a supply chain and re-diversify it from China, it is naive to think that that can happen quickly. I see the focus right now on diversification and a realization that having too many eggs in one basket is a risk."

Will Remote Work Become the Norm?

Company executives who were skeptical about employees working from home may be discovering that remote work can actually be productive, said James Thomson, partner at Buy Box Experts, a marketing agency for medium to large online sellers.

"When we closed our office a couple weeks ago, sending all office employees home, we quickly saw an increase in efficiency among those employees: fewer low-need meetings, better organization and prioritization by our employees, and more clever approaches to satisfying the needs of our clients who are also dealing with the transition of working from home."

Supervisors, he said, are getting a crash course on how to manage workers who are at home.

"We are finding that people managers have to be more organized with their employees, checking in regularly on progress and any bottlenecks that need to be addressed.  Some of our people managers have been surprised to discover that awkward employee discussions can be successfully had by phone or video call, and, in fact, the one-on-one focusing of a video call helps to make communication more significant and meaningful than a fleeting discussion in an office hallway." 

Should remote work become more prevalent even after the virus has subsided, company leaders will need to become well-versed in measuring productivity, said Matt Martin, co-founder and CEO of Clockwise, which offers online scheduling assistance programs.

"It's just easier to fall back to only measuring 'input' when you can see everyone," he said. "They're at their desks working, or they're not. To the extent that companies make real changes to better measure and manage output, employees who haven't been producing may be more at risk." 

Finally, the widespread work-from-home phenomenon brought on by the virus has company leaders considering other things—like saving money and offering more benefits.

For instance, the fact that working parents are now cloistered at home with children all day long could "highlight the need for broadly available, affordable child care services to help working parents manage the balance of remaining effective at work, while knowing that their children are being cared for," Thomson said.

About 40 chief executives who are members of Fortune's CEO Initiative gathered virtually at the end of March to discuss how to respond to the virus. Supporting parents working from home was one of the key things they discussed, wrote Alan Murray, president and CEO at Fortune magazine, in the CEO Update newsletter.

"Work from home rules have given everyone a better sense of the challenges working mothers face and will spark progress in addressing those challenges in the future," he wrote.

Amity Millhiser, PwC's U.S. vice chair and chief clients officer, noted that employers may be realizing that allowing people to work remotely saves them money in the long run—on commercial rents, utilities, maintenance and cleaning crews.

"Is there a way that they can reduce their spending on facilities … with people not coming into the office?" she asked.  

Ryan said, "Almost every company we work with and we're talking to is focused on managing cost, liquidity and trying to reassess what demand is going forward. Every model or all past indications really don't work in this environment, and figuring out where customer or consumer demand is, is going to be a challenge going forward."



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