What will the future of work look like in the wake of the pandemic? That’s the question on a lot of people’s minds. Cheryl Cran, founder of NextMapping, is a future-of-work expert who spent years getting organizations future-ready. We discussed the sudden move to remote work and the likely future of work here in the United States in a recent conversation.
When asked if we were ready to all be thrown into remote work all at once, Cran gave a short answer: No. She then elaborated by saying, “Maybe 20% of industries were ready, and those industries that were ready for remote work were already primarily gig economy workers, so freelancers, companies like Upwork, freelancer.com, new start-ups,” and other organizations like that. That leaves the other 80% getting caught flat-footed.
Part of why so many organizations were so unprepared for the mass move to remote work was due to a sometimes unfounded resistance. Many have always believed that business is best done in person. When asked how we are doing adapting to the changes, Cran said that “people are vacillating between accepting the realty and adapting and making the most of it and struggling emotionally.”
Many organizations out there are under new directives: Get remote right or go out of business. It’s easy to imagine how challenging that must have been for the holdouts. I asked Cran about those who were holding out on remote work before the pandemic. She said, “As a keynote speaker, I talk to a lot of corporate audiences. And a lot of times, frankly, I would say these kinds of things, and they would all roll their eyes at me.”
At these conferences, Cran would also share the statistic that 50% of the workforce will be remote by 2020, “which is a valid, researched statistic,” she added. The response to that was essentially that organizations can’t work remotely.
Yet here we are. Many of the organizations that survived the blow that the coronavirus dealt them have had to adapt. Cran says, “It has been forced now. This is one of those disruptions that we talk about in future of work that force positive change, and we are in the midst of that disruption right now.”
But What About Productivity?
A major concern for remote work holdouts was productivity. I can’t speak for everyone, but I had a former manager whose favorite phrase about remote work was “Is it working from home or shirking from home?” He may have been joking, but that’s the sentiment: People who work from home could goof off a whole lot more and no one would know.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard lots of my friends and coworkers insist that they are more productive when they are home. I think it’s a hard thing to measure. Cran got some feedback when she conducted a survey. “People are operating at about 60% of their normal speed, just because of the reality of not having that ideal work setup where they can be the most productive.” According to her, that 60% was self-reported.
The key issue in her finding involves the why: a lack of a proper or an ideal work setup. I’ve been working with two screens for years now and am now downgraded to one. I’ve also had to purchase a very expensive Wi-Fi extender. My wife has had to work off a laptop because she simply can’t connect additional monitors to it without some mystical connector.
Ask 100 employees, and you’ll get 100 examples of why their at-home situation isn’t ideal. These problems, however, can be fixed. As time passes, people will get used to their setups and find new ways to reach pre-coronavirus personal productivity levels.
The Next Normal
Cran doesn’t enjoy the term “the new normal,” preferring, instead, “the next normal because that’s what it is, right? The next is going to continue to change.” She foresees the move toward remote continuing after the pandemic has passed but that it will have other foci, which include a fresh look at real estate.
“If we have 50% of our workforce working remotely, what does that look like for the future of our infrastructure or our real estate?” asks Cran. One can imagine some companies downsizing their physical presence by increasing the percentage of their workforce that remains at home. Some might shed their real estate and properties altogether.
Another change Cran sees is new ways for employers to support remote workers. “A lot of people are using their own money to work remotely right now, their own Wi-Fi, their own setup, things like that,” she says. She also says that is likely to change. As companies begin trying to answer the question “OK, how do we set our workers up to be successful remotely?” that will mean investments in the in-home infrastructure for work.
She also predicts that for those industries where remote work is not possible, “More automation and robots” will play a role there.
The changes that the coronavirus has made in the world are only beginning to be understood. How they will end up impacting the workplace can only be guessed for now, but you can bet it will be drastically different than it currently is.