Even after the COVID-19 cloud lifts, experts in labor, workplace culture and human behavior see the impact of the pandemic as nothing short of devastating for low-wage workers and transformative for white-collar employees.
“I’m not sure we have fully come to terms with how this pandemic is going to fundamentally alter the way people work,” says Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Labor Center.
The pervasive virus has only exacerbated the issue of income inequality. Many essential workers in jobs at or near minimum wage faced the brutal choice of losing income or continuing to work at the risk of contracting COVID. At the same time, many of those working in media and entertainment were able to quickly transition to remote options because of the nature of tasks that can be completed on laptops, cellphones and videoconference calls.
“We have seen huge consequences within groups of essential workers who literally risk their lives going to work every day,” Wong says. “This is a huge tragedy that we have all witnessed in the past year” that has only widened the divide between the haves and have-nots in urban areas like Los Angeles, he says.
The rise of Zoom and other cutting-edge connectivity tools is making employers rethink traditional workspaces.
“The smart organizations will get much more deliberate in making decisions about what jobs people need to be together to do and what can be done remotely,” says Jennifer Chatman, management professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The pandemic, she says, “has been a wake-up call giving more options to how we work, how we allocate our time and how much travel we do. I see that as having a big positive impact on our physical health and the health of the planet.”
Chatman suggests that at forward-thinking firms, flexible scheduling, job sharing and other worker-friendly options will become much more the norm. Wong predicts that the physical layout of traditional offices will change in ways that feel overdue.
“Even the structure of offices is going to be reconsidered. Is it the best use of people’s time in places like Southern California to spend hours and hours commuting?” Wong says. Now there are plenty of tools to help employers monitor productivity and attendance. If large enterprises that transition to work- from-home mode continue to see financial growth or make strides in other areas, employers will embrace new methods of work to remain competitive.
“Employers will ask themselves, ‘Is this effective?’” Wong says.
He predicts a period of shaking out when the public health risk lifts and workers begin returning to traditional routines. “There’s still a lot that is fluid and won’t be sorted out until people ultimately return.”
Even with sophisticated videoconferencing systems, there’s no question that the loss of face-to-face and in-person group interactions has taken its toll. Chatman is particularly interested in future studies of employees who moved to new jobs during the pandemic where working remotely was mandated. It’s much harder to understand an organization’s basic culture, hierarchy and protocols if you’ve never met your co-workers in person.
For work tasks that are intensely collaborative — like running a TV writers’ room, producing a movie or crafting a marketing campaign — the restrictions on gathering together are likely to rewire how ideas are developed, shared, accepted and rejected. Chatman says the key to managing large groups is to pick up on nonverbal cues about what a person is really thinking and feeling.
“No matter what you do, the virtual environment deprives us of a cue-rich environment, and that’s a problem,” Chatman says. “The intonation, the rapidness of a person’s response, how they sit or stand — all of that stuff ends up being super-important to the task and to telling everyone else what the norms and expectations are for the group. It’s particularly important when you’re trying to develop creative ideas and you need that spontaneity. Technology can’t do as good of a job at that as being [there] in person.”
Chatman predicts that in the future, office work will be much less focused on process and much more on results. If people can generate the same or better results by working from home or in remote settings, employers will focus on that and not the hours logged.
“I think people will gain autonomy, and that could lead to greater focus on outcomes,” she says. “In that case, organizations that have a strong culture of responsibility and accountability are going to get much better at deciding what tasks are essential to accomplish in a face-to-face setting and those that are less so. The gift of this pandemic is that it’s pushed us to identify exactly those things in ways that can be hugely beneficial to workers.”