• Financial and social considerations deemed impossible by companies are suddenly unquestionable needs.
  • As employees, we are also finally being seen as human beings too, and as a result employers are taking our mental health seriously.
  • With the blurring of our home and work spaces, we too feel a greater need to preserve our health.

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has stretched and pushed the modern workforce into uncomfortable territory. In addition to the mental and physical disruptions to our everyday life, we have been catapulted into a new paradigm of work from which we may never, nor want to, return.

Before COVID, employees were already seeking flexible work arrangements. Modern start-up culture had illustrated to many recruiters how the next generation of talent was seeking a new normal: unlimited personal time off (it even had an acronym – PTO), the abolishment of traditional nine-to-five work parameters, and professional accountability. The latter is all about the achievement of milestones outweighing the mere ability to show up and sit at a desk for eight hours, a standard dating back nearly two centuries to the Industrial Revolution.

As countries around the world begin to restart their economies, we may find the future of work to be embedded in that new normal.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Remote work, better late than never

Last month, a marketing manager at a leading Fortune 500 financial institution shared that its global workforce of over 250,000 employees had shifted to a work-from-home protocol within a matter of days. Ironically, I had had to depart from this same company five years earlier due to a family relocation. A top-performing associate for them at the time, I was told my position could not be done remotely.

Historically, remote working has been reserved for the privileged few. Citing reasons ranging from company policies to barriers for technology and internet access, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 29% of wage and salary workers could work from home in 2017-18. My neighbor, a recent college graduate working for a medium-size recruiting firm, had initially been denied the ability to work from home. Eventually, the pandemic forced the firm to shift all their operations to be remote. Like many entry and mid-level employees, she now wonders, “Is my company going to tell me I can’t work from home anymore when this is over?” Some studies show 54% of Americans want to continue working remotely after the pandemic.

Who can think about high-performing teams and innovative collaboration when employees’ basic psychological needs are in question?

—Kyla Carlsen

A growing number of employers are also finding that decreased overheads are favorable for shareholders in the midst of deep economic uncertainty. Companies that didn’t believe remote working was possible for their organizational culture have been forced to set up the infrastructure to see otherwise, sometimes pivoting operations within days. This has begged the question as to whether the benefits truly outweigh the costs of commercial real estate.

We’re only human after all, the virtual world reminds us

Perhaps one of the most prominent cultural shifts in the workplace has been a heightened awareness that we are all first and foremost human. The value of human life over profit has been thrust into headlines and political debates around the globe. Organizations have always been made up of people, but we are now forced to confront this dynamic.

Meetings now begin with an authentic, “No but really, how are you doing?” Supervisors are asking earnestly, “Do you have what you need to be able to do your job?” Organisations are scheduling more frequent team meetings ranging from virtual happy hours to self-care check-ins. Quicken Loans, the largest mortgage lender in the US, implemented company-wide mandatory mental health days. Other organizations are instituting half-day Fridays, responding to the increased stress and anxiety our workforce is collectively facing.

We’re experiencing a renewed focus on the employee as an individual. Greater attention is being paid to mental health and wellbeing as opposed to employee productivity and the financial bottom line. After all, who can think about high-performing teams and innovative collaboration when employees’ basic psychological needs are in question?

We seem to be embracing a deeper understanding of human needs thanks to the virtual space.
Image: Dr Karlyn Borsenko

The new normal offers a heightened understanding for dog barking, children popping into virtual meetings and the occasional unstable internet connection. We’re affording one another a level of empathy we didn’t before suddenly because “we’re all in this together.”

But weren’t we always” in this together”? A culture of humanity and compassion should never have been left behind.

When work and life becomes one: how to balance?

Working from home is not without its challenges, as most of us have come to experience. Commuting times have dropped to nothing and the office has popped up a few metres from our beds. Of course this means that, for better or worse, we can be physically sitting next to our families while chipping away at a project deadline.

For anyone working from home right now, setting firm work-life boundaries has become an emotional health prerequisite. It is so easy for work to consume every aspect of life in this historical moment because it has literally invaded our homes and personal space.

Recognizing that many of their employees may now be homeschooling during normal business hours, more organizations are also implementing flexible work hours, allowing employees to work 40 hours at some point within the week rather than during a fixed schedule. Finally, we have come to recognize how today’s jobs do enable fitting work around our lives, and that we prefer this to trying to force the opposite equation.

Leaders will have to catch up with the status quo

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many jobs were already being replaced by automation. Now, social distancing and safety guidelines threaten to increase overhead costs, further incentivizing new ways to lead and manage our workforce.

Nearly overnight, the concept of managing employees’ performance through time spent at a desk has become extinct. The future supervisory toolkit requires emotional intelligence. It is rooted in the ability to build trust with employees and structure a framework of accountability, empowering people with more responsibility to complete work in a way that fits their life.

The COVID pandemic has pushed CEOs around the globe to challenge how they do business from the very core. That which was considered impossible five months ago by many companies is now deemed financially and socially necessary.

As more economies have evolved, even over the past century, towards knowledge-based occupations, work culture is only now finally being forced to catch up with the trend. What may have previously required decades of incrementally shifting corporate culture has emerged within a matter of days.

The future of work has arrived. It is now.