• Remote work, once a perk, is now a necessity powering the economy.
  • Leaders must adapt to rapid change to ensure that their workforces and populations have the necessary skills and technologies to thrive.
  • Remote working must address both meaningful employee engagement and our biggest challenges.

The ‘future of work’ is here, though it came much sooner and under significantly different circumstances than expected. Adapting to its rapid changes - including the shift to remote work - requires employers and government leaders to invest in people in new ways. We will need leaders of all kinds to empower remote work, ensure workers’ health and safety, close the widening digital divide, and invest in the technology enabling this new age of connectivity.

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.

Investing in the work powering the economy
How many times have we heard organizations say working from home wasn’t an option, yet, in an instant, suddenly it was?

Experts at Global Workplace Analytics estimate that, by the end of 2021, up to 30% of the U.S. workforce will be working from home multiple days a week—a seismic shift considering that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, just 3.6% of the workforce was working remotely half-time or more. Empowering your workforce to operate from home is no longer a strategic advantage, it’s a necessity.

For many workers this means quickly adopting technology that allows them to meet with customers and co-workers and to do so securely. Collaboration tools like Webex replicate face-to-face interactions, large meetings and company-wide gatherings. Last month, Cisco hosted more than 25 billion meeting minutes, triple what we hosted two months prior in February.

At the same time, CIOs have stepped up their efforts to safely and securely connect their workforce and all of the technology behind their companies’ processes at an unprecedented rate. As a result, networks have become lifelines and IT staff have helped keep our economy going.

Investing in changing needs

The new normal of work requires managers to adapt, too. Leaders need to provide a new flexibility to employees doing their best to handle a wave of challenges. Given the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, employers have to consider how to provide mental health resources and help employees cope with the anxiety that comes from economic uncertainty, health concerns, and overturned work-life balance.

That same care will be required as we consider when and how to return to the office. Across the globe, we must all make data-driven decisions, based on science, and continue to provide flexibility so our employees can do their best work feeling safe and supported.

Investing in listening and meaningful engagement

In this unprecedented time, the US and elsewhere are now discussing more openly the problems brought by systemic racism. This moment marks, arguably, the most significant social crisis in a generation exposing the inequalities in our social, economic and judicial systems. Workplaces are rightfully engaging in honest and frank conversations and reexamining both shortcomings and responsibilities.

These conversations, too, are being handled remotely. In response, workplaces need to seek real connection and ensure each voice is heard. Remote working isn’t an excuse to avoid meaningful employee engagement, it’s an invitation strengthen your workplace community when it’s needed most.

Investing in equality and resiliency
To be fully prepared for the challenges ahead, universal broadband internet access is more critical than ever. As my colleague and champion for fairness and corporate responsibility Tae Yoo highlighted, we must avoid widening the digital divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Yet, we are at risk of doing just that as an estimated 3.7 billion people remain unconnected. This rift has been brought to light with painful clarity especially between developed and developing countries and between urban and rural areas.

According to a new report by Cisco, “The Role of Technology in Powering an Inclusive Future,” bringing the Internet to those currently offline would add $6.7 trillion to the global economy and lift another 500 million people out of poverty. This is particularly important in developing nations as only 35% of their populations have internet access versus about 80% in advanced economies.

Internet access isn’t the only barrier to digital inclusion, so are digital skills. More than one in five (23%) of adults in the world are not digitally literate (with women four times less likely than men to be digitally literate).

As the knowledge economy grows, governments play a pivotal role in providing digital skills education. Increased access to training in coding, networking and will result in expanded opportunities, improved work conditions and continuous innovation.

Investing in technologies that help the world adapt
As governments around the world are working to stabilize and stimulate their economies, we need their leadership to strengthen the digital infrastructure that’s allowed countless businesses to stay open.

We are all increasingly reliant on secure, reliable, high-speed fiber. This only goes to prove how important it will be to speed up the allocation of 5G spectrum and 6GHz unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi. We will need governments to invest in this critical infrastructure while also providing support to businesses, schools, hospitals and other organizations working to enhance their own digital backbones. Not only are these networks important to their workers, it saves these organizations from making the difficult choice of investing in their digital infrastructure over hiring or rehiring staff.

Likewise, we will need governments to lead the way ensuring networks maintain high levels of security. As more organizations adopt enhanced networks and new technology, IT staffs are under pressure to get solutions quickly and make sure they are easy to adopt. Companies and their workers will rely on the guidelines and expertise only governments can provide to help them manage cyber security threats. As a society, we cannot sacrifice security for speed; we can and must have both.

Governments around the world, at the federal, state and municipal levels have made unprecedented strides using collaboration tools to inform their citizens, conduct government business and move their workforces into secure, remote working environments. We have been excited to see collaboration technology empowering presidents and prime ministers to hold virtual meetings, legislatures to meet and vote remotely, courts be able to hold digital hearings, and a rapid adoption of citizen services moving online. Their examples will help inspire other innovations to come.

Keeping people at the heart of every decision
We have to consider how the workforce will forever be altered in this new digital future. The world will not return to the way it was. As a result, companies and governments need to start helping not only workers, but everyone in society, be a part of a more inclusive future.

At Cisco, we’ve been thinking about how to empower our people for the future of work in many ways. It has required us to invest in training and new skills development. It has allowed us to have more meaningful conversations than ever before. It has required us to facilitate an environment where we prioritize an open dialogue in a warm, virtual environment. And it has meant establishing practices and patterns that break down silos to create a more agile workforce, one that’s trained and able to function across teams and adapt to the changing needs of business.

We have all been thrust into the digital future. As we learn and adapt as a global community, it’s imperative that we prioritize the people that make up our workforces, our constituencies, and our society. Investing in them is investing in a more prosperous future for us all.