A ‘black swan’ event is as rare as the water bird after which it’s named. Investopedia states that, “A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences.” The COVID-19 pandemic certainly fits that description to the hilt. In fact, for anyone born after 1939 (that is, those with no living memory of World War II), there is no single event that had such a huge impact on the entire planet as did the coronavirus that emerged in 2020.
It was inevitable that the business world would be hugely impacted by an event as all-encompassing and global in scale as COVID-19. One thing certainly became very clear in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021: COVID-19 has changed the way we work. There are many ways in which these changes have already manifested themselves. This article will explore five ways as to how COVID-19 has changed the workplace as we know it.
5 Ways COVID-19 Has Changed The Way We Work
There are many ways in which the pandemic impacted the world of work and how workplaces are structured, with these being the five that we think have already had (and will continue having) the most impact:
1. Remote Work
It has almost become a cliché already, but there is no denying that COVID-19 made remote work more accepted and more widespread. There was already remote work being done before COVID-19 hit, of course, but remote work as a viable option got speeded up due to the pandemic. In fact, one could say it got turbo-charged! It is contended here that this shift to remote work is, at least for now, probably the most important and paradigm-changing impact that the pandemic had on work.
The reasons for this uptake in remote work are three-fold, one factor leading to the next. Firstly, government-mandated lock-downs meant that millions of employees and their management were forced to work from home for prolonged periods of time, many of them for the first time.
Secondly, many companies realized that remote work was not only possible, but that productivity was actually unaffected by remote work; in fact, numerous studies showed that productivity actually went up with remote work. The Times of London reported in July 2021 that productivity in the UK had gone up during the pandemic, despite lock-downs.
Thirdly, many employees realized that they actually preferred working remotely, finding it less stressful even, what with not having to contend with traffic, endless meetings and interruptions in the office, and so forth. In the UK, a September 2021 survey of 3,000 professionals found that nearly half of them wanted to work permanently from home.
2. Hybrid Workplaces
If remote work took centre stage during the pandemic, then hybrid work and hybrid workplaces will probably be the mainstay in the post-pandemic era. The mix of office-based work and remote work that defines the hybrid option is already well in place in many companies, thanks to the pandemic. This has really come to the fore in 2021 as the lock-downs eased and management and employees alike sought a ‘middle way’ between being entirely office-bound or home-based.
The array of options between home and office work results in an array of permutations that is the stuff of nightmares for some HR managers! Hybrid schedules can range from a fixed blend of office and remote work on an ongoing and fairly fixed basis, to flexible scheduling that can change from week to week or month to month depending on project needs or employee requests, to other variations thereof.
It should be further noted that many employees have continued to resist not working entirely from home, even as companies have tried to accommodate hybrid options. This has been particularly prevalent in the United States and was a marked feature of the ‘Great Resignation’ that became an issue of ‘zeitgeist’ proportions in mid- to late 2021, a trend that was noted in other countries too.
3. Flexibility Emerges
Lock-downs, social distancing and other pandemic-related measures forced companies to ‘adapt or die’ like never before. Many executive leaders and managers were surprised at just how quickly their organisations adapted to the ‘new normal’ of working from home and doing everything via Zoom. Employees were especially quick to adapt to new ways of working and communicating that many business leaders would not have believed possible before the pandemic.
One of the reasons that this transition from the traditional workplace was so successful for most companies is because flexibility became the order of the day. Management and staff alike had to quickly adapt to new forms of communication, project management and other ways of ensuring that work got done. The result in the post-pandemic era will be more flexible, looser approaches in everything from work schedules to how projects are run and new ideas fostered.
4. Innovation Rises
Speaking of new ideas, innovation also became more necessary during the pandemic. The old saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ became especially pertinent because of COVID-19. Companies across the board had to be innovative about how their business processes would function. For many companies, new products and service offerings needed to be rushed to meet the challenge of the pandemic. As early as June 2020, McKinsey and Company was already releasing a report titled Innovation in a crisis: Why it is more critical than ever.
The McKinsey report found that although most executives surveyed felt overwhelmed by the pandemic, the majority understood that it would also be a catalyst for growth and innovative change in their industries. This can be seen in the graphic below, in which that sentiment was unsurprisingly strongest among executives in the Technology sector:
This innovation occurred in other ways too, including how customers were communicated with and how they got their products and services delivered to them. Many companies had to invent innovative workarounds due to delays caused by breakdowns in regional and global supply chains. This innovative spirit will no doubt endure beyond COVID-19.
5. Work-Life Balance
Discussions regarding employees’ ‘work-life balance’ pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic by many years. However, business analysts agreed that the emphasis on this balance for and by employees swung into high gear due to the pandemic. A McKinsey and Company survey, as reported by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in mid-2021, found that work-life balance was the leading issue of concern for employees as a result of the changes wrought by COVID-19, as evident in the graphic below:
This work-life balance will not only be focused on employees being able to work remotely or have flexible work schedules. It will also encompass other factors (read: ‘softer’ issues) within the organisation itself, such as a work culture based on mutual respect and greater communication, as well as more empathy regarding employees’ personal lives and needs. Oh, and ‘work-life balance’ so so very yesterday – the new talk is all about ‘work-life integration’.
Of course, COVID-19 has changed the way we work in other ways too, and those will spur other work-related evolutions in turn. How COVID-19 has changed the workplace will continue to shape how businesses are run, as well as the very way in which many people work. Those impacts will no doubt be felt for years to come.