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In the space of three months, our entire world has flipped upside down and been shaken around to change beyond recognition. While our social lives, gym sessions and shopping trips will one day return to normal, can the same be said for our working lives.

There’s a lot of chat about how the coronavirus pandemic will change the future of work forever. But will it? Some argue that we’ll go back to normal, others think that we’ve merely accelerated the future, and a select few believe that things will change but not as we think. 

What hasn’t changed?

While the current situation certainly isn’t business as usual, many companies have found themselves unexpectedly prepared for the pandemic. Plenty of businesses already had measures in place for volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous environments; they just weren’t utilising them for those reasons. Flexible working was offered to parents, remote working was a one-off occurrence, and video conferencing connected offices – you get the picture.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed businesses into the future, forcing them to use the collaboration tools, remote working functionality and communication channels that they promoted as a perk but weren’t using as a lifeline. 

In fact, some commentators have called this the world’s largest remote working experiment and praised businesses for being already prepared for a future that arrived a little early. 

What has changed?

Despite many businesses being technically prepared for the lockdown, there has still been a significant change in the workplace: attitudes. Trust (or the lack of) is often a significant workplace issue and can be the source of disengagement, inflexible policies and toxic cultures. The pandemic is changing this. Suddenly employers have had to trust their staff to maintain productivity while working remotely, homeschooling their children and protecting their health. Meanwhile, employees have had to trust their employers with their safety, their jobs and their futures. 

According to Michael Beer, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, the coronavirus pandemic, like any crisis, has provided senior management with a huge opportunity to develop a trust-based culture rapidly. Similarly, perceptions of collaboration have changed. For a nation staying two metres apart from one another, we’re working together more than ever before. Teams are coming together to maintain performance, departments are collaborating to maintain output, and competitors are joining forces to uphold industries and overcome the virus. 

Attitudes towards talent, or key workers, have changed too. As a country, we’ve seen low-paid and unskilled workers relied upon for keeping the nation fed, cared for and functioning. Similarly, in businesses, we’ve uncovered the roles and skills integral for continuity. Talent is no longer limited to specialist skills and niche expertise – it now includes the people and skills that keep businesses functioning when the world is falling apart. 

What could change?

The most impactful changes are still to come, but it might not be the mass working from home change that people are expecting. 

Flexibility

While the pandemic will certainly highlight the roles suitable for home working, it’s likely that working from home will lose its sparkle and, instead, flexible working will take its place. Why? Firstly, after months of isolation and social distancing, employees will recognise the physical and mental benefits of an office environment. As shown by the 2016 study “does working from home work?”, while remote working is great for work-life balance, company budgets and productivity, these perks are all diminished by one problem: loneliness. 

Secondly, as explained by Derek Thompson, a pandemic is not an appropriate time for a business to decide whether remote working works:

“It is rather a moment for companies to build out the kind of technology and culture that, when the economy is back to full force, could make remote work easier for those who want to take advantage of it in a future where white-collar work might involve a little less commuting and a little more home.”

Instead, we expect flexible working to become more commonplace, with companies allowing a mixture of office and remote working and employees happy for a mixture of scenery. 

Talent pools

There’s an expectation that talent pools will grow, with more companies becoming open to telecommuting and employees living further away from the office. While this large-scale working from home experiment may persuade businesses to expand the geographical restraints of their talent pools, there’s another prominent reason talent pools will become larger: skills. Businesses have seen firsthand which skills are adaptable in a crisis and which skills can be learnt on the job, allowing them to expand their skill requirements for future vacancies. 

Employee needs

Everyone’s hierarchy of needs has taken a battering over the past couple of months, with the need for safety and security being particularly damaged. Accordingly, candidates will be less motivated by salaries and more motivated by benefits such as generous pension contributions, health care and long-term career advancement. 

It’s also likely that we’ll see a rise in employee retention rates, making it easier for employers to train and develop long-term talent but harder to attract passive candidates. 

Agile work

According to Ben Rogers, from the National Research Group, workplaces will become more agile because of the outbreak. The cultural shift towards collaboration and trust will see people from different departments come together to solve problems, rather than working as single departments of the business. 

This will continue and lead to greater problem solving, innovation and output, while also allowing employees to develop cross-functional skills. 

Preparedness

Finally, that business continuity plan and disaster recovery strategy will no longer be laughed down the to-do list. The year has proved that even the unthinkable is possible, and we’ll see businesses become more prepared as a result. What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on whether the future of work has changed forever over on LinkedIn or social media.