Just a few short months ago, no one could have predicted the immediate impact COVID-19 would have on our lives – especially the growth of online work that could potentially change the workplace forever.
But with the pandemic far from over and more Australians working from home than ever before, we need to address the future of work after COVID-19 global lockdown is over. We spoke to Gihan Perera, a futurist and workplace consultant, about what to expect and what business leaders should be doing to accommodate a future-forward mentality.
How COVID-19 is affecting different industries
For the vast majority of industries, the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on sales, cash flow and the ability to stay afloat. But while this massive and rapid change is causing incredible disruption to the economy, Perera is quick to acknowledge that not every business is being affected in the same way.
“A really important thing to keep in mind is that we may all be in the same storm, but we’re in very different boats,” he says. “Different businesses are being impacted in different ways.”
Perera cites the financially distressing situations for retail shopfronts, airlines, hotels, property investors, tourism-based companies and universities that rely on international students. However, he also recognises that savvy owners are finding ways to turn a bad situation on its head.
“Restaurants are offering more takeaway options and home-delivery services; gyms are providing online workout programs; retail stores are focusing all their efforts on online-only sales.”
And then there are the outliers – the industries that are actually profiting from the pandemic (through no ulterior motives of their own).
“We’re buying more groceries because we’re eating more at home. We’re buying office furniture so we can set ourselves up to work from home. We’re buying items and tools to complete those long-forgotten DIY projects.”
Bottom line: there’s been plenty of change, but it’s affecting everyone in different ways.
Flexibility and remote work post COVID-19
Perera agrees that COVID-19 has helped us reach a stage where there’s no turning back from the benefits of flexible working. While many organisations – and employees who love the office environment – will choose to spend the majority of their time at work, in the coming years we’ll see a relaxation of ‘in-office only’ jobs and instead witness an influx of employees who expect flexibility to be ‘baked in’ to their work contracts.
“There’s already been some studies into what a post-COVID workplace is going to look like,” Perera says. “Colliers research shows that four out of five office professionals want to work remotely at least one day a week after this is all over. And interestingly, more than half say their productivity hasn’t changed as a result of working from home, despite the fact that they’ve had all this disruption going on around them.
“Even employers are seeing the same benefits. There’s a Gartner survey that shows that 74% businesses are going to permanently shift some of their people to remote work after this pandemic is over.”
What about workers who have to be in the workplace?
Of course, there are a number of sectors where telework simply isn’t feasible. Hands-on, face-to-face interactions are essential for a number of critical jobs, so what does the future look like for them?
“In workplaces where people need to go back, in the short-term employers are going to have to modify their workplaces,” Perera says. “That means more social distancing, better hygiene and smarter opening hours.
“We’re already seeing conversations at the national level about not having everybody getting on trains and buses at the same time. Employers will start to stagger their staff’s start and finish times, and maybe even stagger their working days.
“There may also be things like mandatory temperature scanning when entering a store or workplace. In fact, an Indian startup has developed robots to distribute hand sanitiser at office buildings. Obviously, robots are not going to get the virus, and they are also cheap because once you set them up they’re doing their job forever.”
But for businesses that are no longer restricted by local boundaries, Perera says the sky is the limit. That means talent shortages are the exception rather than the rule, and hiring managers can search across the country – and even globally – to find the perfect candidate.
“There’s no longer any reason to restrict the people who work on a particular project – they don’t have to be the ones who are local and can come into your office. Now that organisations have had firsthand experience of what it’s like to work remotely and to conduct online meetings, manage virtual collaboration and use digital tools, I think they’ll be much more open to the idea that they can bring in freelancers and contractors from literally anywhere around the world to work as part of their teams.”
Why enforced digital transformation is a good thing
Perera says one of the big positives to come out of the COVID-19 crisis is that businesses are being forced to accelerate their digital transformations.
“For the last three years, the number-one concern for Australian CEOs has been around digital transformation. They understand that digital transformation is important, but there’s been no real impetus to make it happen. Then suddenly this virus comes along and it’s forcing organisations to digitally transform so their teams can work effectively from home.
“So in the future we will see that the ‘standard workplace’ doesn’t have to be the office – it could be at home or at a co-working space. And while it won’t happen in the next five years, you could imagine when we have self-driving cars that people will be working in them, because a car could be as much a workplace as anywhere else.”
Perera also says business trips – while they won’t become a thing of the past – will be less ingrained in company culture thanks to the ubiquity of videoconferencing technology. And with few business-travel expenses and more focus on bringing the team together through digital platforms, that’s a boost to profits as well as company camaraderie.
Why now is the time to look beyond COVID-19
Perera acknowledges that the COVID-19 crisis is not only having a detrimental impact on the national and global economy, but on the mental wellbeing of everydaypeople . Those problems are widespread, and it will take a concerted effort from government and business leaders to address those issues as best as possible.
But he also understands that the effects of the pandemic won’t simply disappear overnight. Instead, he says, organisations need to take advantage of the opportunities that are arising in order to hit the ground running once the coronavirus threat has dissipated.
“Initially, when the crisis hit, everyone was in survival mode – and that was good because it was exactly what needed to happen,” he says. “But now we’re starting to look ahead and there is a real opportunity before us. We can either take advantage of it or we can waste it.
“I’d like to think that as we move forward and people start going back to a new kind of normal, that we’re going to look at some of the positive things that have come out of working from home: digital transformation and work-life balance, for example. I hope people will say, ‘Let’s take this thing forward rather than trample over each other as everybody rushes back to the old way of doing things.’”
About Gihan Perera
Gihan Perera is a futurist, experienced conference speaker, author and consultant who specialises in giving clients a glimpse at what lies ahead, and how they can become fit for the future in both their professional and personal lives.
Since 1997, he has worked with business leaders, thought leaders, entrepreneurs and other change agents, helping them with their strategy for thriving in a fast-changing world.
Forbes magazine rated him the #5 social media influencer in the world in his area of expertise.
Register to catch Gihan’s presentation at HRNZ’s Virtual HR Summit: The Brave new World of Employee Experience on Thursday, June 4 2020