How Three Simultaneous Crises Will Transform the Future of Work
Over the past few months, a staggering set of challenges have emerged: a global pandemic, an unemployment rate that’s worse than any time since the Great Depression, and a global protest movement.1
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Workplaces have not been left out, as both workers and employers find themselves coping with:

  • Fear and uncertainty. Essential workers have been on the frontline for the entire pandemic, but with other areas of the economy now re-opening, a broader swath of workers must now confront the possibility that their offices may not be safe. Amazon has come under fire about workplace conditions at its warehouses as several coronavirus deaths were reported at its facilities across the country.2 New coronavirus cases were reported shortly after Tesla reopened their factory.3 In some extreme cases, workers have been threatened with termination if they don’t return to work, regardless of how safe they feel.4
  • Frustrations and walkouts. In the last few years, Silicon Valley has been under siege by employee walkouts and regulator investigations. And while in the early months of the pandemic it seemed this may be put on hold as we need tech companies now more than ever, the reprieve didn’t last long. Even with depression-era unemployment, employees at Facebook quit and held a virtual walkout over Facebook’s decision not to do anything about inflammatory posts by President Trump.5 As America began exploring how to safely emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of Americans, standing shoulder to shoulder in the streets of major cities, protested the killing of George Floyd.6 Seizing an opportunity to be heard, black employees responded on social media with painful stories of workplace racism and discrimination.7

Front and Center: Flexibility, Emerging Technologies, and Corporate Social Responsibility

The current sociocultural crises have accelerated several workplace trends, especially with respect to:

  • Flexibility. While flexible work schedules were gaining ground before the pandemic, the current uncertainties – Will schools reopen? Is public transportation safe and available? -- has upped the ante.8 Companies like Twitter, Quora, and Coinbase now allow employees to choose when and if to go back to the office.9 Nationwide Insurance sent nearly its entire staff home in March and found the move so productive that it is closing six offices.10 More than 75% of Americans would like to continue to work remotely at least occasionally, while 54% would like this to be their primary way of working.11 But companies will need to get creative -- an endless sea of zoom calls does not work for most people.
  • Emerging technologies. Companies may accelerate investments in robotics and AI as they recognize the challenges of constant sanitation, as well as the challenges of orchestrating a remote workforce. Robots are now delivering food, taking temperatures, and sanitizing hospitals.12 Companies will also need to rely on more sophisticated technology to enhance video conferencing experiences and reduce “zoom fatigue.”
  • Corporate social responsibility. Recent events have increased pressure on firms to emphasize their stance on hot button social issues. With the protests due to the killing of George Floyd, numerous CEOs spoke publicly about racial issues and more than 300 chief executives, mayors, and government officials gathered online for a rare peer-to-peer conversation about race relations and social justice.13 Juneteenth – a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States – has been recognized by many companies for the first time this year: Twitter and Uber gave employees a paid holiday, while Amazon and Google encouraged employees to cancel unnecessary meetings.14 The pandemic has also increased the trend of employers taking on a greater role in employee and community support. Companies have been offering employees enhanced sick leave and financial assistance, in addition to providing services to help combat the pandemic.15

Signals to Watch

Novel automation tools – both for the workplace and the home office. Expect to see more robotics in the workplace, especially when it comes to sanitation and work that requires human contact. Also, as companies explore ways to migrate their culture to a remote experience, expect to see more tools to help with training the remote employee as well as tools to increase their social experience. And pay attention to workplace surveillance trends. Expanded data collection on employee health and safety may be a necessity, but we’re also seeing increased use of tools for monitoring remote employee productivity.16 Expect a healthy debate about the value of this kind of monitoring.

Changing attitudes toward AI. Pre-coronavirus, many people feared AI replacing them in the workforce.17 Now, the unemployment rate is worse than any time since the Great Depression, and robots and automation were not to blame. Employees may actually embrace robotic coworkers now, as they help minimize close human contact in the workforce.18 However, we may also see more of a backlash from employees, as people become more aware of the biases within AI systems -- such as a recent facial recognition match that led to a black man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit 19 -- and also worry about reentering a job market with fewer available jobs.

Companies finding new ways of showing their values. Look out for companies showing their values in new ways – even when it comes at a financial loss. Recently, large tech firms changed their stance on their facial recognition technology: IBM no longer offers theirs, Amazon put a one year pause on letting the police use theirs, and Microsoft won’t sell theirs to US police until there is a national law regulating its use.20

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