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The Future of Work

The “future of work” is here, thanks to Covid-19. What does it look like?

As the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded, corporate leaders scrambled to develop radical new strategies for accessing customers, maintaining supply chains, and salvaging revenue streams. Many of their solutions have been strikingly innovative.

Yet when it comes to the ins and outs of the white-collar work environment - where, when, and how we work each day - the changes are pretty much what you would expect. This isn’t to say that white-collar employers aren’t innovating. In some ways, this crisis has merely catapulted them directly into a future we’ve all been inching toward for years: the so-called future of work.

Jason Wingard, dean of Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, and a professor of human capital management, spends his time looking at the 'future of work' domain, long contemplating the necessary drivers to accelerate the shift toward a more remote-friendly, data-based, and impact-focused workplace. And then, suddenly, coronavirus arrived; just as, suddenly, new ways of working arrived. Wingard believes they're here to stay and, as leaders adjust to this new reality, he hopes that the four future-of-work pillars will attract special attention. Writing in Quartz, here's what he says:

Pillar 1: Flexible hours

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, our definition of the word “office” has changed dramatically. It has expanded beyond cubicles and co-working spaces to include kitchen tables, couches, and even bathrooms.

The definition of the “workday” has changed, as well; it is no longer limited to a certain subset of hours that all employees share. For parents especially, the workday has become whatever they can fit in, whenever the fewest people are vying for their attention.

Without the boundaries of a physical office space or strict working hours, employees have been forced to set - and communicate - their own availability, based upon their personal schedules and productivity levels. This shift would’ve eventually occurred with the future of work, as well.

Pillar 2: Data-based employee metrics

In a more flexible environment, leaders don’t need to stop evaluating employee performance - far from it. They’ll simply need to create new metrics of success, as they will no longer be able to judge employee effectiveness (foolishly, it might be argued) based on hours spent in the office.

Pillar 3: Social impact

As soon as the coronavirus hit, companies found ways to help: churning out hand sanitizer in distilleries, making hotel rooms available to hospital workers, and donating everything from money to masks to ponchos.

While some might speculate these actions were merely PR grabs - and, for some, they certainly were - the end result is the same: Companies have taken up the mantle of social good, and they aren’t likely to relinquish it once the pandemic dissipates.

In fact, they were already on this path. Back in August 2019, the Business Roundtable, a group of 181 leading CEOs, expanded its definition of a corporation’s purpose to include “supporting the communities in which we work.” Today’s employees and customers care deeply about the values of the companies with which they interact. The future of work, in other words, has social good woven into its core.

Pillar 4: Authentic relationships

Over the decades I’ve been part of the business world, I’ve noticed countless formalities slowly dissipate. Few of us refer to our superiors as “sir” or “ma’am” or Mr. or Ms. anymore; in most cases, we just use their first name. Modern workplace communications are rife with emoji and abbreviations - conversational elements that would’ve been unacceptable a decade ago.

Now that we’re experiencing a season of global crisis together, the last semblances of formality have been stripped away. The term “business casual” has taken on new meaning, as we’ve literally seen into each other’s homes and met each other’s partners, pets, and children. Mishaps we might have previously deemed as “unprofessional” are now “just another day at the office.” This has led to workplace interactions that are more authentic and relaxed - another key component of the future of work.

What’s key now is avoiding a culture wherein every interaction, albeit casual, becomes transactional. Without water coolers and office banter, employees may feel as though they only hear from colleagues when something is needed. Leaders can encourage more meaningful connections through virtual lunches or happy hours, online book clubs, and exercise or cooking challenges - anything that gets team members talking about something other than their to-do lists.

Although at this moment it is difficult to imagine a day when the coronavirus no longer controls most aspects of our lives, I am certain that day will come. And when it does, I believe the smartest business leaders won’t rush back to the constraints of unnecessary formalities, cubicles, or commutes. Instead, they will accept that the future of work has already arrived - and, in doing so, will prepare themselves and their teams for whatever comes next.

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