Date posted: 23/06/2020 8 min read

7 ways work will be different after the pandemic

COVID-19 is shifting how we think about work and our approach to it. These aspects may change permanently in its wake.

In Brief

  • The return to a “new normal” from COVID-19 will be harder and more challenging than it was in the GFC.
  • History tells us that disruptive crises put an early end to some sectors and businesses and boost others.
  • Real flexibility means being able to work anywhere at any time – and we have proved it is possible.

By Fiona Smith

For months, people who never believed they could get their work done in physical isolation did just that. They had to adapt. People who felt secure and valued in their jobs realised, with a sudden shock, that loyalty counts for little when there is no revenue.

Managers, too, had to learn to trust, abandoning any remaining suspicions about the ability of their people to work from home. And everyone now knows that effective multitasking is a myth. Unbroken concentration is an almost-forgotten luxury when there are children to be home-schooled and lunch to be made. We had to learn to do the best we can while distracted.

If you’re wondering if some of the workplace changes you’ve experienced over the past few months are likely to stick, you could revisit the long-lasting impacts of the global financial crisis (GFC) a decade ago.

During the GFC, professional services organisations led the co-operative efforts to save jobs by reducing payroll costs. Voluntary redundancies were offered, people took sabbaticals and unpaid holidays; others put up their hands to move to part-time hours.

The success of these initiatives put rocket fuel under the trend towards flexible working. It made it acceptable – even admirable – for people to take more holidays, career breaks and move to a reduced work week.

Real estate costs were slashed when organisations started hot desking (activity-based working) and reduced their office floor space, which was further encouragement for people to work from home, with their own devices, occasionally. Cutting out unnecessary business travel gave video-conferencing a boost.

Masses of people who were retrenched replaced their full-time positions with consultancy and casual work – leading to a growing proportion (from 30% to 44% depending on your definition) of Australians in what is sometimes called non-standard work: self-employed, part-time, casual and fixed-term contracts.

Dr Margaret Byrne, the principal of UGM Consultants and an expert in leadership development and change management, says the return to a “new normal” will be harder, more protracted and more challenging than it was in the GFC.

“We’re not going to have a crisis and then a reversion to everything the way it was before. That just won’t happen,” she says.

So what changes will COVID-19 bring to the workplace? It’s impossible to predict the future accurately, but some things are already becoming evident.

“We’re not going to have a crisis and then a reversion to everything the way it was before. That just won’t happen.”
Dr Margaret Byrne

1. Some jobs won’t return and new industries will be created

History tells us that disruptive crises put an early end to some sectors and businesses that were already shrinking, vulnerable to change, or marginal. This time around, these may include airlines, travel agencies, restaurants and fashion businesses.

But other sectors may get a boost. Just as the cryptosporidium and giardia scare in Sydney in 1998 turned bottled water into a long-term trend, we may see growth in areas such as hygiene products, online services and home delivery.

Professor Russell Lansbury from the University of Sydney Business School says we can’t be sure if employers will reinstate some of the hours cut from people’s work weeks.

“When things come back to so-called normal, will employers want to keep people on shorter hours? They’ll say, ‘Well, we don’t really need as many people now,’” he says.

This could lead to a rise in underemployment, as people will be stuck in part-time roles.

There may also be a shift in people’s attitude to work and family, with recently enforced family time encouraging people to seek a different balance in a post-COVID world. After all, “We work among the longest hours in the world,” says Lansbury.

Jobs that offer security may become more desirable, even if they offer little social status. “Maybe we need to restore the sort of organisations that give people a sense of security and long-term commitment,” Lansbury says, adding that when organisations talk about increasing employee engagement, they rarely mention job security, despite it being high on the wishlist of their workers

2. Flexible work is a reality, not a buzzword

For most organisations, flexible working previously meant working at home on Fridays or having an early start, early finish time. However, real flexibility means being able to work anywhere at any time – and we have proved it is possible.

EY Oceanic talent director Elisa Colak says before COVID-19 about 72% of EY’s workforce worked flexibly in some form, with 27% in formal work-from-home arrangements. Despite such numbers, some senior leaders have expressed surprise at how well their people adjusted to working from home during the crisis.

“It’s actually been the leaders who have probably been more challenged in understanding their teams and the agility they’ve had,” says Colak. “Their initial thought was, ‘How are people going to be productive when I’m not looking at them, when they’re not in the office, when they’re not visible, and when I can’t physically go and check in on them?’

“They find it actually doesn’t matter in some cases because you can still have that level of connection, virtually.”

Byrne says a new skill set is required to get the most out of working in a team where members are all in different locations and time zones. “That’s going to put pressure on team leaders, managers and executives all the way to the top,” she says.

3. Managers become coaches and carers

As well as managing staff and making decisions, many leaders were thrust into the position of caring for people who were stressed, frightened and, perhaps, grieving. They may have been totally unprepared for the role, but are now aware there are skills in emotional intelligence that need developing.

Colak says EY has offered its employees an assistance program throughout the crisis as well as webinars and other wellbeing programs, including online stretch and yoga classes with professional instructors.

Helping people through the crisis also involves removing as much uncertainty as possible about their employment and jobs.

“We know from all the research on trust that it arises from believing that others in the organisation – especially people more senior – care about your welfare,” she says.

4. Colleagues will be closer

Believe it or not, over the countless hours spent in isolation at home, many relationships were strengthened, and that sense of emotional closeness may continue. People really cared for each other during the crisis. At the end of it all, employees should have an enhanced appreciation for each other, after consciously making time to “check in”.

“People are saying they actually feel more connected to their team now than they were before, because they’re having a lot more regular, short, face-to-face meetings than they used to,” says Colak.

Paul Sweeney CA, chief operating officer of McGrathNicol, agrees that regular communication has supported staff and helped them feel less isolated.

“Most of our teams and offices have traditional Friday afternoon drinks which have been replaced with virtual ones,” he says. “They have had the opportunity to chat and debrief at the end of the week.”

McGrathNicol has about 300 employees in five offices across Australia, with an affiliated firm in Auckland. “One of our offices has a walking club, but they clearly weren’t in the office to go walking together,” says Sweeney. “They encouraged everybody to share their stories and selfies of what they were doing … to maintain a sense of community within the workplace, even using virtual channels. That doesn’t go all the way, but it is one way to promote good mental health.”

5. Greater efficiency gains

Without a lot of the usual support systems, we have had to rely on our common sense to get things done. Some of the “administrivia” may be stripped away for good.

Colak says EY, as a global organisation, has many processes and some of those had to be stripped back during the crisis. “We’re getting better at just filtering out ‘noise’ for our people – not too many stimuli or demands that are out of our control.”

“We’re getting better at just filtering out ‘noise’ for our people – not too many stimuli or demands that are out of our control.”
Elisa Colak, EY Oceanic

She has also noticed that people have become more willing to help out each other with work. “We are in it together so when one goes down, we’ll be there for them. I wonder whether with the recent bushfires [in Australia], while it was pretty devastating, it did prepare us in a way for getting in and bunking down and helping each other.”

6. There will be less business travel, more video

The budget cuts of the GFC spurred investment into video-conferencing and telepresence. A complete ban on movement in the latest crisis has made Zoom a household name.

“I think it will shift the dial in terms of using technology to facilitate work, but I also reckon people will appreciate the importance of interpersonal contact,” says Sweeney.

“When we come out of this phase, we will have a newfound appreciation for human contact and the value of working together.”

“When we come out of this phase, we will have a newfound appreciation for human contact and the value of working together.”
Paul Sweeney CA, McGrathNicol

Byrne says business is learning that “virtual working” is more than just speaking to people on the phone. The most efficient problem solving is done face-to-face, but people can get about 85% of that productivity by being visible through the use of technology.

“Studies show that if you’re only using audio – and many people in Australia are still doing that – you only get about 60% of the productivity and collaboration out of people,” she says.

“So much of what goes on between people is responsiveness to visual cues, clues and signals. So I think one thing that’s going to happen is people are going to start to lean into Zoom.”

7. We will be more experimental

Byrne says project planning and strategic planning has tended to be “linear, deductive, rational, data-driven and predictive”.

However, because the COVID-19 situation is so fluid, governments, institutions and businesses have all realised there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for all locations and situations.

“People are having to let go of ways of thinking about strategy and business problem solving,” she says. “They’re having to try something – as a pilot or as an experiment – accepting they don’t have all the information and don’t know all the data. The pace of change is rapid and things are volatile.

“This has taken us into the field of complexity thinking where, instead of making even a three-year plan, you take the next step, the next step, the next logical step.”

After this crisis is over, however, people may have to guard against a tendency to want things back the way they were, Byrne warns. If the pendulum swings back again, we could lose some of the positive things that have emerged through this time.

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