Date posted: 19/10/2020 5 min read

How coronavirus fast-tracked the future of work

In three months, COVID-19 fast-tracked changes to work that research predicted would take five years, a recent report finds.

In Brief

  • Marcus Bowles’ New Normal: What happens when the future arrives early? report looks at how organisations coped with the workplace changes due to coronavirus lockdowns.
  • The companies that coped best had already fundamentally altered how they developed and managed people.
  • Those that did badly had short-sighted responses that did not harness or enhance their staff’s existing skill sets.

By Amity Delaney

COVID-19 lockdowns have fast-tracked changes to how we work, shifting things researchers hadn’t expected for another five years, a new report claims.

The Working Futures discussion paper, New Normal: What happens when the future arrives early? (Part 1), examines the effect of lockdowns on daily work. For some, the rapid shift to a new way of working has completely disrupted operations.

Marcus Bowles, author of the report and founder and chair of The Institute for Working Futures, notes that: “While some employers are still driving along shakily, others have crashed to the side of the road.”

“While some employers are still driving along shakily, others have crashed to the side of the road.”
Marcus Bowles, The Institute for Working Futures

The companies that are better prepared had “already fundamentally altered how they planned and how they developed and managed people,” says Bowles. “Future predications allowed them to run scenarios, make informed decisions, and radically pivot their people-plans to meet what is to come.”

Using his corporate clients as examples, Bowles outlines “the good and the bad” corporate responses to COVID-19 that may help inform others’ views.

The good decisions for businesses in ‘the new normal’

According to the report, those who are successfully adapting to the new normal:

  • Engage with a sense of purpose. Digital connectedness can be just as purposeful as a chat in the office. Although work processes are changing, the reasons for employees engaging in their work remains.
  • Value the employee.  Work is as much about social capital as it is human capital. Collaborating with others and a workplace culture that values humans as people, rather than resources, makes employees feel more valued.
  • Match skills with business models. At the forefront of this new way of working is an increased demand for workers who are empathetic problem-solvers with a passion for building great customer experiences.
  • Recognise that skills shortages are often skill mismatches. Skill mismatches occur for two reasons – the capabilities of workers are inaccurately recorded and people are profiled only in regards to the skills tied to the job.
  • Place importance on workplace development and organisational learning. Sending workers off to do structured courses to receive qualifications is an expensive activity for little value gained. Instead, using online platforms tied to micro-credentials or credits towards formal qualifications is a better way to build capabilities and close skill gaps.

How some businesses get it very, very wrong

At the other end of the spectrum are businesses that are making poor decisions that undermine the benefits the shift in work is offering. What Bowles calls his “forehead slapping moments” include: 

  • Cutting training and development budgets. At a time when learning is desperately needed to help upskill workers for their shifting roles, many businesses are cutting their skills budgets.
  • Reskilling workers to do new tasks allocated to their reshaped position. Many businesses are automating human tasks and then reskilling workers to conduct the same role using technology.
  • Shifting workers to customer-facing roles without regard for their abilities. Not everyone is built for a customer-facing role. Trying to force people with the wrong attributes into customer-focused positions can undermine relationships with customers.
  • Choosing leadership positions based on hierarchy. Many businesses have promoted technical experts to leadership positions, purely based on seniority. Leadership roles require more than just previous experience in senior roles. A typical example in the COVID-19 world is appointing change project leaders who don’t have expertise in this area and lack a desire to lead people.
  • Investing in online training to rapidly upskill people to assume new duties. Ironically, while many businesses are cutting back on their learning and development budgets, they are also funding training to help fill gaps in leadership and project management. Short-sighted operational responses such as these ignore strategic consequences and would never usually be implemented.

How are CAs responding?

Kanav Bhama CA, business operations and finance manager at user research platform Dovetail, says the transition to a new way of working hasn’t all been easy, but the nature of his industry has meant work processes haven’t been significantly disrupted.

“Our core business activity is producing technology products, the development of which is conducive in a remote working environment,” Bhama says.

“Fortunately, being in the technology industry and having a low-touch sales model, we haven’t had to do any major rethinking to our value chain beyond where we work from.”

Dovetail has shifted staff to more flexible working hours, remotely, and is looking at ways to grow and expand within Australia, now that international travel has been suspended.

Says Victor Koh CA, senior adviser at the Accounting Firm Nexia in Brisbane: “COVID-19 provided us with a unique perspective on what a ‘worst-case scenario’ would actually be – not just for our firm, but also for our clients. This helped to cut down on the implementation of strategies which would either take a lot of time and/or resources but yield a highly uncertain result/long-term advantage.”

“COVID-19 provided us with a unique perspective on what a ‘worst-case scenario’ would actually be – not just for our firm, but also for our clients.”
Victor Koh CA, Nexia Brisbane

While the initial move to a new way of working has been exciting for Koh, he acknowledges the difficulties associated with the change.

“We don’t need to overthink this to recognise what benefits it provide, for example, personal time and taking care of children.

“But we don’t immediately recognise some of the more challenging downsides down the track that need to be managed, such as team morale and clarity of communication between team members.” 

What will work look like in 2025?

Research conducted by the Institute for Working Futures found that by 2025:

  • 15% of the workforce (1.9 million workers) would be displaced by automation.
  • 16% of the workforce (2 million workers) would have to undertake significant reskilling as technology changes the nature of their work.
  • 20% of the workforce (2.4 million workers) would be in new jobs created by technology and innovations.
  • 52% would work part-time in multiple jobs.
  • 45% would work as contractors or freelancers from home, with 18% using social or digital platforms to work in the gig economy.

Find out more:

Read more of Marcus Bowles’ New Normal: What happens when the future arrives early? report.

Download the report