4 Lessons COVID-19 Has Taught Us About the Future of Work

By Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly Media  

The global COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we grocery shop, stay in touch,  greet each other (elbow clicks anyone), and so much more. But if the rapid changes of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that we have to be prepared for the worst, adaptable to change, and able to keep our core values and mission front and center as we navigate a different way of working and living. For everyone from sales professionals and event planners to data scientists and marketers, restrictions on travel, in-person gatherings, and new business needs have rewritten the rules of the game—in some cases permanently. But with these new challenges come opportunities to learn new skills, improve upon old ones, and show how resilient we can be.

Here are four lessons COVID-19 has taught us, and how they’ll help us navigate the future of work:

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Remote work will reshape the future of work

Remote work takes top honors for the most-used buzzword of 2020, but like so many “it” concepts that came before, its tenets aren’t so different from the status quo. While implementing the technological infrastructure to support a remote workforce takes some doing, actually leading a remote team isn’t so different than managing in a physical location. Yes, serendipitous in-office interactions and seeing familiar faces each day are good for morale, but we can still foster personal connections over video calls. Ask coworkers how they’re doing (and how their families are doing), and check in to make sure everything’s okay. Don’t forget we’re all humans first.  

Forrester predicts remote work will rise to300% of pre-COVID-19 levels. But whether we go back to an office full time or never go back again, it’s still imperative to focus on overarching company goals and customer needs. Ultimately, success is about getting the outcomes you want—and outcomes aren’t determined by the location of the people delivering them. You must have good tools and clear expectations in place to encourage collaboration, both within your teams and externally, to succeed with a remote environment.

Investing in talent—not outsourcing it—is key 

The democratization of AI, the cloud, and valuable workplace technologies have lowered the barriers of entry for companies to take advantage of these tools. While the infrastructure for most of these projects is already in place, many organizations struggle with how to get started, scale, and deal with the litany of other complexities that come along with implementing technological change. 

To add insult to injury, the price of high-level technical talent isn’t an investment most small businesses (and even some well-established ones) can afford to make. While new employees with desirable skills and a fresh outlook have their place, it’s not realistic to hire new talent every time you need to take on a new technological endeavor. Instead, it’s essential to empower your own teams to stay current if you want your organization to keep up. Providing tools—not just those that train on new technologies but those that help your teams upskill and reskill—is vital to progress. Leaders should make it a priority to understand what AI and other technologies (automated machine learning, for instance) are already available to them and entrust their teams to learn how to use them. And when team members see how you’re empowering them and helping them grow, they tend to stick around.

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In-the-flow working will take a front seat 

What we’ve needed to learn over the course of this year has changed, but even more significant is how we need to learn in this new environment. We’re seeing an uptick in AI and automation to support and augment the workforce, with both technologies playing critical roles in employee training and education. One of the benefits these technologies provide is enabling in-the-flow learning. Essentially, this entails arming employees with the tools they need to quickly learn to solve problems they encounter as they work, with minimal interruption. 

It’s not about consuming a four-hour video or attending a live conference session, but rather empowering someone to get help and move forward while the work is happening. With the speed of technological change, your teams don’t have the time—or option, frankly—to constantly step away to dive deep into detailed solutions. They must be able to absorb quick bursts of knowledge and use them to propel their immediate projects. Investing in learning tools and solutions to help employees upskill and reskill easily and efficiently is the only way to build a future-ready team. 

Corporate travel and live events will continue to diminish 

Corporate travel has decreased significantly in the wake of the pandemic, as videoconference tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google apps have helped take the place of physical meetings. In fact, in 2019 US corporate travel spend reached a whopping $334 billion (source: US Travel Association)—but as early as April 2020, US airline capacity declined by 70 percent. As organizations discover that cross-country flights to wine and dine new business prospects or attend networking events don’t yield economic returns, business travel will become less and less frequent. 

Additionally, virtual conferences and events will likely persist even after a vaccine becomes available. The benefits are clear: attendees can join without having to leave the office and their families to travel, saving anywhere from three to five days of being away and the disruptions that come along with it. Sponsors and event managers are working through how this shift will accelerate the transition to digital lead generation rather than on the tradeshow floor—a trend that was already starting to happen prepandemic. Even as travel restrictions ease, it’s hard to justify some of these unnecessary costs. 

Overall, 2020 has been a year of learning, whether intentionally or reactively. And it’s given us tools and information to future-proof business and charge into 2021 head-on. If we can fight our way through this pandemic, we can certainly get through the changing work environment and all the challenges the new year may have in store for us.

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