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The New Future of Work: Your Workforce Will Define Your Future

Just when we all thought we knew what was next for the workforce in the future of work, 2020 showed up to make nearly every prediction age like milk.

Futurism articles written pre-2020 now seem outdated, our targeted growth and development strategies have turned into rapid-recovery plans, and the majority of us are working from the cloud in home offices. To say that the working world of today looks different than it did just months ago isn’t just an understatement — it might just be 2020’s understatement of the year.

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But now that the dust has mostly settled, it’s time to take inventory and start thinking about what’s next. There’s a lot of new information to consider as we start our next predictions about the future of work and, more important, the future of the workforce post-2020. Over the course of the year, some analyst predictions have come to pass just as they were described. Others? They’ve been thrown out the window in the disruptive wake of COVID-19. So, where do things stand now for the working world?

Let’s take a closer look.

It’s a Bold New Job Market Out There for Everyone

2020’s opening salvo on the job market came swiftly in the form of mass layoffs, furloughs, and lost jobs. More than a quarter of the workforce was laid off, or faced reduced hours in March, then, the unemployment rate broke records in April at 14.7% — the highest it’s been since World War II.

Despite the early assault on the job market, businesses quickly roared back into production once they had the first all-clear signs — but they did it in a totally new way. The unemployment rate fell to 6.9% by October, as many Americans found new opportunities, then, in a massive shift, a majority (61.67%) of employees reported they were working from home by the fall, according to a survey from SYKES Institute.

The number of people working at home has exploded compared to 2019. So, what will all of these colossal changes mean for the new future of the workforce?

For one thing, we’ve just gone through one of the biggest workforce changes in recent history, so things are going to be a little different going forward. How a prospective employee applies to a job, the commute consideration, even where the employee chooses to live — they have all been affected on a macro scale. That means more candidates to choose from, but also more decisions and variables too.

For these reasons, it will be important for businesses to recognize that the rules of both hiring and work itself have changed on a global scale. The job market has largely decentralized, so how will that work into your strategy ahead? Are you going to take advantage of distance and spread out your operations? Will you stick with hiring employees close to home or expand your operating hours and build a workforce around the globe? The new world of work-at-home has created a lot of opportunities to do things differently for the better, so you’ll need to answer each of these questions for your own business carefully if you want to succeed in the radically different market on the horizon.

Expect to See Fresh Faces and Fresher Ideas

The rapid reshuffling of skills and aptitudes in the workforce will need to be taken into consideration to succeed in the future of work. Factor in the majority of employees (over 71% according to the SYKES survey) who say they’ve used their time in quarantine to advance their professional skills — there’s a real opportunity for companies to build their skill-set arsenals during hiring.

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With so many new, skilled employees on the job market, and our new remote reality, it’s a buyer’s market out there for employers looking to fill skilled positions with qualified candidates remotely. For employees, that means the opportunity to work in more specialized fields now that distance isn’t a factor and apply to companies previously out of reach. And for companies, as the market continues to recover, the skills and employees you gain now will remain an asset even after things settle down. Don’t be afraid to aggressively court skill sets, wherever you find them, that will benefit your company as you digitize.

However, while hiring can be an effective way to bring fresh thinking and skills into an organization, if your organization isn’t in a position to bring on new talent, don’t discount the value of teaching the employees you have right now. Pre-pandemic, a thin majority of employees (58.33%) reported that their employers were prioritizing teaching them the skills they’d need to keep up with advancing tech, but many of them (44%), said they were only receiving “some” training compared to just over 13% who said “a lot.” When you consider the remaining 41% of employees SYKES Institute surveyed either weren’t sure or reported receiving zero on-the-job training, it’s clear that many businesses will need to work harder at prioritizing skills.

The workforce is going to have to evolve in tandem with the business landscape — so be sure you’re giving your employees the tools they need to be successful.

AI and Automation Are No Longer the Boogeymen

If automation doomsday analysts were to be believed, this massive workforce reset with record job losses should have been followed by the automation invasion — with robots cheaply filling up old jobs and leaving human beings behind. That obviously didn’t happen. Will we see more automation at work now that fears are calming and the majority of us work behind a screen?

As it turns out, yes. And the workforce is slowly noticing too, as many continue working in their virtual workplaces with no robotic overlords in sight.

Before COVID-19, even just hearing the words “automation technologies” and “robots” in conversations about work evoked feelings of job insecurity among nearly a third of the workforce, according to a 2019 survey by SYKES. Now? A majority (78%) of employees said they’d actually be interested in working with automation technologies, according to a follow-up fall survey. In fact, from the same survey, a whopping 77% said they’d actually be more likely to apply to companies investing in new automation technologies. What happened?

It seems that, in our new remote work environments, employees have had the chance to interact with more tech, automated or otherwise, and likely realized that humans are still firmly at the wheel. If it’s not due to the increased exposure to tech, the shift could be attributed to an increase in digital learning now that work-at-home is more prevalent, the formation of new jobs in the marketplace despite automation continuing to mature, or maybe even the fact that many doom-and-gloom predictions of automation since the early 2000s have simply not come to pass. Whatever the reason, these new attitudes toward automation and AI will be key as companies continue to digitize and decentralize.

Since technology is the main tool keeping many businesses open right now, having all hands on deck during the process of transforming your digital capabilities will go a long way. Beyond keeping everyone in sync, it can be tough to focus on the task at hand when you’re simultaneously worried about your job; so assuaging fears now will help with everything from productivity to reducing errors and preventing burnout. Fewer fearful employees means a happier, safer, and more productive workforce.

Forging a Better Future of Work, Today

Though many predictions pre-2020 have largely fallen flat due to COVID-19, changing all of our plans in the working world for years to come, this period of adversity also carries with it many opportunities to build toward a better normal instead of just a new one — a topic I recently spoke on in a 2020 edition of SYKES Quarterly. It’s painful to go through layoffs or restructuring, and change can be difficult, but each positive transformation we work to enact now will pay dividends in what is shaping up to be a brand new future of work.

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Time will tell if even these predictions miss the mark once we enter what promises to be a dynamic 2021. But for now, studying this period closely can provide valuable insight into what’s likely ahead. Hopefully, a better normal.

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