Just a little over a year ago, it was business as usual for the American workforce. Companies were prepping for the next decade of digital transformation, adding to their technology stacks while encouraging employees to develop new skills for the digital, automated workplace. With close to half of American businesses adopting robotics over the last five years, the path ahead to the future of work seemed simple.
Fast forward to the present, and 2020 has taught us all a valuable lesson: There is no simple path to the future of work. Through the twists and turns of the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen companies rapidly adjusting to survive an exceptionally turbulent time. We have learned that the future of work cannot be viewed through only one particular lens.
The only straightforward lesson? In this new normal, there is no going back to past business practices.
Results from MindEdge Learning’s fourth annual Future of Work study, The New Frontier of the American Workplace, present a perspective much different from previous studies. The national online survey of 830 managers found, not surprisingly, that health concerns are paramount: 54 percent of the managers surveyed expect employees will be required to vaccinate before returning to the workplace, and most expect pandemic-inspired health and safety precautions to remain in place after the economy returns to “normal.” In addition, the challenges brought on by hybrid work models and increased automation have spurred companies to acknowledge and break down COVID-19-related workforce barriers.
Below are the top three changes the workforce will face long after we emerge from the pandemic:
Increased Automation Has Led to a Technology-First Workforce
The abrupt shift to remote work spurred demand for new technologies to ensure business continuity. A year into the pandemic, many organizations continue to operate remotely while wrestling with an eventual transition to hybrid work models. To accommodate a distributed workforce, many organizations increased their use of technology, both at home and in the office. For many, automation became a necessity. According to the Future of Work study, 52 percent of companies increased the use of robotics or other forms of advanced automation in direct response to the COVID-19 crisis.
During the early months of the pandemic, organizations pushed the use of robotics to replace employees who couldn’t come into the office. Although workers will slowly return to their offices as the vaccine rollout continues, the heavy investment that companies made in technology will not disappear when the pandemic ends. In fact, a report by the World Economic Forum projects that the amount of work done by humans and machines will be equal by 2025.
Among managers whose firms automated in direct response to the pandemic, 39 percent say automation was introduced primarily to protect workers’ health and safety, while 33 percent report it was mainly a cost-cutting move. Among all managers, 46 percent expect that increased safety protocols will continue long after the pandemic has subsided.
Prior to 2020, the use of advanced automation was already increasing at a rapid pace, and the pandemic only accelerated this transformation. Despite the many benefits of workplace automation, this trend has added new stressors for already burnt-out employees. While workers have only recently returned to their offices, the automation introduced in their absence may now be contributing to increased unemployment: 40 percent of survey respondents say that workers lost jobs due to the adoption of new technology. Job losses were most prevalent in the technology sector (57 percent), and close to half of all managers in the manufacturing (46 percent) and business products/services (46 percent) sectors also report automation-related job losses.
Job Security Has Become a Major Concern for Employees
When will the nation’s employment picture return to normal? While the national unemployment rate has declined in the past year, roughly 10 million American citizens remain out of work. Consistent with that reality, a majority (53 percent) of managers surveyed by MindEdge report their employees are concerned about short-term job security. These figures indicate sharply higher levels of concern compared to previous years. In 2019, just 32 percent of managers said their employees were concerned about losing their jobs, and fully 38 percent said they were not at all concerned.
Despite these elevated levels of concern, 57 percent of managers expect the US economy to be in better shape a year from now, and only 21 percent expect things to worsen.
When will daily life be normal again? Optimistically, 42 percent of survey respondents say they expect life to return to normal by this summer, while 48 percent think conditions won’t be back to normal until the fall at the earliest. One in six (16 percent) think the return to normalcy won’t happen until the spring of 2022.
While many respondents are hopeful for a speedy return to normal, 35 percent expect that many employees will continue to work remotely after the pandemic. With a large portion of employees continuing to work from home, companies will need to adapt to a dispersed workforce for years to come.
Upskilling Is No Longer an Employee Benefit — It’s a Business Necessity
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its second year, American companies are preparing for new workforce challenges, spurring a greater need for workers to future-proof their careers through upskilling and reskilling. In particular, workers should be looking to hone the skills that machines and advanced automation cannot master. The Future of Work survey results indicate that creative thinking (33 percent), communication (27 percent), complex problem-solving (26 percent), IT/network information security (26 percent), and decision-making (25 percent) are the key skills that can help future-proof careers.
But it’s not just workers who benefit from skills training. Having a skilled, loyal, and stable workforce is an important competitive advantage for businesses as well. As the workforce continues to evolve, companies will find that worker training is an essential part of their employer branding strategies.
At this point, however, not all companies are investing in work-based learning programs and career services. A third (32 percent) of survey respondents say the greatest roadblock to retraining workers at their company is limited access to training resources; another 11 percent say that worker training is simply not a corporate priority at their firms.
For companies that have introduced upskilling and reskilling opportunities, the most popular methods of improving employee skills are internal training and retraining programs (48 percent) and online courses (44 percent).
The lessons learned during this pandemic have taught us that the future of work is constantly evolving. For companies to navigate 2021 and beyond, business leaders must remain agile and pay attention to the needs of their workforces. As we emerge from the pandemic, businesses must address the impacts of lasting workplace automation, employee concerns about job security, and the need to upskill across all positions. By embracing the not-so-simple lessons of 2020, companies can successfully overcome these challenges and look with greater confidence to the future.
Frank Connolly is director of communications and research at MindEdge Learning.