When most of America shut down last March, the world of work was instantly cleaved into two new categories: “essential” versus “non-essential.” Ironically, it was the latter who settled into a more-or-less comfortable existence working from home, exchanging office commutes for Zoom fatigue and longer hours. But it was the essential workers in health, retail, logistics, manufacturing, and more who were tasked with both fighting the virus and keeping supply chains moving at great personal risk and comparatively low pay.
Fast-forward nearly a year, and it’s becoming clear that keeping both types of workers healthy, safe, and productive will require more robots and less offices. For example, a McKinsey survey of 800 global leaders reveals two-thirds have accelerated their plans during the pandemic to deploy AI and automation as a hedge against contagion, while companies are expected to shed as much as 15% of their real estate after work-from-anywhere becomes permanent. But the flip side of a more remote post-pandemic world is a hunger for connection and renewed conviction that workers are still the most essential asset of any organization, and the top priority of 2021 is protecting them.
“The factories are still running,” says John Waldron, president and CEO of Honeywell’s safety and productivity solutions group. “We’ve figured out how to keep people safe by redesigning processes, giving them protective equipment, and applying everything we’ve learned. Early on, we locked things down to protect ourselves; now we’re trying to stay open to protect ourselves.” He made this point during an online discussion centering on remotely piloted robots, dating apps for innovation, and—at long last—the paperless office(?!). The panel was part of Our Future in Focus, a virtual event series exploring the future of cities, travel, and work.
One answer to the safety dilemma facing essential workers in areas such as manufacturing and logistics has been to take humans out of the loop wherever feasible. For example, factories have swapped out workers for machines to increase social distancing on the shop floor, while brands such as KFC are already turning to autonomous vehicles for hands-free food deliveries. As the technology improves, there’s nothing holding back automation, telepresence, and remote operation from being applied to other industries.
“Right now, an essential construction worker operating a bulldozer has to be on site,” explained Dr. Herman Herman, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University. “With 5G bandwidth and a little robotics, that person might be able to work from home in the future.” As a case in point, the Japanese robotics firm Telexistance recently partnered with a domestic convenience store chain to explore something as mundane as restocking shelves remotely.
The (literally) overnight adoption of remote work has been a defining feature of the pandemic, rising from just 3% of employees in 2019 to more than 40% last year; this is expected to taper to an estimated 16% post-vaccination. This not only has ramifications for where to work, but with whom and how. Teams may meet only in person a few days each week due to restraints on office capacity. Wall-to-wall Zoom calls will be replaced by more asynchronous modes of work, staggering time as well as space. And in a war of all-against-all for talent that works from anywhere, the most successful firms will be the ones who empower their employees.
“We’re going to need to treat them like adults who can make informed decisions for themselves,” said Jason Narlock, senior director of global people analytics for Pepsico. “What the best place for me and my team to get our work done? This might create some headaches for HR, but from a performance standpoint, we need to trust employees to make the best decisions.”
THE POWER OF PERSONAL CONNECTIONS
So far, they have. Since last March, executives have marveled at the uptick in productivity as their rank-and-file pushed themselves to reinvent workflows in lockdown. But that output came with a cost, both in terms of mental health and also what experts predict will be a lag in innovation. While most teams have pulled through the pandemic by strengthening their ties and communication, life in quarantine lacks the serendipity and cross-pollination that often fuels creativity. Which is why firms—if maybe not their employees—are so eager to return to the office.
“How can we replicate those encounters digitally?” Narlock asked. “We’ve even talked about leveraging dating app technology to bring people together for conversations. But we’re still going to need offices as places to create new connections.”
“I don’t think having a completely virtual work experience is a great way to build a terrific company,” Waldron added. “Even in a world where there’s a limited attendance policy, we still have to create the glue between people. You can’t do that as effectively over a video link as you can in a conversation.”
If the office is here to stay—even if it’s only three days a week for meetings and watercooler chat—what will we leave behind in 2020? Paper, for one thing. All three panelists agreed that the “paperless office”—a staple of such predictions since 1978—may be here at last. Business travel, for another. The days of traveling to clinch a deal or pitch investors may been surpassed by brute-force Zooming. “Now, we can talk to literally two dozen VCs in the same week, and that is much, much more efficient.” Dr. Herman noted.
Whether it’s Zoombombing VCs, office dating apps, or remote-control construction workers, the pandemic has made one thing clear—whatever the future of work is, we’ll get it done.